Paris might be the capital of fashion but besides the Musee des Arts Décoratifs there is no place dedicated to this craft. Things seem to be slowly changing as the Cité de la mode et du design, located in the new Jakob and McFarlane building along the Seine is now finally open… and proudly hosting a couple of exhibitions as part of the Musée Galliera programme.
When I walked in the building I thought I was in for one big show confronting the visions of two of the greatest designers, Cristobal Balenciaga and Rei Kawakubo… it wasn’t the case. But even though their designs are in two different rooms, a dialogue is clearly taking place between the two genius.
Balenciaga might be all over the fashion news thanks to the tech-inspired collection of Nicolas Ghesquière but few people know the works of this original designer. Born in Spain, Cristobal first opened his San Sebastian fashion shop in 1918, before moving to Paris because of the Spanish Civil War in 1937. He was praised for his modern designs, liberating women from the very strict shapes inherited from the late 19th Century. This exhibition focuses however on Balenciaga as a collector, a whole life dedicated to assembling a unique selection of clothing from all over the world. These amazing archives are interesting on different levels and a vivid testament of the clothing industry at the turn of the century but also a window into the mind of a great designer, showing us his inspirations and influences.
As a Spaniard, Balenciaga was heavily influenced with the traditional clothing from his home country… the black silk dress embroidered with black glass pearls gets the modernist treatment and becomes an evening gown adorned with charcoal rhodoid.
No black in White Drama, the Comme des Garcons exhibition. This ensemble of a dozen dresses acts as an installation conceived by Kawakubo herself. If Balenciaga was a modernist in the 20’s, Kawakubo has had the same role since 1969, year she founded Comme des Garçons in Tokyo. The whiteness of the dresses can indeed bear the resemblance to a priest habit. But Kawakubo goes further than Balenciaga; she injects a tension in her clothes. A restraint bow prevents the wearer from moving her arms, the sleeves become oversized, artificial flowers cover the model from head to toe. This tension is inherent in life, and Rei Kawakubo is only introducing it in her clothing.
Balenciaga and Kawakubo share the same interest for the history of fashion, one removes the crinoline to liberate the shape, the other reinstates it by putting it on top of the dress. They were both influenced by church vestment, stripping it from its religious message, only to preserve the pure shape of the garment. The last common point is the work put into each piece of clothing. Whether it is embroideries inspired by the Ottoman empire for Balenciaga or the heavy Leavers lace used by the Japanese designer, the two exhibitions show us to which extent fashion is still nowadays a craft that deserves respect.