cut-out couture

On the eve of a major exhibition celebrating the work of 18th-century couturier Mariano Fortuny, Isabelle de Borchgrave – the Belgian designer famed for her exquisite paper creations – talks to Emma Beddington about the passions that drive her Photography Natalie Hill

here’s a surface calm in Isabelle de Borchgrave’s Brussels studio – a peaceful, light filled space with fat koi carp swimming languidly in a pool in the leafy garden. However, when you look more closely, it’s a hum of intense and industrious activity. People are measuring, cutting and painting, heads bowed over two long tables. A man adds embellishments to a vase and two women apply a delicate pattern of gold paint to a length of drapery. Overlooking it all from the second-floor gallery are rows of mannequins dressed in the outfits that made Isabelle famous: delicate pastel crinolines, vivid folk costumes from Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Renaissance pages in brocade tunics. And all of them, everything, made of paper. The plain white rolls are here too, propped against the walls and awaiting a credibility-defying transformation.

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In the middle of it all is de Borchgrave herself, a busy, diminutive figure in a navy fisherman’s sweater with a suspicion of paint around the cuffs, looking far younger than her 66 years. She darts across the studio, pausing to give instructions, conferring and appraising. When we sit down in her library, packed to the rafters with art and history books, she thrums with barely suppressed impatience to get back to work: it’s just days before the opening of her new exhibition, and there’s plenty still to do. The exhibition, Fortuny by Isabelle de Borchgrave: A World of Paper, is ambitious: less a straight tribute to the fin-de-siècle couturier than a sensory journey through his imagination. As well as around 40 extraordinary replicas of Fortuny’s dresses, it echoes his travels and influences, with scents and music from North Africa and Asia, as well

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cut-out couture

Details, above: de Borchgrave’s Brussels workshop is now open for tours by appointment. Right: a beautiful hand-made dress from the designer’s forthcoming Mariano Fortuny exhibition Previous page: Isabelle de Borchgrave in her studio

as kilims, kimonos and cushions. There’s even a tiny café serving oriental pâtisseries and a yurt where younger visitors can design their own creations. It’s a joyful blast of colour and excitement in wintry Brussels. As de Borchgrave describes it all, her enthusiasm is infectious. “Fortuny looked like crazy at everything, and that passion is what interests me. It’s going to be very playful, very fun. It will make people think.” Visitors will be able to touch samples of paper, pick up a paintbrush and watch a video of the studio at work. “Sometimes I stand at the exits to my exhibitions and I listen to visitors as they leave, and what I love is hearing them say: ‘Let’s go home and make a dress’ or ‘I could do that’. That’s wonderful. This exhibition is going to inspire people, create vocations.”

Her own vocation manifested itself early: as a child, de Borchgrave would cover her bedroom walls with drawings, then her mother would paint over them and the process would start again. “I left school at 14. I was a pretty lacklustre student, and all I wanted to do was draw and paint. I was fascinated by the Flemish primitives – the details, the lace.” After a stint at the Centre des Arts Décoratifs in Brussels, she opened a tiny studio, taking interior design commissions and gradually building a reputation as a decorative artist. In 1994, a visit to the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York planted the idea of creating paper dresses. In 1998, her Papiers à la Mode exhibition of paper creations – ranging from the Renaissance period to Coco Chanel’s work – opened to huge critical

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cut-out couture

Bottom left and top right: Only when de Borchgrave’s creations are viewed closely in detail does the viewer realise that they are in fact constructed from paper. Top left: one of the exquisite dresses from the Fortuny exhibiton. Right: the Belgian designer’s homage to the classic rain mac

acclaim, showing in Paris, New York, Istanbul and beyond. Since then, de Borchgrave seems barely to have drawn breath. There have been exhibitions and private commissions worldwide, commercial projects (she has designed tableware for Target and ceramics for Gien) and historical collaborations – from working at Florence’s Palazzo Medici Riccardi to creating a paper replica of Jackie Kennedy’s wedding gown for Boston’s John F Kennedy Library and Museum. What was it, I wonder, that captivated her imagination in paper couture? “What interests me in a piece of clothing is how it moves in space. It’s not fashion, really, it’s sculpture. It’s also a way of breathing life back into a garment. A Ballets Russes costume is something a dancer has sweated in, suffered in, slippers that have hurt his feet. It’s fascinating,

but it’s sad. I like the idea of letting these things live again, giving them a present and a future.” A team of between 12 and 15 work with Isabelle in the studio daily, each bringing their own particular technical and artistic expertise to the process of making paper look like silk, velvet and organza. The famous Fortuny pleats proved particularly tricky: de Borchgrave’s eyes sparkle as she relates a challenge that she obviously relished. “At first we tried to do our own folding, then we sprayed it with water to get a softer effect, but the dress dissolved… Eventually we had to use machine pleating, then we had to fold the paper the other way to get that silk texture. It’s a kind of trickery, an illusion, what I do. We use colour and different effects to create that impression of cloth.”

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jean-Pierre Gabriel; cidb

Emma Beddington rencontre Isabelle de Borchgrave, une Belge qui sculpte brillamment le papier Affairés au-dessus de deux longues tables, des stylistes prennent des mesures, coupent et peignent. Deux femmes appliquent délicatement un motif à la peinture d’or sur une longue draperie. De la galerie du second étage, on découvre un alignement de mannequins en tenues d’apparat : crinolines aux pastels délicats, costumes populaires des Ballets Russes de Diaghilev, tuniques de pages en brocart de la Renaissance… le tout en papier. Au centre de toute cette activité, Isabelle de Borchgrave, qui dans pull-over marin fait beaucoup plus jeune que ses 66 ans. Après un passage par l’Ecole des Arts Décoratifs à Bruxelles, elle ouvre un premier studio d’architecture d’intérieur. Petit à petit, elle se bâtit une réputation d’artiste dans les arts appliqués. En 1994, après une visite à la rétrospective d’Yves Saint Laurent au Metropolitan Museum de New York, l’idée germe de créer des robes de papier. En 1998, elle inaugure Papiers à la Mode, des créations de la Renaissance à Coco Chanel – une exposition encensée par la critique à Paris, New York, Istanbul et ailleurs dans le monde. Aujourd’hui, elle prépare sa nouvelle exposition Un monde de papier : Mariano Fortuny. Un projet ambitieux, qui s’apparente plus à un voyage dans l’imaginaire du créateur fin de siècle qu’à un hommage au seul couturier. Aux côtés de 40 magnifiques répliques des robes de Fortuny, l’exposition reflète ses voyages et influences, aux senteurs et mélodies d’Afrique du Nord et d’Asie. De Borchgrave déborde d’enthousiasme : « c’est le côté fou et passionné de Fortuny qui m’intéresse. Cette exposition va être très divertissante et fera en même temps réfléchir. » Les visiteurs pourront toucher des échantillons de papier, prendre des pinceaux en mains et visionner des vidéos du studio à l’oeuvre. « Ce que je regarde dans un habit c’est sa façon de bouger dans l’espace : ce n’est pas vraiment du stylisme, mais plutôt de la sculpture, » dit-elle. C’est également une manière de réinjecter de la vie dans un vêtement. »

Fr Beau sur papier

Details, left and above: Isabelle de Borchgrave and her team are skilled at transforming simple white paper into elegant robes and costumes that appear to be made from fine silks and fabrics. The studio is a hive of industry as the designers recreate intricate details of fabric, texture and pattern on paper

Emma Beddington ontmoet Isabelle de Borchgrave, de briljante Belgische papierkunstenares Aan twee lange tafels zien we personen druk bezig met meten, snijden, schilderen. Vanuit de galerie op de tweede verdieping zien we rijen paspoppen aangekleed met fijne, pastelkleurige crinolines, kleurrijke folklorekleding van Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, brokaten Renaissance tunieken. Alles is gemaakt van…papier. Te midden van dit alles staat Isabelle de Borchgrave, die er veel jonger uitziet dan haar 66 levensjaren. Na een ervaring aan de School voor Decoratieve Kunsten in Brussel, opende ze haar eigen interieurontwerpstudio en verwierf langzamerhand naam als interieurartieste. In 1994 kreeg ze tijdens een bezoek aan de retrospectieve van Yves Saint Laurent in het New Yorkse Metropolitan Museum het idee om papieren jurken te creëren. Papiers à la Mode, haar tentoonstelling uit 1998 met papieren creaties geïnspireerd door de Renaissance tot Coco Chanel, werd door de critici uit Parijs, New York, Istanbul en ver daarbuiten bijzonder positief onthaald. Momenteel bereidt ze haar nieuwe tentoonstelling voor – Een wereld van papier: Mariano Fortuny. Een ambitieus project dat een onmiskenbaar eerbetoon vormt aan de fin de siècle couturier. Naast zo’n 40 replica’s van zijn jurken, biedt de expo een blik op zijn reizen en invloeden, Noord-Afrikaanse en Aziatische geur- en muziekaccenten, kilim tapijten, kimono’s en kussens. “Fortuny was altijd zo enthousiast en het is precies deze passie die me zozeer aanspreekt. Het gaat een bijzonder speelse, leuke expo worden die de mensen aan het denken zal zetten. “Ik ben geïnteresseerd in hoe een kledingstuk beweegt in de ruimte; het gaat niet echt om mode maar veeleer om beeldhouwen”, aldus de Borchgrave.

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The workshop itself, de Borchgrave says, is a huge inspiration. Designed by Antwerp architect Claire Bataille, it’s the culmination of a life’s work, a space where everything can be shifted and changed; a place where the outside, in the form of an ever-changing Brussels sky and the surrounding greenery, is ever present. “Light is very important here, and I also insisted that it should all be white. I wanted it to be like a blank sheet of paper.” It’s far from blank now: the studio is a fantastic, visual feast of fabric, pictures ripped from books, jam jars full of paintbrushes and pots of gouache. Even de Borchgrave’s paperwork is kept in handpainted folders. As of earlier this year, visitors can tour the studio a few times each month and see for themselves. Downstairs, as the exhibition takes shape, the Fortuny Delphos dresses, with

simple pleated columns, look startlingly modern. Would de Borchgrave, I wonder, be interested in experimenting with contemporary couture? Creating an Alexander McQueen, a Martin Margiela? “Of course, but not just to be fashionable. It has to be the right time, everything has to come together in my head. Every dress is a new challenge, but I’m never scared. The great thing about paper is that it takes your fear away: the worst that can happen is that you screw it up in a ball and throw it away.” And with that, she heads off back to create more paper worlds.

Fortuny by Isabelle de Borchgrave: A World of Paper until 15 March 2013, Tuesday-Sunday. Tickets €10, concessions €7.50. Workshop tours first and third Monday of each month. isabelledeborchgrave.com

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