Hamish Bowles Collected Balenciaga Couture as a Tween

Like Nicolas Ghesquière’s prophetic vision today, Balenciaga has always been a prescient label. Even the Spanish couturier’s first name, Cristóbal, suggests the future-mindedness of the house he founded in 1919, before moving it to Paris in 1937, a result of the Spanish Civil War.

Now, at the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute in New York, a new exhibit looks back at some of Balenciaga’s most innovative pieces, worn by some of the 20th century’s most glamorous society women—think Pauline de Rothschild and Mona Bismarck. An estimated sixty items of clothing and accessories (some which have never gone on display) have been painstakingly tracked down and assembled, including the iconic 1939 “Infanta” gown, toreador boleros from 1946, and flamenco-inspired dresses from 1951 and 1961.

I caught up with the show’s curator, Hamish Bowles (also Vogue’s European Editor at Large and arguably the world’s biggest Balenciaga fan), who describes here the thrilling, challenging, extraordinary process of poring through the life, times and work of a childhood hero, seemingly. Some kids collect baseball cards, others collect couture…

Where did the idea for the show originate? What was the first glimmer?
Oscar de la Renta approached me with the idea of curating an exhibition based on Balenciaga and Spain. But I would say that the first glimmer may have been when I was about 10 or 11 and I acquired the first couture piece for my costume collection: a Balenciaga suit in French navy blue boucle. Very chic.

What has been your most thrilling moment while curating the exhibit?
It has been wonderful and revelatory to spend time in the Balenciaga archive in Paris. I am indebted to Nicolas for granting me such extraordinary access to the iconic garments in their own holdings, and the related images, including rough studio sketches, and the documentary photographs they took of each ensemble, front and back, for copyright purposes. I also enjoyed a trip to the Museo del Traje in Madrid, which has truly amazing collections of historic Spanish costume and regional dress. Examining the 1939 Infanta dress and discovering that the bodice was lined with its original toile, annotated by Balenciaga himself, was rather thrilling. And watching these Tom Kublin movies of Balenciaga fashion shows from 1960 to 1968—they are hypnotic.

And the most challenging moment?
Walking into the Lucite bonnet of one of the display cases a minute and a half before it was to be closed for our press preview was a low point. The deadlines for our catalog and indeed the exhibition was challenging—especially with a demanding day job!

My understanding is this won’t be a retrospective exactly, but a more contextual look at the life and times of the Spanish couturier. What enormous feats of research and imagination does that require?
Well the research was formidable but I was helped in this by my extraordinary research associates, Molly Sorkin and Jennifer Park. The timing was excessively challenging. But as soon as you start looking at Spanish art, at religious vestments, at historic regional dress, you see Cristóbal in every seam.

Assuming you didn’t already know everything there is to know about Cristóbal Balenciaga, what fascinating shockers did you uncover?
I hadn’t realized how profoundly religious he was. He considered becoming a priest and went to mass every day. There are endless echoes of church dress in his designs. He also had a droll humor, which was not at all an aspect of his rather austere and even dour public persona.

Aside from your own collection of Balenciaga dresses, how far and wide did you travel to find the pieces you wanted in the show?
We looked at pieces in Kyoto, Zurich, Guetaria, Phoenix, Santiago. We have a database I think of pretty much all extant Balenciagas in public collections, and a great many private too!

I imagine Balenciaga’s more famous pieces, like the Infanta gown, are a little like this country’s Ruby Slippers at the Smithsonian. What goes through your mind as you handle some of Spain’s national treasures?
To open up the vast crate from Guetaria and discover the 1957 wedding dress of Sonsoles Diez de Rivera [daughter of Balenciaga’s Spanish muse, the Marquesa de Llanzol] was electrifying. But really, the simplest-seeming dresses can be the most conceptually and technically complex and intriguing. I love them all.

The futuristic Balenciaga of today seems a world apart from the master’s matador boleros and flamenco frills. Does Nicolas Ghesquière’s unique vision come into play? How would Balenciaga have viewed it?
I think Balenciaga would have responded to Nicolas’s work ethic, and his innovations with shape, fabric, and embellishment. They parallel his own engagements.

What new appreciation for Cristóbal Balenciaga will we take away?
What is extraordinary is that he began his career in Paris in 1937 at the age of 42 and already had 20 years of work and success in Spain behind him, so he was a distinguished and fully fledged designer. But he never rested on his laurels. Every season was an invention, a development, and even if the same themes are explored they are used in a more abstract and extraordinary way as the years progress. His last collections were his most challenging and modern and adventurous, and he was in his 70s.

What will you curate next? What’s at the top of your wish list?
I want to curate shows on Main Bocher and Captain Molyneux, two unsung geniuses of fashion with intriguing stories to tell.

Balenciaga: Spanish Master, November 19 – February 19, 2011, Queen Sofía Spanish Institute, 684 Park Avenue, New York.