Balenciaga, All in Black

With its new out-of-house exhibition “Balenciaga: L’Oeuvre au Noir” at the Musée Bourdelle, the Palais Galliera pays homage to “the couturier of couturiers.” The first in a trio of Spanish-themed exhibitions in Paris this year, the show offers an advance glimpse of the revered designer’s work, which will also be the subject of the retrospective “Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion,” which opens on May 27th at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

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The idea of focusing solely on the color black came from a visit to Madrid, explained Véronique Belloir, the director of haute couture collections at the Palais Galliera, during an advance preview. “We realized that we could really spotlight creation, shape, volume, and construction because we weren’t distracted by color,” she said.

In the scenography, the Palais Galliera director Olivier Saillard made the most of the museum’s vertical space, propping dresses up high and arranging them in mirrored stands as a counterpoint to the museum’s sculpture collection. Documents and photos accompany finished pieces from private collections and the archives. There are also toiles, which Cristóbal Balenciaga worked in black, too. “We think that he did this because with black you realize immediately whether the proportions are right,” she said.

Of the 60 or so pieces on show, many still astonish. Among them: an atypical little black dress from 1960 with a wrap-around design and off-center shoulder straps. Another abstract construction from winter 1967 in custom-woven gazar is held up with simple bead straps. It may be 50 years old, but it would not have been out of place on the runway this season. In fact, many of the clothes and jewelry in the show look as covetable today as they must have been then.

Mounting the exhibition also offered up its share of surprises. “One sees the dress from the outside, but once you look at the construction inside you understand that it’s not just an envelope placed on a body,” noted Belloir. Upon examining one dress, a veteran pattern maker for the house offered to come out of retirement in order to retro-engineer a toile just because she’d never seen anything like it. “Balenciaga took liberties that not just anyone can take because he knew the materials by heart,” concluded Belloir. “A dress can look so simple, and yet the sensitivity is remarkable.”

“Balenciaga: L’Oeuvre au Noir” will run from March 8th to July 16th, 2017, at the Musée Bourdelle in Paris. Open Tuesday–Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. 18 Rue Antoine Bourdelle, Paris, France.