From Balenciaga and Spain: de Young San Francisco to UNRAVEL Knitwear in Fashion: MOMU Antwerpen

Left: Bolero of garnet velvet and black jet embroidery, winter 1947. Collection of The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photograph by Craig McDean. Center: Detail of evening bolero jacket of burgundy silk velvet and jet and passementerie embroidery by Bataille, winter 1946. Collection of Hamish Bowles. Photo by Kenny Komer. Right: Scarlet silk ottoman evening coat with capelet collar, autumn/winter 1954–1955. Collection of The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photograph by Craig McDean

This blog is about my recent experiences in two of my favorite cities and two remarkable exhibitions, reflecting fashion as art.

While recently in San Francisco, to conduct a fashion lecture on using gemstone jewelry and fashion styling for the AGTA, American Gem Trade Association, I was able to secure a few hours to visit the de Young Museum and view the current retrospective Balenciaga and Spain, displaying the magnificent mastery of Chirstóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972).

The exhibition, which includes 120 haute couture garments, hats and headresses was brilliantly curated by Hamish Bowles, European editor at large of Vogue. Curator Hamish Bowles notes, “Balenciaga’s ceaseless explorations and innovations ensured that his work was as intriguing and influential in his final collection as it had been in his first.”

The presentation conceived by Oscar de la Renta, who began his career in fashion working for Balenciaga, originated in 2010 in a showing at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute in New York titled Balenciaga: Spanish Master. Designer Oscar de la Renta, “He was an architect, he was a true master of creativity.”

Balenciaga – Organza Evening Gown

Upon entry into the gallery I was greeted by an evening dress, of high-low design, constructed from the most brilliant pink taffeta, finished with a full ruffled ball skirt.

The exhibition then showed Balenciaga’s genius as it moved fluidly thru black day, afternoon, and cocktail suiting.

Balenciaga’s work was greatly influenced by the rich history and artists of Spain, and by his love for dance. Which was evident with his evening interpretations through Flamenco inspired silhouettes.

Balenciaga – Evening Bolero Jackets

He also drew inspiration from the traditional costumes of the matador and his dress which he infused beautifully into bolero evening jackets, collaborating with such embroidery houses as Bataille and Lesage to recreate the passmenterie, beading and embroideries. Balenciaga’s craftmanship as a milliner was also evident through his recreations of the traditional hats worn by the matador. It is said that Balenciaga didn’t like the idea of the bullfight but loved the elegance of the dress.

Balenciaga – Evening Ensemble with ‘Chou’ Wrap

Balenciaga also loved evening ensemble dresses and especially those fashioned with overskirts the could be worn as caps, or head and upper body cover. His evening dress ensemble made from black silk crepe and “chou” wrap of black silk gazar worn over the head was a striking example of this technique.

Balenciaga was also a master perfectionist when it came to fit. Designer Oscar de la Renta, “He was known to spend hours just fitting one sleeve.” His attention to detail was evident by the exquisite examples seen in a brown gaberdine raincoat and his evening coats.

A devoted Catholic that once contemplated the priesthood, Balenciaga’s religious beliefs were also reinterpreted throughout his career. He was deeply inspired by the everyday dress and the pageantry of the Spanish church. A wedding dress and veil made from white silk satin organza and silk gazar reflected a nun’s habit.

(Ctr) Balenciaga – Wedding Gown with Veil

As I continued to marvel as I made my way through the exhibition, it undoubtedly became clearer, why Chirstóbal Balenciaga was called one of the most influential and important designers of the Twentieth Century.

Balenciaga and Spain: Runs through July 4, 2011, de Young Museum Golden Gate Park 50 Hagiwara Tea Gardens Drive, San Francisco, CA

Tilda Swinton Inspired Knitwear – Four Piece Crocheted Knit Dress all Sandra Backlund 2008-09

While visiting my second home, the Netherlands, my partner and I took a day trip to  Antwerpen, Belgium to the MOMU-Mode Museum for the exhibition UNRAVEL Knitwear in Fashion. It was a necessity to see for me because my muse the captivating Tilda Swinton in a knit creation designed from four hand-knit and hand-crocheted dresses, for a photo shoot for Another Magazine 2009 was the museums advertisement for the exhibition.

The museum is also part of the ModeNatie which is comprised of three partners: The MOMU Fashion Museum and the most prestigious fashion institutes in the world, the Flanders Fashion Institute and the Fashion Department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Artesis Hogeschool Antwerpen. Notably known for the Antwerp Six, Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee, a group of avant garde fashion designers who graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts between 1980-1981.

Bauke Knottnerus – Phat Knits

Before entering the exhibition the intent was well stated by a larger than life knit composition created for the exhibit by Rotterdam-based Bauke Knottnerus, designer of the so-called Phat Knits, (larger scale knitted design elements) that wrapped over the balcony above the museums foyer and rested on the floor as you entered the retrospective.

Woollen Stockings – Vivienne Westwood A/W 1994-95

Machine-Knits: The first part of the exhibit that caught my interest was the artistry of the knitted hosiery, some dating back as early as 1780. My favorites were a men’s pair of silk hose in jersey decorated with knitted check pattern and embroidery, 1880-1900 and a pair of woolen stockings in ajour knitting, decorated with knitted and crocheted flowers and tassels, Vivienne Westwood, A/W 1994-95

Continuing through Machine-Knits, we viewed three revolving mannequin’s and the one (center) featured a woolen dress, by Walter Van Beirendonck, A/W 1994-95 inspired by the Hui’an women living in Quanzhou, China, who typically wear colorful costumes, consisting of a floral kerchief, yellow bamboo hat, short blue jackets, silver waist belts and wide-end trousers, worn for work in the land salt fields, the quarry sites and on decks of fishing vessels.

(L) Woollen Sweater & Woolen Skirt – Bernhard Willhelm, A/W 1999-2000 (Ctr) Hui’an Womens Inspired Dress – Walter Van Beirendonck A/W 1994-95 Beef Eater & Superflyskirt Dress – Bernhard Willhelm, A/W 2007-08

Sportive Knitwear: I think was best described in the exhibition notes by Mariah Burton Nelson, (1998) “Sports have freed women, and continue to free women, from restrictive dress, behaviour, laws and customs – and from the belief that women can’t or shouldn’t achieve or compete or win”. This first became evident in the 1920’s when the Edwardian two-piece bathing costumes, where replaced by knitted, one-piece swimming suits of wool jersey and silk. My favorite example featured (top center) woollen bikini in jersey, with swimming bands and bracelets by Sonia Rykiel, S/S 1996.

Vintage Knitwear Bathing Costumes – 1900-1996

Sculptural Knitwear: Brought me to the moment I had been waiting for, the dress worn by Tilda Swinton designed from four hand-knit and hand-crocheted dresses, (top to bottom) Crocheted dress and hand-knit dress, Sandra Backlund, Pool Position, S/S 2009. Hand-knit woollen and silk sweater and mini-dress, Sandra Backlund, Last Breath Bruises, A/W 2008-09. Of course it did not stand alone as it was beautifully flanked by knitwear designs from Yohji Yamamoto, Kevin Kramp, Bruno Pieters, Romeo Gigli, Romain Brau and Maison Martin Margiela.

(Ctr) Tilda Swinton Inspired Knitwear – Four Piece Crocheted Knit Dress, All Sandra Backlund 2008-09
Woollen Patchwork Jacket – Rudi Gernreich ca. 1963

Youth Quake: The 60’s brought visual and noticeable changes to the knitwear industry as social change became evident and a sign of the times. The so-called Youth Quake Fashions saw young London based and designers like Paco Rabanne and Rudi Gernreich who had settled in American introduce a youthful, playful and rebellious style, that had nothing to do with the Parisian catwalks, which had prominently mandated fashion for so many years. A standout pieces in this series, (below image front right) woollen jacket, artificial fibre, in jersey patchwork, Rudi Gernreich, ca. 1963.

Knitwear: The French not to be outdone as they had once been an innovative leader in the knitwear industry also saw change in the 60’s as designer Sonia Rykiel, liberated Parisian women, and by Azzedine Alaïa who in the 80’s became the ‘king of cling’ with his body-hugging stretch jersey dresses. In the below image (front left) woollen dress, in jersey, with alternating bands of mohair and nylon and two wooden knitting needles, with wig made from bird of paradise feathers in Sonia Rykiel’s hair color, by Jean Paul Gaultier for Sonia Rykiel, and the 40th Anniversary of her fashion house S/S 2008.

(Bottom Left) Knitwear: Woollen Dress with Knitting Needles – Jean Paul Gaultier for Sonia Rykiel S/S 2008

The Japanese also helped turnaround the knitwear industry in the 80’s as designer Rei Kawakubo introduced her knitted ‘lace sweater’ 1982 for Comme des  Garçons. Issey Miyake presented his ‘APOC’ project ‘A Piece of Cloth,’ which saw seamless articles of clothing cut from circular knitted tubes, followed by Yohij Yamamoto in the 90’s and later deconstruction experiments by Junya Watanabe.

Woollen Open-Knit Mohair Dress – Rodarte A/W 2008-09

Unravel: As the exhibition ended, the true meaning of the title UNRAVEL Knitwear in Fashion: was clearly presented by a newer and more modern approach to knitwear techniques by American label Rodarte who turned the ‘destroy look’ into contemporary chic, and by Danish designer Iben Höj who mixed both deconstruction and precious fragility in one single silhouette.

UNRAVEL Knitwear in Fashion: Runs through – 14, August 2011 MOMU-ModeMuseum Provincie Antwerpen Nationalestraat 28 I B-2000 Antwerpen


  1. Excellent post. I was checking constantly this weblog and I’m impressed! Extremely useful info specially the final part 🙂 I care for such information a lot. I used to be seeking this certain info for a very lengthy time. Thanks and best of luck.

    • Thank you so much for reading my blog and I’m thrilled you enjoyed the post. I loved seeing both exhibitions. I’m a big supporter of the deYoung and MOMU in Antwerp. I hope you continue to read and enjoy my blogs.

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