By Patsy Isenberg
Is fashion art? Designer Isaac Mizrahi said on the CBS News show Sunday Morning in 2016, ”Some fashion belongs in museums… some really doesn’t… sometimes you do go into a museum where they have a show of clothing, and it does feel like a store window…” Still, museums are exhibiting fashion more frequently these days, and the debate goes on.
In answer, the current exhibit at the Flint Institute of Arts is fashion, craft, history and, yes, definitely art.
The massive exhibit of life-sized recreations of fashion, Fashioning Art from Paper, is located in the Hodge and Henry galleries across from the FIA theater.
The Belgian artist who created them, Isabelle de Borchgrave, was born in 1946. According to the book accompanying the exhibit, available in the FIA gift shop, De Borchgrave began to study art after quitting regular school when she was only 14. Her parents supported it because she had such a strong inclination to draw, paint and create art from a very early age. She said, “They let me be who I am.”
De Borchgrave pursued her art education for many years, getting instruction in as many of the visual arts as she could. Eventually she became fascinated with painting on silk, and she loves color. This led to de Borchgrave’s use of hand-painted fabrics in her fashion design. Eventually she opened a studio of her own in Brussels to support herself. She also pursued an interest in interior design, beginning in her own home with her husband Werner, and took on commissioned design projects for others.
She had always enjoyed using trompe l’oeil, a painting technique to make a surface look like something else, an illusion. She says she sometimes painted fabrics to look like needlepoint or brocade, for example, when she began doing interior design. De Borchgrave uses this technique frequently in the pieces included in this collection at the FIA.
While on a visit to New York City in 1994, her Canadian friend, costume designer Rita Brown, took her to see a historic dress collection which captured her artistic imagination. A visit to The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gave her the idea to create her “own history of fashion—only in paper.” So de Borchgrave and Brown got together in Brussels and began to assemble their first collection, Papiers á la Mode.
There have been several collections since. The one currently at the FIA is the most recent and is on tour to seven museums in U.S. cities. The other six are Memphis, Palm Beach, Oklahoma City, Pittsburgh, Naples, and Atlanta.
The fashions de Borchgrave chose to recreate are from varied categories and span 500 years. The first one the viewer comes upon is a dress worn by Maria-Maddalena d’Austria. De Borchgrave recreated it from a 1622 portrait. The dress is so extravagantly detailed and vividly colored that it’s hard to realize de Borchgrave’s version is made from paper, acrylic, ink, metallic powder and adhesive.
Other fashions in the exhibit are equally ornate. The paper sculptures, as they are referred to on the exhibit labels and the brochure, range from historical dresses from the 15th century to American fashions from the 19th century and 1920s, fanciful costumes from the Ballet Russe, as well as several Asian kaftans and work by well-known designers of the past. There also are children’s fashions and one male fashion inspired from a 1459 portrait of the Duke of Florence. Finally, the show includes paper recreations of shoes, bags, and other accessories.
All are all on display at the FIA through Sept. 8.
While the art cannot be touched, which is especially tempting with these pieces, there’s a table piled with many of the papers used in the sculptures, and those visitors are invited to touch.
In a side room, a continuously running 13-minute film shows de Borchgrave and some of her assistants at work in her studio. It offers a look at more creations, all artfully presented to music.
There is no cost to the exhibit for admission to Genesee County residents, children 12 and under or anyone on “Huntington Free Saturdays.” On Saturday, Sept. 7 from 6-7 p.m. the museum will host “A Conversation with Isabelle de Borchgrave” between the artist and Frank Verpoorten, director of the Baker Museum of Naples, Florida. Cost for that event is $10 for members and $20 for non-members. Tickets for the Sept. 7 event are available only online at flint arts.ticketspice.com.
The FIA is located at 1120 E. Kearsley St. in Flint. More information is available at 810-234-1695 or at flintarts.org.
EVM Staff Writer Patsy Isenberg can be reached at email@example.com.