Designer Oscar de la Renta, Queen Sofia of Spain and European Editor at Large for Vogue Hamish Bowles attend a private preview of the exhibition 'BALENCIAGA: Spanish Master' at Queen Sofia Spanish Institute on Nov. 17 in NYC. Photo: Getty Images

"He is the only couturier. He is the only one who knows how to cut a fabric, and mount it and sew it with his own hands. The others are just draughtsman."

So reads a quote from the famously fickle Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel painted on the wall at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute, the setting for the brand-new exhibition Balenciaga: Spanish Master. The exhibition, which opened last Friday, was formally introduced last night by curator Hamish Bowles and the Spanish Institute's chairman of the board, Oscar de la Renta.

The evening was graciously organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Friends of The Costume Institute, since many of Balenciaga's key pieces were pulled from the institution.

"I've been crazy about Balenciaga for a long time-decades, really-so I relished the opportunity to explore it a little more deeply and look more deeply into Spanish regional dress and cultural and artistic history," Bowles told StyleList of his curatorial assignment. "It was just one of those incredible things where the more you looked, the more resonances you found. It was really extraordinary."

To illustrate those resonances, Bowles presented a slideshow to attendees, juxtaposing images of traditional Spanish dress-from religious garb to royal dressing to dance costumes and even bullfighting attire-against images of pieces in the exhibition. Voluminous black capes, for example, bore striking resemblance to the robes of Spanish clergymen (Balenciaga's uncle, in fact, was a priest, while young Cristobal served as an altar boy), while two boleros were nearly identical to those worn by matadors in the ring. One black and white polka-dotted dress echoed the dress of flamenco dancers, while a black velvet gown complete with a train of ermine tails (created for an extravagantly wealthy American couture client) could have been straight out of a portrait of 18th-century Spanish royalty.

Theses looks came primarily from the work that Balenciaga created after the house opened in Paris, but according to Bowles, his hometown never left him. "He had a real sense of aching nostalgia for Spain," he said.

Some of the looks in the 76-piece exhibition came from Bowles' own vast personal collection, like an austere black coat that Bowles gleefully admitted to finding on eBay. "Never give up!" he laughed. "I have a lot of Balenciagas, but only a few were really perfect for the theme. I have a huge collection and it's so nice to get pieces out there so that people can see them."

De la Renta had an equally personal tie to the exhibition: "In my earlier life, many many years ago, I can almost say I worked at the house of Balenciaga," he said, going on to explain that his job title could only be described as "picking pins" while working in Madrid. (He eventually went on to create hundreds of sketches of the collections for Balenciaga's couture clients; sketching, Bowles and de la Renta agreed, was not Balenciaga's strength.) But whether pin-picking or sketching, de la Renta-who many would call a master in his own right-is quick to attribute some of his success to his more humble days. "I had the tremendous privilege of going and seeing how a master works," he said. "He was a tremendous craftsman."

The evening was graciously organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Friends of The Costume Institute, since many of Balenciaga's key pieces were pulled from the institution.

Balenciaga: Spanish Master will be on display at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute (684 Park Avenue) through February 19, 2011.

Meanwhile, find out which supermodel is set to star in the latest Balenciaga campaign.