Haute couture in Basque Country: Visiting the Balenciaga Museum

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Cristóbal Balenciaga museum, left, attached to a former palacio in Getaria, Spain.

I have to thank LACMA Costume and Textiles curator Kaye Spilker for pointing me toward what turned out to be one of the most enjoyable experiences of my recent trip to the French and Spanish Basque country. While chatting with Spilker in late August, I mentioned that my upcoming travel plans included a day trip to San Sebastian, just across the Spanish border from where I would be staying with family in Biarritz. She suggested that, if time allowed, I should check out the museum devoted solely to one of the greatest couturier's of the 20th century, Spanish-born Cristóbal Balenciaga. The museum is located in Getaria, a fishing village 20 minutes drive from San Sebastian. Accessible by a coastal road along the Bay of Biscay, charming Getaria dates from the Middle Ages and is known today for its beaches, delicious grilled fish and the signature wine of the region, Getariako Txakolina. Getaria is also known for being Balenciaga's birthplace.

Designed by Cuban architect Julian Argilagos and inaugurated in 2011, the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa sits on a hill overlooking the Medieval wall guarding the old port. The modernist building incorporates the Palacio Aldamar, the former residence of the Marques and Marquesa of Casa Torres. Balenciaga's mother worked as a seamstress for the Marquesa and it was during the years that he spent by her side in the aristocrat's home that he was first exposed to fashion and art. The museum's opening, attended by Spanish high society and Queen Sofia, confirmed Balenciaga's exalted place in the country's culture.

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Lobby and the view from the museum. LAO photos.

The collection includes nearly 1600 pieces and represents the complete range of his oeuvre. Visitors can see examples of the designer's iconic looks, including his "infanta" dresses, the baby doll, and the balloon dress. My French cousin-in-law Catherine and I oohed and aahed our way through gallery after gallery of evening gowns, suits, coats, and accessories. Catherine, an artist and clothing designer who grew up with an awareness of Balenciaga, was especially keen to see his innovative use of fabric and embroidery close up. While the entry and public spaces of the museum are all light and glass, the galleries are cave-like and intimate. No guards were present in the galleries and we joked that we could probably try on the clothes, knowing full well there were most likely security cameras watching over us. After viewing the exhibits we watched a lovely, short film about Balenciaga's life and work being shown on a loop near the museum's entrance.

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"Baby doll" dress in ivory silk taffeta, left, Balenciaga museum. Wedding gown, photo by Judy Graeme.

Born in 1895, Balenciaga was formally trained in Madrid and began his career in Spain. With the Spanish royal family and the aristocracy as patrons, his prestigious position in the world of fashion was already assured when, in 1936 the Spanish Civil War forced him to move his operation to Paris, where his contemporaries included Chanel, Schiaparelli, and Mainbocher. Among his most important design influences were Spanish history and art. The "infanta" dresses referenced paintings by Velazquez and some of his evening wear reflected garments worn by bullfighters. His clothing became more streamlined after World War II. He became, in essence, a sartorial architect, experimenting with line and volume. One of his most important designs, the "sack" dress, created in the late 1950's, created a completely new silhouette for women. Loyal customers included the Duchess of Windsor, Bunny Mellon, and Jacqueline Kennedy as well as countless lesser known but well-heeled clients.

Fellow designers Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy called him "the master." Coco Chanel said of Balenciaga, "he is the only true couturier among us." His retirement in 1968 and death in 1972 marked the end of an era for haute couture.

Back in Los Angeles, I stopped by LACMA to talk with Spilker about why Balenciaga matters to her as a curator. The Costume and Textile collection includes 76 Balenciaga pieces and some have been included in past exhibitions. Her passion for his design genius was evident as we looked at photographs of his creations from the 1930's through the 1960's. "The reason Balenciaga is important was that he treated clothing as art. He was a sculptor -- he made kinetic sculpture" she said. "Everything he produced was so incredibly elegant. It was refined and conceptually perfectly constructed in the sense that he knew the human body so well as an armature that he could do something completely sculptural."

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Silk lace cocktail dress, left, and silk evening gown and cape. LACMA collection.

"He frequently used very stiff fabric -- something that would shoot off an arm and yet you could still move in it," Spilker said "He was famous for making sleeves. His sleeves fit perfectly. One of the things he did was to take the collar away from the neck-so your neck is just like a swan. He made things that were, in effect, frames for a body. If women were wearing Balenciaga, it would be impossible not to notice them."


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