Balenciaga Shines a Spotlight on Artfully Decaying Dresses

The exhibition for European Heritage Days features 39 vintage items awaiting conservation.

A conservator reinforces floral embroideries on a vintage dress by Cristóbal Balenciaga. Eric Sander



Resting on artfully rolled tissue, the dresses — some torn, some partially decomposed, some unfinished, many of them soiled — brought to mind patients on hospital beds, or Sir John Everett’s painting “Ophelia.”

The exhibition at Kering’s Paris headquarters showcases 39 original Cristóbal Balenciaga garments dating from 1939 to 1968, some recently acquired, awaiting restoration.

Mounted by Balenciaga in line with creative director Demna’s vision, the showcase was conceived for European Heritage Days on Saturday and Sunday, when historic buildings and monuments across the continent open their doors to the public.

On hand will be two textile conservators: one girding floral embroideries with the finest silk thread; another sewing wadding over hangers to help delicate garments maintain their shape and ease fabric stress.


The fragile vintage garments lie flat on tissue paper. © Eric Sander


In a link to the present, a giant screen broadcasts Balenciaga’s fall 2022 couture show by Demna, many of the models sporting futuristic face shields. Still, visitors can draw a direct line of inspiration from the green gown worn by Bella Hadid on the runway and a gently faded 1959 Amphora style stood in a glass case.

Demna often gives new Balenciaga designs a worn aspect, which reminds the wearer of the effect of time on garments, and themselves.

The French house’s archive and heritage department has amassed more than 900 original pieces by Cristóbal Balenciaga, hailed as a master of couture prized for his architectural shapes.

Among the vintage items on display are an austere pink gown whose bottom third is riddled with stains and rips, and jackets bearing dense mother-of-pearl floral embroideries and tears at the shoulder.

Some are shown partially disassembled to highlight their intricate constructions. Conservators employ a range of pH-neutral materials to slow the aging process and boost faded fabrics, according to Balenciaga.

Let’s hope the fragility of the subject matter does not prevent the “Des robes, au-delà du temps” exhibition, or “Dresses, Beyond Time” in English, from traveling to other venues.

Visitors to Kering headquarters this weekend can also take in an exhibition of works from the Pinault Collection by Belgian artist Edith Dekyndt, whose work employs many fabrics that are deliberately decayed or decaying. One of her white “paintings” is impregnated with wine tartrates that leach moisture from the air and then “bleeds” down the wall.


The Balenciaga exhibition at Kering headquarters in Paris. © Eric Sander



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