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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

heres a surface calm in Isabelle de Borchgraves 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, its 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 Diaghilevs 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.

In the middle of it all is de Borchgrave herself, a busy, diminutive figure in a navy fishermans 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: its just days before the opening of her new exhibition, and theres 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-sicle couturier than a sensory journey through his imagination. As well as around 40 extraordinary replicas of Fortunys 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 Borchgraves Brussels workshop is now open for tours by appointment. Right: a beautiful hand-made dress from the designers forthcoming Mariano Fortuny exhibition Previous page: Isabelle de Borchgrave in her studio

as kilims, kimonos and cushions. Theres even a tiny caf serving oriental ptisseries and a yurt where younger visitors can design their own creations. Its 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. Its 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: Lets go home and make a dress or I could do that. Thats 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 Dcoratifs 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 la Mode exhibition of paper creations ranging from the Renaissance period to Coco Chanels work opened to huge critical

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cut-out couture

Bottom left and top right: Only when de Borchgraves 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 designers 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 Florences Palazzo Medici Riccardi to creating a paper replica of Jackie Kennedys wedding gown for Bostons 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. Its not fashion, really, its sculpture. Its 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. Its fascinating,

but its 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 Borchgraves 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. Its 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 Affairs au-dessus de deux longues tables, des stylistes prennent des mesures, coupent et peignent. Deux femmes appliquent dlicatement un motif la peinture dor sur une longue draperie. De la galerie du second tage, on dcouvre un alignement de mannequins en tenues dapparat : crinolines aux pastels dlicats, costumes populaires des Ballets Russes de Diaghilev, tuniques de pages en brocart de la Renaissance le tout en papier. Au centre de toute cette activit, Isabelle de Borchgrave, qui dans pull-over marin fait beaucoup plus jeune que ses 66 ans. Aprs un passage par lEcole des Arts Dcoratifs Bruxelles, elle ouvre un premier studio darchitecture dintrieur. Petit petit, elle se btit une rputation dartiste dans les arts appliqus. En 1994, aprs une visite la rtrospective dYves Saint Laurent au Metropolitan Museum de New York, lide germe de crer des robes de papier. En 1998, elle inaugure Papiers la Mode, des crations de la Renaissance Coco Chanel une exposition encense par la critique Paris, New York, Istanbul et ailleurs dans le monde. Aujourdhui, elle prpare sa nouvelle exposition Un monde de papier : Mariano Fortuny. Un projet ambitieux, qui sapparente plus un voyage dans limaginaire du crateur fin de sicle qu un hommage au seul couturier. Aux cts de 40 magnifiques rpliques des robes de Fortuny, lexposition reflte ses voyages et influences, aux senteurs et mlodies dAfrique du Nord et dAsie. De Borchgrave dborde denthousiasme : cest le ct fou et passionn de Fortuny qui mintresse. Cette exposition va tre trs divertissante et fera en mme temps rflchir. Les visiteurs pourront toucher des chantillons de papier, prendre des pinceaux en mains et visionner des vidos du studio loeuvre. Ce que je regarde dans un habit cest sa faon de bouger dans lespace : ce nest pas vraiment du stylisme, mais plutt de la sculpture, dit-elle. Cest galement une manire de rinjecter de la vie dans un vtement.

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 Diaghilevs Ballets Russes, brokaten Renaissance tunieken. Alles is gemaakt vanpapier. 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 creren. Papiers la Mode, haar tentoonstelling uit 1998 met papieren creaties genspireerd 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 sicle couturier. Naast zon 40 replicas van zijn jurken, biedt de expo een blik op zijn reizen en invloeden, Noord-Afrikaanse en Aziatische geur- en muziekaccenten, kilim tapijten, kimonos 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 genteresseerd in hoe een kledingstuk beweegt in de ruimte; het gaat niet echt om mode maar veeleer om beeldhouwen, aldus de Borchgrave.

NL papiergodin

The workshop itself, de Borchgrave says, is a huge inspiration. Designed by Antwerp architect Claire Bataille, its the culmination of a lifes 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. Its 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 Borchgraves 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 Im 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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