You couldn’t have missed them: golden polkadots and pink Matisse-like cut-outs embroidered on bell-sleeve tunics and flared trousers. The big and brightly coloured silhouettes Henriëtte Tilanus and her team sent down the catwalk at Central Saint Martins’ MA show grasped everyone’s attention.
It is a surprise then to meet the girl behind this explosion of colour. The polkadots are still there, but they’re all black this time. There is only one pop of colour in her outfit, the matte red lips she nervously bites as she shies away from the microphone I impolitely push in her face. But it didn’t take long to find that extravagant side we all saw in Brewer Street.
After doing a BA in Fashion at ArtEZ, the Academy of Art in Arnhem (The Netherlands), Henriëtte knew she wanted to continue in textiles: “For my final collection, I instinctively made all the fabrics myself and the silhouettes were quite simple, so I realized I have a big love for textiles.” Luckily, she won the G-Star RAW Talent Award at Amsterdam Fashion Week. The prizemoney gave her the opportunity to study textiles at Central Saint Martins.
From the beginning, Henriëtte was sure her designs would involve a lot of texture. “I was browsing in Liberty, looking for interesting fabrics. Even though I saw some beautiful prints, they were all digital and flat. I wanted to do something that seems to grow out of your body, like a garden. Something that seems alive.” Inspired by the way advertisements in the subway look after they’ve been shredded and torn apart, Henriëtte decided to work with paper to get that sense of volume.
She developed a technique where she could print paper on stretch fabric. By pulling the fabric underneath, the paper on top starts tearing, like flaked wallpaper or the bark of a birch tree. Another technique was to simply hold the fabric under water until the colour washed away. All of her samples look luxurious, yet faded and damaged.
As she explains these techniques, the blueberry tea-label she has been fumbling with since the start of the interview is beginning to look like a microscopic sample of her work. There is a need of destruction in her design process. When I notice it out loud she turns as red as her lips, “a sensitive destruction, I guess,” she adds timidly.
Above all, Henriëtte is looking to play with different techniques, to experiment. Henriëtte says that this is why she loves to work in textiles: the freedom it offers. Her BA in Fashion had her constantly worrying: “Will these trousers fit?” “Will the zipper be long enough?” But as a textiles designer, she feels more like an artist in front of a white canvas. There are no limits to her creativity.
She admits it sounds cliché, but for her creating is a way to escape daily life: “In life you have to constantly follow the rules and fill out the forms, and write your emails. The studio is the most wonderful playground there is.”
Deadlines are her only restraint: “Time is always the biggest enemy for me.” But even here, creativity is the answer. “My tutor really taught us to do things efficiently. Be smart. Be intelligent. There’s always a solution. Even if sometimes the solution was to buy new fabric and do it again.”
There is a playful and almost child-like enthusiasm in the way she approaches her projects. When she was asked to design a print for the classic TOD loafer – “a real hockey-mom shoe” – she immediately knew what to do. The supple leather inspired her to work around body paint: Henriëtte added multiple layers of black and white paint to the shoe, then scratched them away using forks and Q-Tips. “It’s not a big idea, you can already find it in those messages written on a dirty car, or a damp window.” But with these small ideas, Henriëtte can experiment for hours. “I can fill a hundred new ideas with this simple starting point, I love that.”
Layering is a common motif in her work. Not only does it provide that multi-dimensional aspect she looks for, it’s also an efficient method for endless experimentation. If a colour isn’t right, she’ll usually add another layer on top; or if she doesn’t like the motive, she can try scratching away parts of it, much like an expressionist painter.
Henriëtte might work like an artist, but fashion images will usually be her starting point. For one project, she looked at an old picture of three kids in Dutch costume. The textiles in the picture were made with a lot of different techniques, tie-dye, shibori, embroideries… which inspired her to try them.
For her final collection she looked at Dutch history as well. “I don’t actively go looking for Dutch tradition, but when I’m here in London (as the only Dutch person) I loved the idea of finding inspiration in where I come from. You’ll often hear – Oh Dutch design is so minimal – but if you go further back in time, you’ll find the most eclectic and colourful prints.”
After a more “scholastic” education in Arnhem, the freedom she got at CSM was a radical change. Except for a weekly meeting with her tutor Fleet Bigwood, there were no technical classes and she could fill in her projects as she liked. Henriëtte soon adapted to her new independence and started broadening her techniques with DIY-manuals in the library or even on YouTube: “you can just google it and an old lady in the US will tell you how to felt.”
What she really appreciates about her textiles tutor and Fabio Piras, the course leader, is their ability to push her beyond her first instincts. “Fleet was really helpful for picking something out of your pile of silly little things and saying this is good, you have to develop this and make it bigger.” Her MA collection still felt like her, but it is bigger than what she’d normally do. “Fabio would often tell me to stop being so tasteful and safe. He was right.”
Henriëtte loved working with her team, and asked to have them mentioned, as she is very grateful to have had their help. Not only did they offer incredible technical (and mental) assistance, it was also a great preparation to working in the industry. “When you’re working in a team, you have to compromise. I like this concrete side to it, I feel ready to start working in a company.” Provided that the company will let her fool around with Q-tips and forks, we know Henriëtte will fit right in.
Words by Aya Noël, all images courtesy of Henriëtte Tilanus