Once upon a time we did everything to our clothing by hand. We patched, mended and altered, took in and let out. Sewing by hand is something Swedish fashion designer Bea Szenfeld has adopted, making unique clothes out of paper. Her creations have been worn by global stars such as Madonna and Lady Gaga. The garments are non-washable, handmade and unique – only one of each exists. The collections take several years to create.
“I don’t think the world can handle paper collections any more often than that,” she says with a smile.
Her studio in Stockholm is packed full of beautiful objects that inspire the collages she often uses in her creative process. Everything is done by hand, a process that has to be allowed to take the time it takes.
“If someone asks what I did last summer, the answer is usually that I spent it cutting 10,000 or so paper sequins,” Szenfeld says.
She sketches, cuts and drapes, but above all she delights in the details, the fuss, the time spent.
“I never ever work at a computer,” she says. “Everything’s done by hand. The actual handiwork is fundamental and crucial to everything I do. The creativity is in the hands.”
The world has seen fashion made of everything from metal to vegetables, and nowadays we weave and stitch clothing fabrics from all kinds of plant fibres and synthetic materials. “There’s a big difference between, say, paper and fabric,” Szenfeld says. “The fibres’ resistance to water, their fragility, extremely different expressions – they are after all completely different materials.”
Szenfeld has also experimented with different materials, and the attraction of paper is that the difficult material challenges her needlework.
“Paper is so heavy,” Szenfeld says. “A creation can weigh 45 kilos. So I attach collars made out of foam rubber – fabric isn’t strong enough. Other than that it’s just paper, cobbler’s thread and a few glass beads.”
She says she likes clothes and fashion, but she has never felt at home in the fashion industry. To be able to create, she needs her own set of rules, not micromanagement and high profit requirements. She is called a fashion designer because when she creates for a body, she creates beauty. Although Szenfeld eschews trends, she is actually part of a major contemporary movement, working manually, choosing organic, following her heart.
“In this latest collection, Haute Papier, I’ve scaled down so I only work with paper that’s 100 percent organic and recycled,” she says. “It’s white and I use two different thicknesses: a 250-gram paperboard and an 80-gram paper sheet.”
“There’s so much amazing paper to work with!” she says. “It’s so hard to choose.”
Artist Wang Lei works in China, and like Szenfeld he works with recycled material – but in his case it’s toilet tissue and book pages. He literally knits texts from a Chinese-English dictionary into models of imperial robes from the Qing dynasty.“No one questions a dictionary,” he says. “We always refer to it as infallible.” For him, an emperor’s new gown remade out of paper is about more than just fashion – it’s an artistic expression.
The mistress of paper is the internationally renowned Isabelle de Borchgrave, whose creations include clothing details for fashion designer John Galliano when he was chief designer for French fashion house Christian Dior. It is said that she is unique, and she has been compared to a virtuoso playing her instrument. The preface to the monograph Paper Illusions: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave states: “With a sheet of paper (she always starts with one sheet, paints and brushes) she can create the most stunning dresses, the finest suits, or simply a necklace of white roses.”
De Borchgrave is Belgian and worked as a freelance artist in the 1970s. Twenty years later she started dreaming of fashion and paper. Her first collection consisted of a fashion journey across 300 years, Papiers à la Mode, from Elizabeth i to Coco Chanel.
“In 1994, I visited the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I wanted to possess all the costumes I saw, but I’m not a stylist, I don’t know how to create them as clothes but I know how to create them as sculpture.”
De Borchgrave paints the clothes between folds and pleats, using pen and brush. For one assignment she was asked to recreate Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress in paper for an American museum. “The silk was dead – you could no longer touch it,” she says. “It was preserved like a relic. The original is dead, but the paper version breathes life back into the dress.”
She also creates haute couture to order, including a magic dress called Robe Antelope – a minimalist creation made of wallpaper that looks as if any French fashion house could have designed it. Her creations become exhibitions that tour the globe. Prestigious museums have her works in their collections, and private collectors put a premium on her creations.
TEXT: PETRA DOKKEN PHOTO: JOEL RHODIN/MINK MGMT., OTF