Spain: Ode to Balenciaga on a fashionable holiday

By Lisa Strathdee

Spain's Cristobal Balenciaga museum is a stylish nod to fashion tourism.

Cristobal Balenciaga Museoa is sited on a hill in the fishing port of Getaria. Photo / Supplied
Cristobal Balenciaga Museoa is sited on a hill in the fishing port of Getaria. Photo / Supplied

Dedicated fashionistas visiting Europe and keen for a break from the gritty, intense pace of life in the main cities will delight in a getaway to Getaria. This picturesque medieval town on the rocky Atlantic coastline is in the Gizpukoa province of Pais Vasco (Basque country) in northern Spain.

Traditionally a fishing port, renowned for its whalers, and sailors such as Juan Sebastian Elcano, the first man to circumnavigate the globe, Getaria is also the birthplace of the forefather of fashion minimalism Cristobal Balenciaga.

June 2011 saw the opening of the Cristobal Balenciaga Museoa. Sited on a steep hill overlooking the beautiful Bay of Biscay this is the first museum dedicated solely to one couturier. The impressive building, described by some as a "black glass shed" and mired in project-political controversy, expands on the successful concept of encouraging cultural tourism by packaging it in an architectural "wow" factor. This same concept has inspired architects and town councils the world over since first kicking off in Bilbao (only an hour's drive from Getaria) with Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum.

Still, to sign off on a surface area of 9323 square metres costing €30 million (NZ$47.2 million) is a sure testament to Balenciaga's influential contribution to contemporary fashion. It is also a pioneering stake in the brave new world of fashion tourism.

Access to the museum is designed to trigger that similar sense of excitement and fear one experiences when entering a revered fashion establishment. A series of outdoor escalators transport you from the cobble-stoned walkways of the port below and up on to a vast stone slabbed patio punctuated with tidy, if slightly neurotic, saplings.

The museum's exterior code is: "minimal meets vintage". An "invisible seam" links a black cube with a 19th century palace. This connection is historic in that Aldemar Palace was the summer residence of the Marquesa de Casa Torres - Balenciaga's first client and patron. It was here a young Cristobal was given the Parisian dresses of the Marquesa to copy.

A strong push of the heavy glass door brings you into a tight, slick reception area and beyond into an expansive, curved light filled foyer. Suspended above are the exhibition chambers wrapped in sheets of black metal laser cut with a pattern of rambling flowers. To the left are screaming sharp hot-pink slanted walls with a ramp leading into a film theatrette. And down at the very far end is the shop selling design books and other typical museum merchandise with a fashion-y twist. Velvety pencils, slim elegant notepads, scarves, T-shirts, badges, perfumes, postcards and oversized porcelain thimbles.

Coco Chanel defined Balenciaga as the "only authentic couturier" because "he was able to design, cut, set and sew a dress from beginning to end". Balenciaga was known (and respected among his peers) for his innovative techniques in pattern-making and textile development.

Dior famously said "With fabrics, we do what we can. Balenciaga does what he wants." Balenciaga dedicated his life to refining the construction of his designs. His definition of elegance was simplicity. As with all true minimalism this simplicity is in fact extremely complex. In the couturier's words, "A good fashion designer should be an architect of forms, painter of colours, musician of harmony and philosopher of measurement."

Born in 1895, Balenciaga witnessed and understood the real change in women's lifestyles as they transited from an era defined by corsets into one (post WWI) allowing them new freedoms.

His designs merged functionality with luxury which at the time was a revolutionary concept in women's wear.

The 90 outfits on show come from a rotating collection of 1300 original garments. Hubert Givenchy, founder and president of the Balenciaga Foundation donated 109 dresses from his personal collection. Famous personalities of the 20th century such as Mona Von Bismark, Bunny Mellon, Barbara Hutton and Grace Kelly have all worn the clothes on display.

The exhibition is presented in a sequential order reflecting the way the outfits were traditionally exhibited on the haute couture catwalks.

Displaying clothes well is no easy task. Here they have been treated as art objects. Each outfit is in its own carefully backlit space behind frameless glass set into curved niches. In some cases touchscreen videos showing how the flat pattern comes together accompany the exhibit.

As you moves through this carefully curated exhibition one can see just how ahead of his time Balenciaga was. In the same year Dior introduced the hourglass-shaped "New Look", Balenciaga introduced the barrel line - a precursor to the tunic (1951) and the sack dress (1957). In 1958 Balenciaga launched the now ubiquitous baby doll. Old black and white film clips show these revolutionary looks being worn by models on the streets of Paris. So mainstream have Balenciaga's silhouettes become that it is the passers-by who appear to be wearing fancy dress.

Balenciaga opened his first atelier in San Sebastian at the age of 22 but relocated to Paris in 1937 due to the impossibility of operating his business during the Spanish Civil War. It was here at Avenue George V, that his work was discovered by a wider clientele made up of royalty, influential socialites and Hollywood legends like Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo.

To visit the museum in the afternoon means to exit around about sunset. This is the perfect time to stroll back down, find a spot with a view and acquaint oneself with a glass of chilled txakoli, the local white wine, accompanied by the Basque version of tapas - pintxos. A foundation slice of baguette is topped with imaginative combinations all held precariously in place with a toothpick.

The speciality here is seafood - in particular chipirones (squid), kiskillas (prawns) or karrakelas (sea snails). It is customary to move from one establishment to another tasting pintxos before finally settling on a restaurant.

One to try is Elkano, considered one of the best fish restaurants in the world by those in the know.

On the menu here are fashionably black tartar de chipiron (tiny line-caught squid with sea urchin in ink sauce), grilled clams and langostas (lobsters) or whole wild turbot filleted at the table.

The summer season is when all the traditional marine festivals take place in the many fishing villages along this coast. Twenty minutes drive north is another Riviera glamour spot, San Sebastian - home to the A-lister international film festival now in its 60th year. But that is another story.

* For more information see: Cristobalbalenciagamuseoa.com; Getaria.net; Turismoa.euskadi.net; Restoranteelkano.com.

- NZ Herald

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