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Cristol Ball

The first Balenciaga retrospective in Paris opened on Tuesday, showcasing dramatic sculptural shapes and surprisingly vivid colors.

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"There is so much fantasy," the designer enthused. "There is print, color and craziness in the embroidery. And yes, there are big volumes, but even the most spectacular pieces are not that big. There was a balance of volume. That to me is the essence of elegance."

The exhibition is billed as the first major retrospective of Cristobal Balenciaga in more than three decades, and the first ever in Paris, the city where he cemented his fashion reputation. The show spans 170 looks, 147 of which are the work of the Spanish master, and the remaining 23 by Ghesquière, who took the house's creative reins in 1997.

Curator Pamela Golbin traveled the globe in search of emblematic Balenciaga garments, borrowing from collections in Japan, England, Spain, France and the United States. Finding clothes was not a problem, owing to the designer's long, prolific career and the fact that his careful choice of fabrics and expert cutting left many garments in mint condition, she said.

The exhibition is laid out over two floors, largely chronologically, ending with Ghesquière's designs and a prototype wedding dress from 1967, one year before Balenciaga's retirement.

During a walk-through on Monday, Golbin halted at a case showing dresses from 1937, the year Balenciaga set up his Paris house after years of selling his own designs and those of others in Spain. She explained that the couturier's fashion vocabulary was largely set by then, and his entire career would center on garment construction— experimenting with volume and reducing the number of seams — and various surface treatments, including densely layered embellishments. "He's not into pretty aspects," she said. "It's an esthetic point of view."

Indeed, his precision silhouettes clearly shift in themed cases, from his take on Christian Dior's New Look, to his iconic sack and chemise dresses ­ through to free-fall backs late in his career that ultimately morphed into full-on trains. By the end of his career, he had simplified his cutting to mostly geometric forms: the circle, semi-circle, rectangle and square.

Evening capes are a recurrent theme, as are references to Balenciaga's Spanish roots, especially his spectacularly beaded boleros. But so is experimentation, from bath mat-like coats made of fake fur — daring for a couture collection — to a black bolero reminiscent of a cabbage that rises up and almost swallows the head.
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