Isabelle de Borchgrave and Mariano Fortuny

You don’t think you’re interested in paper dresses, do you? Well I’m going to explain to you why you are.

Belgian paper artist Isabelle de Borchgrave has just opened a new exhibition: A World of Paper: Mariano Fortuny by Isabelle de Borchgrave. Until a couple of months ago, I knew virtually nothing about Fortuny and absolutely nothing about Isabelle but then I got the chance to go and look round her studio and oh god, you absolutely must go.

First, there’s the place. The exhibition is taking place in her studio. Hidden behind a nondescript garage door in an Ixelles back street, it’s an extraordinary modern build by Antwerp architect Claire Bataille: completely white, flooded with light, full of arches and doorways unexpected perspectives, often on the gorgeous gardens.

There are big, crackling wood fires in every room, soft shafts of sunlight, an extraordinary sense of space… It’s the kind of place about which you can nourish an obsessive and unhealthy fantasy, in which you imagine padding around your fantasy studio home in Toast cashmere separates and sitting on the beautiful pale Wegner wishbone chairs drinking green tea, not that I would know anything about that.

Then there’s Isabelle, who is funny and irreverent and completely consumed with passion for what she does: she’s never wanted to do anything but draw and paint (she used to cover her bedroom walls with paintings until there wasn’t an inch left, and her mother would paint over it all and let her start again). After starting her career as a decorative artist and interior designer, she went to an Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at the Met in New York in 1994, and came up with the idea of rendering fashion – dresses, costumes – in paper. Four years later “Papiers à la Mode” – her joyful, colourful, touching, paper review of 500 years of fashion – came out to huge success and she’s been making paper dresses ever since: the Medicis, the Ballets Russes, even a replica of Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress for the Kennedy Memorial Library.

This is her, on the right, talking about some fabric.

There’s a sort of magic about what she does: the dresses are all made out of the most ordinary white paper (she gets a 4.5 kilometre roll of the stuff delivered every year), but the transformation is so intricate, so cleverly rendered, that your eye can be entirely fooled into thinking it’s really silk, really velvet, really lace.

(This is one of those times when I really wish my photos weren’t so shit.)

I loved this sort of Elizabethan lace collar thing

The atelier, which you can visit on the first and third Monday of every month:

I loved this box of brushes:

And even got filing envy, a rarity:

Finally, there’s the exhibition, which opens today. Isabelle first visited Mariano Fortuny’s palazzo in Venice when she was 17 and she’s been fascinated by the fin de siècle couturier ever since. Fortuny was an autodidact, a painter, photographer, inventer, but above all, an enthusiast. He’s famous for his pleats – the famous Delphos gown –  and there are plenty of those here, but it’s more a whole body embrace of everything he stood for: his insatiable curiosity, his tireless travels, his passions. The exhibition is intended as a sensual journey – there is music, scent, and they’ve even installed a sweet tiny café towards the end where you can eat astonishingly delicious small snacks (flaky girolles quiche, wicked cheese straws with a sort of truffle dip and a warm, soft chocolate cake I wanted to place my face in forever when I went yesterday). I’m not supposed to be talking about the food, am I? Listen, it’s gorgeous, from the mock up of Fortuny’s studio at the start, to the mock up of Isabelle’s at the end (complete with giant paper Pritt Sticks and pencils). It’s a feast for the eyes (and belly), passing through Proust, a Moroccan souk and wunderkammer of curiosities and much much more. There’s a yurt in the courtyard that will be hosting children’s hands-on workshops on weekends and Wednesday afternoons, and a gift shop that is going to be absolutely bloody brilliant for Christmas presents (Filigranes are managing a corner, filled with art books and there are handpainted lever arch files that filled me with acquisitive lust). I honestly can’t think of many more cheering things to do on a grey, wintry Brussels afternoon than to go and immerse yourself in her gorgeous papery world.

A World of Paper: Mariano Fortuny by Isabelle de Borchgrave until 15th March 2013

Isabelle de Borchgrave

73A Chaussée de Vleurgat

Tickets €10, concenssions €7,50. Guided tours available Saturday and Sunday, 11:00 and 15:00.

(Look out for the paper Casimir the dog, who has appeared in every one of Isabelle’s exhibitions. )

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