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As I sat down in the Whiteman Hall at the Phoenix Art Museum, I felt like I had been placed in a dollhouse.

Every woman and man packed into the event hall was dressed to the nines. Dresses were flowing, jewelry was shining, shoes were pointed and leather was sleek. You knew that even those with a tousled and tangled appearance had taken meticulous measures to achieve such disheveled perfection.

The reason for such a gathering? On Wednesday, May 25, Hamish Bowles, the European editor-at-large for Vogue magazine, came to Phoenix to give a lecture on the life and career of designer Cristóbal Balenciaga.

Though I am keenly interested in art and the artistic community, I had never thought to really look into fashion. My general attitude toward it was that, yes, it can be considered "art" in the sense that it is a use of textiles … but really, wasn’t it just a commoditization of consumerist pleasure? I did not anticipate that there was anything intellectually concrete to be found.

What has most deterred me in the past from accepting fashion as art is the overlapping nature of its culture and commerce. The industry profits off people’s craving for status and respect through the incitement of vanity and snobbery. Fashion has served as a way for people to define themselves through what they are able to afford — to make an impression, not through their personality, but through their tangible style. Others have expressed to me that fashion is not art, but rather an imitation of art; that it is really more of a movement for conformism. For the most part, high fashion’s purpose has been to demonstrate disposable income. The industry is not made for the masses — instead, a coterie activity for the wealthy.

However, Bowles’ lecture defied all of my previous notions. He proved to me that Balenciaga’s combination of preternatural talent, refined aestheticism, and austere humanism made him justly and phenomenally artistic.

Bowles delved into Balenciaga’s treasury of inspiration, some of which surprised me. The original Balenciaga design house was rooted in Spanish culture, which is why many of Balenciaga’s pieces evoke this country’s culture and context.

The parallels are unmistakable and practically literal.

During the lecture, Bowles displayed a luxurious dress referencing flamenco dancers, a silk crepe and “chou” wrap inspired by Goya, an evening cape influenced by religious dress, a jacket representing matadors and a ball gown inspired by Picasso. Other costume patrimony echoes fish-selling peasants, exotic gypsies, and complicit travelers. He was able to achieve modern, abstract design with the infusion of convention and custom.

Through several key pieces, Bowles illuminated Balenciaga’s artistic and conceptual standpoints through carefully crafted visual aesthetics and imagery. With designs modeled after medieval nuns and 17th century Franciscan monks, Balenciaga portrayed both his understanding and struggle with religion. An apprentice of his once remarked that Balenciaga would contemplatively stroke the ends of fabric as one would a rosary. The artist literally wove his sentiments and beliefs into his work.

Balenciaga’s designs were so beautiful and poetic, I couldn’t help but be wrapped up in the Spanish romance. We were shown froths of ruffles, strident explosions of organza skirts, intricately beaded gowns, and more. His genius kicked in with his practically architectural pieces that held form without any sort of infrastructure (his imposing structured ball gowns were actually cut very simply).

The fanciful sweeps of exaggeration, the voluminous swathes, and the blossoming shapes were stunning and enchanting. In essence, Balenciaga was the Spanish poet of haute couture.

I admire Balenciaga for his relentless pursuit of innovation. By treating fabric with obeisance to shape and volume, he was able to manipulate material, and ultimately, push the craft forward. Through the use of geometry and iconography, he created contemporary sculpture. Dramatic cuts and colors that were festooned for his taste lent to spectacular embellishments, as there was no such thing as a detail too fastidious.

Art is defined as a product of human creativity, and Balenciaga’s creations have proven to be beautiful and significant. Further, an artist is someone that is able to take an unrepresented idea and transform it into a revelation, and there is no denying that his pieces were made with the intention of expressing and enlightening. Balenciaga’s work combined his innate understanding of human movement along with his sophisticated mastery of tailoring to incite an exploration of new art.

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