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With Paris’ main fashion museum, Galliera, closed until the spring of 2013, the facility’s organizers have found a small temporary exhibition space at Les Docks-Cite de la Mode et du Design along the Quai in the 13th arrondissement. Open since April 13 of this year, the space is currently home to two simultaneous, yet separate, exhibitions. The first, a retrospective and homage to the couture of Cristóbal Balenciaga, 40 years after his death, is next door to the second, the 2012 Spring/Summer White Drama collection from Comme des Garçons. Both exhibitions are on display until October 7.
Although the same ticket allows visitors to see both exhibitions housed within their respective spaces, there is not meant to be any connection between the two. However, after beginning with Balenciaga and ending with designer Rei Kawakubo’s line for Comme des Garçons, a connection highlighting the evolution and meaning of haute couture can be made with great ease.
Born in Spain in 1895, Cristóbal Balenciaga’s retrospective begins with a black lace collar from the year he was born, offering an immediate look at the inspirations the designer immersed himself in throughout his lifetime. The following gorgeous black evening wear produced by Balenciaga himself feature his Spanish heritage in the form of shawls and jackets inspired by his country’s conquistadors, painstakingly detailed in rich sequined embroidery. And oh, the beauty of black lace! Evening wear pieces and accessories from cocktail overcoats, headpieces, and boleros made entirely from various forms of the delicate material are a Victorian-era lover’s dark thrill.
Evening dress prototypes are on display from the 1950s-1960s, with each being labeled as a piece of haute couture. With trains of taffeta and intricate bodices, the dresses easily conjure up images of the likes of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. A stark contrast to the definition that haute couture has now come to define today through the likes of Dior, McQueen and Gaultier, just to name a few. As the prototypes wrap tightly around mannequins on pedestals, visitors can view in the glass-encased drawers below, the original sketches and following black and white photographs of the pieces being fitted on to models.
In 1937, Balenciaga left his native Spain during the country’s civil war and established a fashion house on Avenue George V in Paris. The change of setting introduced the designer to an array of new influences, including the bright colors and florals of China, which are seen through a gleaming pink cocktail dress, slightly constricted at the bottom, oriental floral-styled evening jackets, and an elongated tan hat to be worn at a wedding. It was during the post-war years, however, when the inventiveness of the designer truly became evident. In 1951, he transformed the silhouette by broadening the shoulders and removing the waist. Four years later, he designed the tunic dress which culminated into the Empire line of 1959, which featured high-waisted dressed and coats cut like kimonos. Though the exhibition is small, the evolution is fully on display as the timeline progresses. Balenciaga closed his house at the age of 74 after working in Paris for 30 years.
After leaving the first exhibition, the visitor is transported forty years in time as they enter the space dedicated to White Drama by Comme des Garçons. The 2012 collection is enclosed within five helium plastic bubbles. Visitors are met with several bridal gowns featuring restraint bows for the wearer’s hands, symbolizing the difficulties of entering marriage, silk hooded veils where only the eyes are visible, birdcage-style skirts made of cotton, along with various other constricting ensembles. White is the color of death when used in literary form, and the jump into fashion is made within the space here. The pieces are being kept alive by the air filtering through the balloons, as if their removal would expose them to a world in which they could no longer live. The simple placards under each piece list just the type of item and fabric used, further enhancing the notion of a short life span.
Along this same theme, however, death can also be beautiful. The craftsmanship of the crocheted shawls, the capes donned with artificial flowers made by hand, and the sequined and lace additions to the dresses, all show a meticulous designer focused on not just the meaning, but the intricate details of each piece as well. Although the immediate visual outcome of haute couture may have changed drastically over time, the painstaking work that goes into each minute decision remains the same.
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