On May 22, at the end of a heart-stopping week on the stock market, Balenciaga landed on Wall Street to present its spring 2023 collection. It was the brand’s first fashion show outside of Paris, a waste of imagination zillennial by Demna (who has decided to drop his last name, Gvasalia), its creative director. It was an impressive spectacle, in which latex and leather garments added even more drama to the furious flash of actions. Ten days later, the original Balenciaga, epitome of discreet elegance, exhibits its classicism in an exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), the fashion museum in New York, which pits its creations against those of another great: Christian Dior . The exhibition, titled Dior + Balenciaga: the kings of couture and their legaciesopens this Wednesday and can be visited until November 6.
Balenciaga and Dior, his most devoted admirer, engage in a dialogue about their respective works. It is the first time that their creations have been juxtaposed, some 65 pieces belonging to the museum’s collections, as well as contributions from the successive creative directors —and successors— of both firms, from Yves Saint Laurent (Dior) to Nicolas Ghesquière (Balenciaga), among others. With a duo format, the designs sometimes look like two drops of water. The similarity of lines, volumes, even textures, everything confirms its evolution in the same context: the Paris of the forties and fifties, eager to recover its traditional joie de vivre After the war. “It is true that at first glance some pieces seem almost identical, but my goal is to show the subtle differences, for that there are videos that show how each one of them is created. Once you train your eye and look carefully, you can’t mistake a dior and a balenciaga”, Patricia Mears, deputy director of the FIT and curator of the exhibition, explains to EL PAÍS. “When you understand the elements of his work, the ingenuity of each of them is fully revealed. They both created very differently.”
The designers show themselves to the public as what they were and will be, two masters. “Not only were they the most important and influential couturiers of their time, they are also highly relevant today; so much so that contemporary creators regularly look to them for inspiration.” Balenciaga, emphasizes Mears, “is the creator with capital letters, even for the greats of French haute couture: Dior, Chanel, Ungaro… They all believed that he was really the master.”
The sample, however, establishes a dialogue between equals. Contemporary, although with different origins —the Basque tailor, the French gallery owner of the upper bourgeoisie—, both launched their homonymous collections in 1942. They also dressed similar clients, rarely the same ones, such as the actress Marlene Dietrich, who wore garments from both. Both were more couturiers, dressmakers or seamstresses, than designers, at least in the modern sense of the term. “No other word describes them better. Each idea involved the elaboration of something beautiful. Balenciaga used his hands, his eyes and his imagination. He didn’t do sketches. He was not a creative director. He was a true seamstress in every sense of the word.” But “both were true craftsmen, couture craftsmen,” Mears stresses.
“Balenciaga works from the material, the fabric; his sketches are much more technical than Dior’s. He had a technical background as a dressmaker, tailoring skills. Dior no, he was more of a designer or illustrator, like [Hubert de] Givenchy. As Dior used to say: ‘Balenciaga does what he wants with fabrics; us, what we can’. He was the one who set the trends, Dior followed him”, explains Igor Uría, director of collections at the Balenciaga Museum in Getaria. In the definition of this expert, Balenciaga was exquisite and Dior, lavish. One almost invisible, so discreet; the other, an example of the most evident glamour.
The exhibition is completed with examples of the updating or revision —almost always as a tribute— of his work by his epigones. Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, John Galliano and Maria Grazia Chiuri successively at the head of Dior; and Nicolas Ghesquière and Demna, without forgetting the encouragement of Givenchy, at the Balenciaga house. The house French has been a constant reference for fashion as an industry and as a business; The Balenciaga brand has become aspirational: perhaps unaware of its great contribution to the history of fashion, young people from the Z generation today yearn for sneakers or a sweatshirt of its own, points out Eloy Martínez de la Pera, curator of exhibitions at art and fashion: “You have to remember that since Balenciaga closed in Paris in 1968, the brand remained invisible until it was relaunched in the early 2000s. Dior, however, has continued without interruption.”
The presence of the continuators in the New York sample is limited, explains Mears. “There are only a few pieces because we can only use funds from our permanent collection, nothing on loan. So my goal is to illustrate with a few examples the way Maria Grazia Chiuri looks at Dior from the past and brings it into the present. And the same with Ghesquière and Demna”. In some cases, he stresses, “the designer has strayed too far from the original spirit; for example, John Galliano, who recreated the essence of Dior during the fifties, but also looked at other periods, such as the twenties or thirties, very distant from Dior. I believe, however, that the most contemporary designers, those of the 21st century, such as Demna or Chiuri, look at the original foundations of the house”. Ghesquière, for example, created a special collection called Balenciaga Edition“in which he copied the original designs line by line, because he truly believed in the future of Balenciaga, precisely because of its classicism”.
A different business conception, more constant and assertive in the case of Dior, multiplied its role as the engine of the industry. “His work has to do with culture, but also with the economy. Both were very successful financially. They benefited the economies of France and Spain. In the 1950s, fashion, especially haute couture, accounted for more than 5% of France’s GDP. And the house of Dior accounted for 55% of haute couture exports in 1953″, explains Mears.
Both, among many other things they shared, were also indebted to painting. “Dior started out as a gallery owner, he frequented the best artists in Paris in the thirties and forties and art is in his DNA. Balenciaga drank from the classics of the Prado Museum, the simplicity of his wedding dresses derives from the monastic habits that Zurbarán painted, almost minimalist. Painting is indebted to fashion, but fashion owes its permanence over time to painting”, concludes Martínez de la Pera. “The great creators of haute couture have been so in large part because his talent was permeable to the sources of inspiration from the different artistic languages of all times.” Of the two, remembers Uría, the more artist it was Basque: “New? I always present the same thing, I don’t make changes”, was a common phrase from Balenciaga.
The FIT is also a fashion school, a dimension that Mears underlines throughout the show. “His legacy —they opened their workshops in Paris at the age of 42—is important. They were not young, they had dedicated themselves body and soul to their trade. The idea of fast and disposable fashion today is not what they defended, but a calm evolution based on craftsmanship, on the trade. Therefore, they were very committed to sustainability long before the word gained importance in the field of fashion. This is a message for the young. Fashion is not frivolous. Fashion is important. If you do it right, it can be very relevant.” As much as tiktokers and instagramers consume each creation like moths blinded by light, nothing remains if there is no deposit, the one that sustains the colossal legacy of the two great ones.
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