The Musée Galliera‘s “Cristóbal Balenciaga, Collector of Fashion” is another of that museum’s impressive innovations. Last year, they installed the oeuvre of fashion priestess Mme Grès in the Musée Bourdelle. This time, their unusual venue is the Docks en Seine, that riverside renovation officially open as Les Docks, Cité de la Mode et du Design. This exhibit offers the world premiere of a Paris fashion great’s personal treasures.
Curator Olivier Saillard juxtaposes 70 items Balenciaga collected against 30 of his most dramatic ensembles. The result is a beautifully edited, truly cultured show. It is deliberately set apart from the blockbuster mentality that drives most big museums.
Just showing these treasures from the couturier would suffice. Donated privately to Galliera in ’79, they have never been shown before. The pieces range from 18th-century corsets to 19th-century costumes—with Spanish articles from both high church and humble village. Each displays a unique shape, innovation or decoration; many of the whole pieces showcase all three. In setting such relics against Balenciaga’s work, the exhibition provides a truly fresh experience. It doesn’t try to show us how the designer was “inspired,” but to convey why he is seen as a genuine artist. Or, as Saillard puts it, “Balenciaga was a scholar, capable of using his scissors to write the history of fashion.”
This year is the 40th since the Spanish couturier died. Last June, his Basque birthplace, the village of Getaria, opened its own Balenciaga Museoa. New York and San Francisco have already hosted a retrospective entitled “Balenciaga: Spanish Master.” The new museum, however, specializes in pre-Paris pieces. (It was the Spanish Civil War that forced Balenciaga’s reluctant move to Paris.) The American show also focused on Spanish culture in his work.
What makes the Galliera presentation different is not just the archive. It’s more that the show’s focus is so Parisian. Saillard thoroughly understands style as a continuum. But, as official fashion authority for the city of Paris, his museum acts as its institution of record. So it makes perfect sense to follow their show of Madame Grès with one this intimate on Balenciaga. For, if Worth was the real starting point of couture and Madame Grès its first artist, her heir was Balenciaga.
The Internet has massively increased the reach of fashion. Now, from Valentino to Alexander McQueen, its big retrospectives are a sort of mass entertainment. But, when it comes to those names who changed the course of couture (Grès, Vionnet, Dior, Balenciaga and Saint Laurent), creating a show that’s informative as well as enticing is harder. In letting his museum’s rarities dictate the style of this show, Saillard can offer something rare and special.
Paris fashion novices should find these pieces from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries dazzling. But seeing them beside Balenciaga’s purist shapes suggests all the stories behind fashion—its social contexts and stylistic shifts. Those who are not such fashion fans will appreciate the show for being compact and digestible. Since its site is literally made of concrete (Les Docks once helped river barges transfer cargo), the show is staged using metal systems. These are conservation models made by Bruynzeel for real museums. They provide a striking, discreet mise-en-scène.
It’s another jewel of a show by Saillard for the Galliera.
A ticket to “Balenciaga” also admits you to Galliera’s second show here, “Comme des Garçons: White Drama.” This is the spring/summer 2012 couture show by Rei Kawakubo. An oblique homage to Fukushima, these all-white costumes touch on every stage of life: birth, marriage and death. In place of a catwalk or videos, the clothes are staged in groups enclosed by plastic bubbles. Since the mid-’70s, Kawakubo has been a linchpin of modernism. Yet “White Drama” really serves to highlight the matchless finish of Balenciaga’s craft.
The team behind Les Docks includes some Mama Shelter founders. They’ve always had big plans, which now include a roof nightclub. But what is actually open? Well, there is a pop-up store by Comme des Garçons collaborators Bleu de Paname—a rarity for this all-made-in-France label. Plus, from May 13, the Pain O Chokolat collective (who are behind the 10th’s popular Le Pompon) will open snazzy Café Praliné. From noon to evening, it will serve coffee, cakes and tea, plus salads and pizza.
Editor’s note: Finally, our celebrity tours are available for the iPhone. You’ll be oh so fashionable when you explore Paris in the steps of Audrey and Jackie O.
Tags: Balenciaga, Bruynzeel, Comme des Garçons, culture & art, Cynthia Rose, France, Le Pompon, Les Docks Cité de la Mode et du Design, Musée Galliera, museums, Olivier Saillard, Pain O Chokolat, Paris, Rei Kawakubo, travel, Worth