The V&A’s new fashion exhibition celebrates the 80th anniversary of the opening of Balenciaga’s first Parisian couture house and showcases his innovations in the cut and construction of women’s garments. Bringing together over 100 dresses, jackets, suits and millinery from Balenciaga’s couture line, Eisa (Balenciaga’s Spanish diffusion range) and contemporary designer pieces. Experience the modernity of Balenciaga’s designs including the ‘Chemise dress’, a forefront to the shift dress of the 1960s, revolutionary shapes and bold colours juxtaposed with Balenciaga’s obvious loyalty to Spanish traditional dress.
Cristobal Balenciaga (1895-1972) began his career as a tailor on the Basque coast of Northern Spain when he was 12 and came to be regarded as the courturier’s ‘Master of us all’ according to Christian Dior. Despite his early start and considerable success, it wasn’t until 1957 that Balenciaga started to influence the female silhouette, which was until this time following Dior’s 1947 ‘New Look’ hour glass shape. ‘For twenty years he was the prophet of nearly ever major change in silhouette’ said Diana Vreeland, Editor of Harpers Bazaar and Vogue who championed Balenciaga’s designs.
Cover from Harper’s Bazaar collectors edition produced for the exhibition
This engaging exhibition offers a revelatory insight into Balenciaga’s craftsmanship, he is quoted as saying ‘it is the fabric that decides’. Exposure to new textiles from Italy, Switzerland and the UK meant that he worked directly on the mannequin to create his masterpieces rather than designing with pen and paper. ‘Balenciaga uses fabric like a sculptor working in marble’ states Cecil Beaton. The show demonstrates a vivid and intimate dissection of how Balenciaga worked and his extra ordinary attention to detail, including an X-ray of one of his ballgowns (header photo from V&A Magazine).
Sketch of Balenciaga’s 1962 Flamenco inspired evening dress (sketch by S.Richards)
This is an exhibition of two halves; Downstairs is a culmination of Balenciaga’s tailoring skills cross-pollinated with innovative substrates and construction resulting in iconic pieces such as his signature balloon hem, a frilled skirted fuchsia evening dress with shoulder to hem cape (sketch above) and the one seam coat. Whilst upstairs the white gallery space is dedicated to Balenciaga’s ‘Legacy’ with large glass boxes encasing dramatic silhouetted pieces from contemporary designers imbued with the discerning knowledge of fabric and the female form.
Sketch of one of the Balenciaga’s Legacy designers: Gareth Pugh from 2013 (sketch by S.Richards)
Olive Road talks to fair organiser Savitri Coleman to discover the secret to the fair’s success and her top tips for vintage shopping.
Weekends were made for shopping. I don’t mean heading to a shopping mall, wandering around aimlessly seeing the same styles in the same stores but with different names. I mean a relaxed day out, chatting with your friend, hunting through rails and antique suitcases with excited anticipation on what you might find. Then when your feet start to ache, the luxury of being able to stop for a coffee or cocktail and listen to live music. My day at the The Clerkenwell Vintage Fair last month was one of those perfect shopping days. A stones throw from Columbia Market in their new home, the Shoreditch Courthouse Hotel, the fair celebrated their eighth birthday with live band The Volstead Orchestra playing in the jewel coloured cocktail bar of the hotel. I was meeting with the fair’s founder and organiser Savitri Coleman to discover the secret of eight successful years of the popular vintage fair. Whilst I was waiting for Savitri to finish with a customer, I spotted a dapper looking couple enjoying the music. Moira and Chris and were on holiday from New York, they had spent most of their trip in Glasgow visiting family and had booked a trip to London, choosing to stay at the Courthouse Hotel so they could be near today’s vintage fair.
Not long after I’ve said goodbye to Chris and Moira, Savitri flurries in wearing a long cream and red printed vintage maxi dress, the print being based on filigree jewellery from Portugal with matching drop earrings and cork wedges. Savitri is excited as she has just helped a bride find her perfect vintage wedding dress at the fair. She explains that personal shopping with customers around the fair is what she enjoys the most but she doesn’t always get the time on the day as she organises the fair on her own. Savitri leads me down a large wooden staircase into the hotel’s chambers which has been transformed into a sea of bright graphic prints, long delicate bias cut dresses, feathers on hats, tiny buttons on gloves and boxy shaped jackets glittered with sequins. I spotted a colbolt silk paisley scarf priced at £5 and a chocolate silk Dior dress coat at £175. As I delved deeper I discovered a WWII nurse’s woollen cape, 1950’s swimsuits and sundresses covered in cartoon style prints and an Edwardian Lawn lace dress, in the photograph below from Cabinet 49.
As Savitri guides me around the busy room I ask her why she thinks the fair has been so successful for the past eight years. ‘We offer an eclectic mix of good quality vintage at affordable prices. We are the go-to fair for fashion designers looking for inspiration. Designers can find interesting prints, embroidery, embellishment and tailoring from different era’s to draw ideas from for future collections. Stylists can pick up quirky one-off pieces for fashion shoots and celebrity red carpet dresses whilst seasoned vintage lovers come along to source pieces from their trusted vintage dealer and a fun filled day out. There is a price point for every pocket’. She goes on to tell me that she set up the fair in May 2009 as the recession was hitting vintage traders and many stores had started to close down. ‘I wanted to offer a good quality vintage event to support traders who had lost their shops and were paying extortionate fees for stands at other fairs. I wanted to create a fashion led event and make it a shopping experience with vibrant live music, a diverse range of vintage apparel and a specialist alterations team’. The alterations team is unique to the Clerkenwell Vintage Fair as they can alter items whilst you wait in the bar with a cocktail or carry on shopping. ‘Our alterations team understand fashion from different periods so you are rest assured your garment is in good hands and will fit perfectly whilst ensuring the shape of the garment still speaks of the era. A mistake that is commonly made in dry cleaners or local menders’
Squeezing our way through a cluster of customers eagerly searching each rail for that perfect vintage item I ask Savitri why she thinks vintage style is still popular ‘When you wear vintage, your individuality shines through. TV shows such as Sex and the City certainly whet peoples appetite for vintage and more recently Downtown Abbey have also inspired people to put vintage pieces back in their wardrobe’. I wonder when Savitri first started her passion for vintage shopping. ‘I was raised on second hand clothes. We would traul charity shops and car boots at the weekends and had to make-do-and-mend anything that had fallen apart. I would turn up to school discos in a range of items from my mum’s wardrobe and pieces I had swapped with friends and everyone would always comment on how cool it looked. During the 1980’s I used to shop at Kensington Market and hang out at Mud club with the likes of Boy George, Marilyn and Philip Salon. It was all about being different, anti-establishment views and individuality. We would spend all week getting our ‘look’ together for one night. Hours of painstakingly customizing pieces to stand out from the crowd.’
Savitri’s Top Ten Tips for Vintage Shopping
If you’re shopping for vintage for you it’s really useful to know what era suits you and your body shape. This will save a lot of time at fairs when browsing so you know which periods are just not you and even if the print or fabric is fabulous it just won’t do you any justice.
Keep an open mind when shopping for vintage at fairs or markets as you are unlikely to find exactly what you are looking for but you will find other interesting things.
Try on garments and photograph yourself in them so you can see how you really look rather than how you think you look in a mirror.
If an item fits then it’s meant to be. If you love it – buy it. You won’t find it again
Google vintage fairs and markets to find out what fairs are on and when.
Instagram is a good resource to search for vintage traders and vintage apparel
Check the width of hems to know whether it is a 50’s dress instead of 80’s. Some 1980’s copies are great and sometimes they have used 50’s fabric but the hems are usually really thin and overlocked.
If you are unsure of the price or worth of a vintage garment you can always get a second opinion by speaking to other traders or contacting auction houses to see what similar pieces have sold for.
Earlier pieces like 20’s and 30’s can be expensive as they are harder to come by in good condition especially beaded or with embellishment (Check under the arms on chiffon dresses for tares, check the seams are in tact or you won’t have much ware out of it and lastly for moth holes)
Lastly always get a receipt so if you have any queries you can always contact the trader