Papiers a la Mode–Isabelle de Borchgrave’s Recycled Rags

by Sally Steele

Isabelle de Borchgrave Atelier-2010©Patricia-Mathieu


I’m a librarian, I love books and paper, and lament the loss to most readers of those moments of fluttering, flipping paper immersion…


design by Isabelle de Borchgrave


Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave constructs, shapes, and paints long rolls of simple rag paper into creations which she calls, “Papiers a la Mode.” The intricacy and fantasy stop even the most jaded eye from wandering. How can the simplicity of rag paper be translated into something so sublime, and further, something that can actually be worn?


Isabelle de Borchgrave, nouvel atelier 2015-©Patricia Mathieu


The story goes “…in a little house in Sablon, which Isabelle turned into a studio, she gave drawing classes to her friends’ children and other neighbourhood children and, thus, was free to think about her own designs. It was the seventies and, so, La Tour de Bébelle was set up there. Processions of hand-painted clothes, rolls of fabrics strewn about, pigments, brushes, gouaches, canvasses, pastels and travel journals. Everything alongside each other in a friendly, colourful and modern setting. Journeys followed, one after another, all over the world. Isabelle discovered different cultures and began to see the world in a new light.”



Isabelle de Borchave’s walk through the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1994 was an inspiration. Capturing the beauty of costumes from paintings of masters Van Dyk and Bronzino molded her work, now shown at museums worldwide, into paper costumes.


Jackie Kennedy wedding dress, by Ann Lowe




“I had no idea that I would do so many dresses. After I made one, I started a second and then a third. It is crazy and you never stop.”








All papier design of Jackie Kennedy wedding dress, by Isabelle de Borchgrave





“I just paint it because you have to be very quick. Otherwise what you have in your head passes by your heart.” On scissors, “No. Pas de scissor. Terrible, the scissors.”






Isabelle de Borchrgrave’s current work is divided into 4 collections: Papiers à la Mode, Mariano Fortuny, I Medici,  Ballets Russes, and each piece is based on milestones in the history of costume.


Isabelle de Borchgrave, homage, Mariano Fortuny










Isabelle de Borchrgrave, homage, Ballets Russes












de Borchgrave is a devotee of Les Nabis. Les Nabis, (Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Aristide Maillol, Paul Serusier, Felix Vallotton, and Jean-Edouard Vuillard), a group of avant-garde artists from late 19thcentury France based in Paris, worked in a variety of media, using oils on both canvas and cardboard, distemper on canvas and wall decoration, and also created posters, prints, book illustration, textiles and furniture. From the cutting edge of modern art during their early period, their subject matter was representational and symbolist, with elements of design oriented along the lines of Japanese woodblock and art Art Nouveau prints. After the turn of the century, as modern art moved toward abstraction, expressionism, and cubism Les Nabis were viewed as conservative, and were among the last group of artists to design along the artistic lineages of the Impressionists, pursuing these ends almost into the mid-20th century. In their later years, Les Nabis abandoned their earlier interests in the decorative and applied arts.


Woman under a Lantern, 1896 – Edouard (Jean-Edouard) Vuillard


Melding art and daily life, even if that life is one of great privilege seems to me to be a most gracious way of recycling. Rag paper is not made from wood pulp, much of it comes from remnants of fabric leftover from garment manufacturing.



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