The King is Dead.
This was the headline for a Women’s Wear Daily piece in March 1972 announcing the death of couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga. While his couture house had closed years prior, his passing marked a major loss for the entire fashion industry.
Today, the Balenciaga label is recognizable as a pop culture icon of unconventional luxury fashion. Back in the era of its namesake designer, the fashion house crafted timeless gowns, coats and accessories fit solely for society’s most elite members. Although it is unlikely Cristóbal Balenciaga would be able to recognize his own label today, his influence on fashion is as undeniable now as it was almost a century ago.
The Kimbell Art Museum has brought Balenciaga’s Balenciaga to the Dallas-Fort Worth area with its newest exhibit Balenciaga in Black. The traveling exhibit from Palais Galliera, Paris’s museum of fashion, features more than 100 of the couturier’s most iconic costumes and accessories—all of which are black.
Jessica Brandrup, head of marketing and public relations at Kimbell, says, “This exhibition reassesses the great couturier’s work, underscoring Balenciaga’s artistry in manipulating black fabrics, embroideries and lace—magically transforming these materials into exquisite garments that continue to inspire modern fashion.”
Balenciaga’s artistry in tailoring and manipulating fabrics is unparalleled by any other designer—it is why he earned such success during his life, why his legacy has remains so influential and why his craftsmanship is the focus of this exhibit. Balenciaga in Black captures this artistry by stripping away the visual distraction of bright colors and showcasing exclusively black pieces.
“For Balenciaga, black was more than a color or even a noncolor; it was a vibrant matter, by turns opaque or transparent, matte or shiny—a dazzling interplay of light, showcased as much through the luxurious quality of the fabrics as through the simplicity of a garment’s cut,” Brandrup says.
As the son of a seamstress, it is no surprise Balenciaga has such skill in structural design. He began studying design at a very young age and gained recognition throughout his native Spain by his early twenties. The folklore and traditions of Spain had influence on Balenciaga’s designs throughout his career, and are especially apparent in this exhibit’s collection.
Many of the pieces chosen for the exhibit are from the 50s and 60s. This is more than a decade after opening his couture house in Paris, and at the time Balenciaga’s signature style developed. His play with silhouettes is what gained the world’s attention, and gave us the empire waist, baby doll dresses, cocoon capes, balloon skirts and tunics.
“He created garments that were sophisticated and restrained, yet intricate and impeccably tailored, with the highest regard for every detail,” Brandrup says.
Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly and Mona von Bismark were fashion icons of their generation, and subsequently some of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s most devout clients. Jackie Kennedy’s love for Balenciaga garments famously caused a feud with her husband, President John F. Kennedy, who was worried the American public would be upset with her lavish taste—her Balenciaga bills were eventually footed discretely by her father-in-law.
Von Bismark, devastated by the designer’s decision to close house in 1968, refused to leave her bedroom for the following three days.
Texas-born socialite Claudia Heard de Osborne was another of Balenciaga’s close clients. Her donations to the Texas Fashion Collection at UNT made their way into Kimbell’s exhibit—adding a hometown touch for local visitors.
“On loan to the Kimbell for the display are two hats and two gowns,” Brandrup says. “The Texas Fashion Collection’s 1964 black velvet dress, with a bustle trimmed in ermine tails, is the featured dress in the final gallery of the exhibition. This romantic gown balances restrained form and dramatic volume. With the majority of the exhibition on loan from the prestigious Balenciaga Archives and Palais Galliera, both in Paris, it’s wonderful to see examples of equal importance from North Texas.”
Along with the numerous capes and gowns, Balenciaga in Black showcased some of the couturier’s pieces of costume jewelry. The plastic sequins and synthetic beads he used to craft these necklaces are a stark contrast to the extravagant materials in his garments—ostrich feathers, silk gazar, and Mongolian lambskin.
“Balenciaga was not known for attaching particular importance to jewelry,” a museum display states.
As a whole, the exhibit is an ode to the king of couture, a study of his spectacular artistry. While his life may have passed, his reign remains everlasting—not just within his namesake label, but throughout all of fashion.
“Balenciaga in Black is the first haute couture exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum,” Brandrup says. “We’re thrilled with the excitement it has created, and we hope that all will enjoy this one-of-a-kind opportunity.”
Balenciaga in Black runs through January 6th, 2019. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit Kimbell’s website.