You can imagine Henriette Tilanus’ creations being all the rage in Vienna’s wealthy bohemian circle at the turn of the 20th century. Just as Secessionist painter Gustav Klimt’s reform dresses blurred the lines between art and craft, it’s difficult to define the Central Saint Martins graduate’s collection as ‘fashion’ or ‘art’ – like from a disassociating dream state, it exists somewhere between the two. Using a profoundly delicate process fusing paper, glue and paint, for her final MA collection Henriette constructed vivid, free form dresses influenced by her love of gardens and artists like Henri Matisse. “It’s like making a walking painting,” she says of her process. The result is the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk, a ‘universal artwork’, and the stuff of dreams.
Tempe Nakiska: I read that you studied at the Academy of Art in Holland, is that where you originally discovered your love of textiles and print?
Henriette Tilanus: Yes, exactly. The school is called ArtEZ and is in Arnhem, a city in the east of Holland. You can’t really choose a pathway there, you just do fashion design for four years and you learn everything about the whole industry. I’ve never been very good at making the perfect, wonderfully designed jacket or something, so for my final collection there I focused on making the textiles and realised that it was what I really loved to do. So I made the silhouettes very simple and focused on making the textiles myself, and then chose to do textiles on my MA [at Central Saint Martins] in London.
Tempe: The silhouettes in your final MA collection feel almost like a canvas, is that how you approach them?
Henriette: Somehow I just love to work like that, it’s like making a walking painting... not that you should feel like that when you wear it, but that’s how I like to view it. I got help from a really nice team of first year MA students who helped me make the garments, so it was a really nice co-operation.
Tempe: Is it a very difficult process because you used a lot of paper, right? Was it very involved?
Henriette: It was a long process, I did lots of experiments with different kinds of fabric bases and paper and glue. I screenprinted with special textile glue, and then I heated pressed tissue paper on it and sometimes dyed it, I loved to just play around. Sewing the fabrics was doable because it’s really thin paper with fabric in-between. But it was also experimenting and figuring out what types of silhouettes you could make with paper fabric. It was a good journey.
Tempe: Where did the idea of using paper come from?
Henriette: In the London Tube you see all these ripped posters from the process of changing them over, and it made me think of using paper. In my rst year I went to a lot of shops and nice fabric sellers for inspiration and always thought they were nice but very flat, and I wanted to do something 3D, something textural, like it’s growing out of the fabric. Then I started stitching paper on fabric and it was very weird, it looked very thick and heavy, so later on I went thinner and worked out how I could glue it, there’s many steps and you have to develop it. I just wanted to make textiles seem alive, like it’s a garden.
Tempe: That really comes across, it feels very much alive and has so many layers, like a painting. Are there specific painters who have been an influence?
Henriette: I’ve always loved Matisse, there are many painters I like. I looked at Gustav Klimt, particularly the ‘reform’ dress he made for his wife Emilie Flöge, there are a couple of wonderful images he made of her in their garden and I used those pictures a lot.
Tempe: You mention a garden as a recurring motif, did you have a garden you played in a lot growing up?
Henriette: I grew up in a city in the east of Holland and the nature there is really nice. My parents do have a nice garden, it’s not exceptionally amazing, so I can’t say I always grew up in gardens [laughs]. But I just like the idea of a garden as a nice peaceful place and I really like being in parks and gardens. When I was in New York recently I missed having a personal park, because there’s only really Central Park. It’s just a feeling, it’s a place I always want to go.
Tempe: When you were a child were you interested in fashion at all, or art?
Henriette: Not really, I think I was dressing up a lot and making worlds, making things. Fashion was just a far away thing I didn’t realise was there. Sometimes you hear designers say that they started drawing women in nice dresses from the first day they could draw, I never had that. But I think I always liked making things look nice. In the end I realised that fashion was a direction where you could combine so many things, because ne art is too broad for me. With fashion you can create worlds but there’s also a focus to it because it has to be wearable. I love that balance. But I realised it quite late, when I was sixteen or seventeen.
Tempe: Now you’ve finished your final collection you are back in Holland, after living in London and then New York, how are you finding being back home?
Henriette: It’s like a little village compared to being in New York and London. I have to say I love it. But I believe you always have to go for adventures and put yourself out of your comfort zone. I love London, you feel like everything is happening there and the people are so characterful. It’s not even that pretty and it’s expensive and challenging, but it’s wonderful.
Tempe: I know what you mean about London, moving here I definitely felt that too.
Henriette: Yes, if you come from a smaller town it’s a very different, amazing experience.
Tempe: Living in London, did you often find yourself inspired by the people around you?
Henriette: Yes, very much. I didn’t have this in New York to be honest, but in London there are so many characters. You see grandmas who are still punks, and you see the most wonderful quirky interesting people with green hair and everyone is walking through each other, mixed together.
Tempe: What do you think you’ll do now? What’re your plans?
Henriette: After studying there was quite a rollercoaster of things happening, and in the further future I’d love to have my own studio somewhere and work for different people. Now I just want to gain more experience, that’s the main thing. That’s why I went to New York and I did a project for Dries Van Noten, and I hope to go back there too.
Tempe: You worked at Dries?
Henriette: Before going to New York I was there for two weeks because they needed someone to do patchwork, his studio is in a warehouse in Antwerp which is a very quiet place, but being there is like coming into a bath of taste, which is a bit overwhelming. I think his style is so tasteful and artistic, he’s really good.
Tempe: And Dries is very inspired by nature and gardens as well.
Henriette: Yes, this is true. He takes his flowers from his own garden to his studio.
Tempe: So ultimately you want to have your own studio where you can create textiles for different people?
Henriette: It’s difficult to know exactly what you want but I’d love to have a studio with a screenprint room and – this is in the future – but also I’d love to do things for interior or styling or movies. Having my own brand and really producing things, I’ve realised how much production there is and you have to be such an amazing organiser to make your own clothes and sell them. I’m really happy I chose a bit of specialisation. I’d also love to teach in an art school when I’m an old lady.
Tempe: I love the idea of working on film sets, there’s so many different options having specialised in textiles.
Henriette: Exactly, some teachers see it as quite specific, but I see it as being very broad in terms of the different areas you can work in.
Tempe: Yeah, I think that as you go on one thing will lead onto another. You might start out in fashion and then you might end up designing sets or wallpapers or anything.
Henriette: You’re just saying my whole dream future [laughs].