Cristóbal Balenciaga and Comme des Garçons, Together At Last

Is it the venue Les Docks, the newly inaugurated fashion hub and UFO of a structure overlooking the Seine River? Is it the exhibition space itself, with its raw concrete walls and visible metallic piping? Do the surprisingly handsome security guards have anything to do with it?

Surely these factors contribute in giving curator Olivier Saillard’s twin exhibitions a modernity that is unusual on the Paris museum scene. But then Saillard, who’s run the Musée Galliera since last year, has long proved himself to be a progressive mind, confirmed by this new and original endeavor.

The first exhibition, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Collector of Fashion, unveils, for the first time, the personal archives of the great Spanish couturier, the 18th, 19th, and early 20th-century fabrics, costumes and memorabilia that shaped his fashion vision. The second, Comme des Garçons White Drama, displays the Japanese label’s current spring 2012 collection, a critically acclaimed array of white dresses inspired by life events such as christenings and weddings. The pieces are grouped under plastic bubble-like covers, a Courrèges-worthy art installation staged by Rei Kawakubo herself.

That these bubbles could be likened to time capsules is a fitting metaphor for creations that transcend notions of trend and time. There is an eternal relevance and beauty to these outfits, deceptively pristine dresses whose asymmetries, embroideries, crinolines, odd panniers, and daring fabric mixes abstractly convey the darker realities of life. To have an entire current collection displayed in a museum is quite unusual, and this bold gesture is to be applauded.

The all-whiteness of this Comme des Garçons section is in stark contrast with the Balenciaga exhibit in the adjoining space, a darker room showing a significant number of black pieces. What binds the two displays is a common emphasis on pure yet complex architectural construction and a pervading sense of dignity.

By showing Balenciaga’s prized possessions, given to the Musée Galliera in 1979, Saillard sheds new light on the couturier’s fertile fashion mind. He had a fascination with dramatic pieces like capes, stays, mantillas, casaquins, as well as beautiful, often embellished black fabrics. And Saillard clearly shows the viewer how those vintage finds influenced his work. For example, a vintage “bouillonné” cape is shown alongside an embroidered faille cape he designed in 1963. A wondrous cocktail outfit from 1965 appears next to a jet embroidered fabric from the late 19th century.

Even more intriguing was his love of popular and ceremonial Spanish costume (he only moved to Paris in the late thirties). Among the movable metallic shelves, one can see men’s jackets for Andalusian ballets, a piece of fabric used to adorn balconies during religious processions, a silk bow for a first communion, or Neapolitan crib figurines. A 1969 hat with a wide, plunging brim recalling this season’s creations by Nicolas Ghesquière, was obviously inspired by a folkloric hat from the early 20th century.

By the time you leave the exhibition, with its noble and beautiful fashion treasures, you clearly understand why Balenciaga, feeling estranged in a world dominated by ready-to-wear and pop culture, shuttered his house one day in 1968, never to look back.

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