A few weeks ago I was fortunate to receive a special invitation from the de Young museum to stop by and meet Mr. Hamish Bowles, and to hear his announcement for a new costume exhibition that is being developed for the museum.
Hamish Bowles? You mean the darling of The Sartorialist, guy seen in The September Issue, one heartbeat away from Anna Wintour, Hamish Bowles? For those not so fashionably geeky, Mr. Bowles is the European Editor at Large for Vogue magazine and Editor-in-Chief of Vogue Living. The very prospect of meeting the man sent me into paroxysms of delight and panic. So exciting and so terrifying in one! What does one wear to such an event?
Luckily, I have some vintage Louis Vuitton in the deeper corners of my closet, so out it came. As did the very high heels. Not that I should have worried, Mr. Bowles was dressed as his usual dapper self and had style to spare: double-breasted deep blue suit, purple striped shirt (vertical stripes), purple striped tie (diagonal stripes), purple pocket square, and an understated Piaget watch. Affable and charming, he sprang from his chair every time someone new came to the room and gave each of us a warm welcome.
Hamish Bowles with some Balenciaga in the de Young's textile conservation lab.
After brief introductions from the de Young’s John Buchanan and Jill D’Alessandro, Mr. Bowles told us all about the Balenciaga retrospective slated for the spring of 2011. As someone with a vast personal collection of couture, and also an expert on Cristobal Balenciaga in particular, I cannot think of someone more fitting to curate this exhibition than Mr. Bowles. A scholar of fashion, design and culture, his experience is vast while his connections are many. He reminds me of the character Elliott Templeton from W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge; man of refined taste, kindness and wit, with exceptional entrée to society.
In one of my favorite moments, Mr. Bowles said: “Wintour was behind the idea of my doing it.” Blessings from on high! But wait, did he just call her Wintour? Awesome.
Suzy Parker wearing Balenciaga, photographed by Henry Clarke for the November 1953 cover of Vogue.
Mr. Bowles explained that the Balenciaga exhibit will focus on the couturier through the lens of Spanish culture, showing how the spirit of Spain impacted Balenciaga’s creations during his career. As the designer was forced to leave Spain for Paris in 1937, it is understandable that his patriotic nostalgia would come through in his designs. Art, religious life, the bullfight, flamenco, and regional dress all influenced Balenciaga, offering a frame a reference for his precisely engineered clothes. Balenciaga often gave a nod to vibrant Spanish textures, colors (particularly pink and black), and embellishments, while traditional shapes such as a Basque fisherman’s sweater were elevated to couture in a simple tweed suit. It is these simplest silhouettes, Mr. Bowles asserted, that are the most spectacular on the body.
Pink Silk Evening Dress, 1959 by Balenciaga.
“A fashion designer must be an architect for perspectives, a sculptor for shapes, a painter for color, a musician for harmony and a philosopher for sense of proportion.” - Balenciaga
Mr. Bowles also explained that Balenciaga’s great art is found in his engineering. Where an architectural Dior suit or gown would be reinforced by buckram or crinoline, ultimately weighing the garment down, a Balenciaga piece in a similar shape would be lighter than air. His ingenious draping and eye for shape made such magic effortless – both to create and to wear. One of the many intriguing anecdotes shared by Mr. Bowles involved a Balenciaga dressmaker, Madame Florette, who joined the house of Yves Saint Laurent when Balenciaga closed. With this move, the house of Saint Laurent suddenly received an infusion of effortlessly draped, voluminous pieces, all crafted by the master sewer who had worked under Balenciaga. Only Hamish Bowles would know the provenance of such things.
Mrs. Carmel Snow talks with Cristobal Balenciaga in 1952.
The Balenciaga retrospective will come to New York City this Fall, where approximately 55 objects will be shown. In the spring of 2011, the show will come to the de Young in San Francisco where it will expand to approximately 100 objects overall, all exclusively Balenciaga. Of these, about 12 to 15 will be from the de Young’s own costume archives.