A white couture gown, inspired by Charles Frederick Worth, stands in Post’s bedroom. A 1920s-style dress with lamé and kimono sleeves, much like the Callot Soeurs designs Post favored, resides in her dressing room.
In her Brussels studio, de Borchgrave directs a team of 18, each specializing in a part of a costume’s creation, whether building a wire structure, painting the ground colors, crafting jewelry or cutting trimmings. We spoke with her at Hillwood on the morning before the exhibit.
“I play with paper; it was my first medium as a child. It’s a very poor [inexpensive] material, so you can use a lot of it and cut it without fear, unlike a canvas. When I was very young my mother took me to museums. I was charmed by Manet’s ‘Le dejeuner sur l’herbe’ and the colors — the green, the white, the black spots. As a child all I could see was the grass, the flowers and the animals at the bottom of paintings. Little by little I could see the people, the costumes, the space. I discovered dresses through painting, and what I liked was the shape, the sculpture, the color, the details.
“[In 1994] I went to New York City to see the Yves Saint Laurent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was fascinated by it, and by my costume-designer friend’s studio overflowing with dresses and 18th-century shoes. When you’re an artist and you’re in New York, you’re more creative. I was overwhelmed; I knew I had to go back to Brussels and do something. At the time I was working for several [design] companies but wasn’t proud of what I did. One day on the steps of the museum I told my friend I would send her a ticket to come to Brussels. ‘We have to do a paper dress,’ I said. Our first one was an 18th-century costume. Within two years, there was a room filled” with fashion history from Elizabeth I to Coco Chanel.
“I don’t pretend to know a lot about history. My inspiration comes from period dresses, but they are subject to my poetic license. I’m really an artist; I sew with paint. I’m crazy about fabrics and bring them to life through paper.
“My new studio is filled with light and very contemporary; my whole team can work together there. It’s like a giant piece of white paper of 15,000 square feet. Every year we use 2.5 miles of paper. It’s interesting to see a period dress in that space. It’s a conversation between the eras.
“It gives me pleasure to share what I love. I’d like people who come to see my work to dream about the beauty, the color, the art. I want them to be inspired like I was as a child. You need to be humble in front of art. Everything has already been done, but everyone can [contribute] something new.”
Pret-a-Papier: The Exquisite Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave
On view at Hillwood Estate Museum & Gardens through Dec. 30.
4155 Linnean Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.