Credit: Fred Collier

When I walked along the first row of gowns, I flashed back to what a French chef once told me was his secret: start with excellent ingredients and then get out of their way. In Balenciaga’s magical couture, I could recognise the respect that a true master possessed for the very nature of his ingredient, namely, the implausible lightness of lace.

An airy confection, lace is knitted rather than embroidered, and Balenciaga played with its ethereal transparency – be it with his signature black-on-flesh, subtle tone-on-tone or daring vermilion – to striking effect.

This exhibition showcases Balenciaga’s eye for the silhouette, highlighting the best and skimming over the rest – he considered the knee to be a most unfortunate articulation. Balenciaga wasn’t a fan of seismic upheavals and so his collections progressed gracefully through the seasons, in order that a woman would never feel démodée.

The revered Basque couturier forged a career which bloomed in Paris and clothed the world’s most influential people. Christian Dior referred to him as “the master of us all” while he served as a mentor and idol to Hubert de Givenchy, who became one of the main Balenciaga collectors and lit the fuse that resulted in this very exhibition, which is held most fittingly in Calais, France’s capital of lace.

Reflecting Balenciaga’s training as a tailor, his clothing was constructed to fit the real-life client to the millimetre. Consequently, the curators of this triumphant exhibit had to build bespoke replicas of each original physique in order to display them, protecting the precious garments behind special glass casings, at strict temperatures and levels of humidity, to allow us the privilege – for a limited time – of experiencing a rare glimpse into the world of pure elegance.

Tip: Be sure to pay a visit to the museum’s gift shop, which offers a sensibly priced selection of unique lace clothing and accessories.

Balenciaga, Magician of Lace, Until August 31. Cite internationale de la dentelle et de la mode de Calais, 135 quai du Commerce, 62100 Calais. Open daily 10am-6pm. Closed Tuesdays. Entry is €7. Tel: +33 3 21 00 42 30

From France Today magazine

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