PARIS, France - The great Spanish couturier Cristobal Balenciaga, considered a pivotal influence on 20th century fashion, amassed a vast personal archive which has never gone on public show until now, 40 years after his death.
The eclectic collection of documents, costumes, fragments of material, even dolls' clothes, was bequeathed to the Musee Galliera, the Paris fashion museum, in 1979 and had lain in its vaults ever since.
Galliera director Olivier Saillard had the idea of building an exhibition on Balenciaga around the archives, bringing together his creations and some of the sources of their inspiration for the first time in the same display case.
"It's very random, spontaneous -- put together over the course of a lifetime, travelling round the world, presents from friends. He wasn't a specialized collector," Saillard said.
It gives a glimpse into the creative processes of a man who straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, a perfectionist with a reputation for being taciturn, enigmatic and often too radical for his contemporaries, and profoundly influenced by Spanish popular culture.
Chanel hailed him as the only couturier other than herself to have mastered all the techniques from cutting cloth to sewing and he continues to influence fashion today, especially in the architecture and volume of clothes, Saillard said.
"He invented, at least in part, the vocabulary of 20th century fashion, yet the paradox is he was very nourished by the epoch before."
Balenciaga was born in 1895 in the Spanish Basque country and the bulk of his collection can be dated to the 19th century. He remained fascinated by the silhouettes, the capes and coats which covered up and constrained women, while seeking in his own designs to lighten them up and allow freer movement.
The exhibition allows the viewer to compare Balenciaga's sculptural cocktail frocks with their bolero or cape tops from his haute couture lines in the 1950s with their historic counterparts from 100 years before.
Saillard wanted to conjure up the atmosphere of the museum's reserves, so many items are displayed flat, which is how they are stored.
Fragile confections of guipure and lace, over-embroidered with metallic thread or encrusted with jet tubes or black pearls, nestle in drawers pulled out at the foot of the display cabinets.
The collection is also testament to Balenciaga's passion for Spanish regional costumes, from bullfighters to flamenco dancers, from which he borrowed details for his own designs.
"His evening dresses were hybrids," said Saillard. The grand gowns had rustic touches, while the rich colors of folk costume -- seen, for example, in velvet bands used to decorate balconies for religious processions -- also inspired Balenciaga's palette.
Even the headgear of humble fishermen in Andalucia inspired a hat, which went on to feature on the front page of Vogue.
Liturgical vestments in devoutly Catholic Spain were reworked into formal coats that made women look like little cardinals, Saillard noted.
The exhibition runs until October 7 at Les Docks, a new arts and design complex on the Quai d'Austerlitz by the Seine. (www.paris.docks-en-seine.fr)
© 1994-2012 Agence France-Presse