To Sofie Nieuwborg, creating is always personal. Her final collection Mastering in Life takes the period of graduation itself as leitmotiv. “In my last year at the Academy in Antwerp I had the luxury of doing exactly what I wanted while awaiting the new to come. This collection was born out of the question what this period of transition could entail to me.” As the title suggests, she took her master collection as a final opportunity for introspection, being well aware of the temporal character of her conclusion. This never-ending search for the self is at the very heart of Sofie’s entire practice. If the act of creation is disconnected from the personality of the creator, she doesn’t see the need to go any further. “In every garment, pattern or drawing I put my own struggles. There is undoubtedly something  therapeutic about it.”

Sofie’s graduate collection is based on two qualities: ‘hyperstrongness’ and ‘hyperfragility’. Both are intrinsically bound to her character. The two terms are visually translated in an encounter between opposed styles: sportswear and Victorian-inspired clothing. As she developed the project, Sofie discovered a newfound respect for the former. “It has to be strong and multi-employable. If you buy a North Face coat you know it is made to last. This is a guarantee you don’t always get in fashion. Good quality sportswear demands a craftsmanship that is comparable to the Victorian cut.” One of the most outstanding pieces of the collection are the tulle garments filled with dried flowers. These ask for a different handling and introduce an entirely other mindset. Being conscious of the differences between materials and textures is important to Sofie. “Each material demands another rhythm. Those sportswear garments don’t ask for much care, while the slightest movement could damage the tulle.” The confrontation leads to outfits that could be given numerous names such as ‘sporty tulle’ or ‘Victorian leisure wear’. Exemplary for Sofie’s approach is the orange polyester corset, including zippers and black cord stoppers, on a peach tulle blouse with puffy sleeves and collar, paired with black trousers. The recurrent presence of dried flowers in the garments provoke a reflection on time, duration and memory. “In these flowers the natural process of decay is still going on. I love that.” In one blouse she stitched a collection of seemingly banal though, for her, meaningful objects. It is her way of giving the memories associated with these small things a place while simultaneously leaving them behind. This gesture is also an invitation. It enables others to create new stories with the stuff she left behind. “I know the objects cannot have the same meaning for someone else but that’s okay. It is a tension I find intriguing.”

The confrontation of opposite storylines makes up Sofie’s identity as a fashion designer. Inspired by the David Lynch movie Mulholland Drive, she investigates different concepts but, much like the director, never gives a concluding answer. “It is about choosing your themes without being held accountable for a total or final explanation.” In Mastering in Life Sofie started fully embracing the equivocal aspect of her creative process. This ‘method’ of investigation, asking questions without accepting resolved answers, is already prevalent in her bachelor collection The Future is Female. “Talk about feminism is omnipresent. Supported in pop culture by artists like Beyoncé, you can’t hide from it. It is everywhere. Faced with these discussions, I wanted to think about my own definition of the female.” Questioning what femininity meant to her, Sofie started an extensive research that led her to a wide range of themes, from Victorian sexuality and the organic sculptures of Barbara Hepworth to graphic references inspired by advertisement and the works of Ana Mendieta or Erwin Wurm. She doesn’t regard the collection as a final perspective but as an enrichment of her knowledge.

While The Future is Female collection is grand and playful, her graduate collection leaves a more serene impression. “At the graduation someone walked up to me and said: ‘This is the girl, this is the woman,’ referring respectively to my bachelor and master collection. This was a very enlightening remark. Letting go of my direct involvement with the issue of femininity, seemed to have brought me closer to what it means to me.” This serenity doesn’t necessarily mean a loss of complexity. Sofie needs her women to be ambiguous and open to different interpretations. This attitude emanates from her designs. Where other designers may be clear and direct about their intentions, often at the risk of losing nuance, Sofie embraces and confronts the unresolved.

While going in many different directions at once, it is important for her to keep a firm hold of her free spirit. It is in her drawing and painting practice that she creates an open space where her freedom can flourish. As for Sofie fashion always comes with great responsibility, her art practice allows herself to experiment with her imagination. “In fashion you always have to be aware of the consequences of what you are doing and of the references you are making. The ethical part, and all the thoughtfulness that is involved in it, is quite important to me. However, it can easily become quite suffocating. My visual work allows me to be more daring, to play with colours and forms in a way I wouldn’t immediately do in my fashion work.” This tendency to go beyond fashion is noticeable in her inspiration. She mostly looks at visual artists as a source of illumination. She has for example great liking for the textile artist Franz Erhard Walter. Working outside the fashion industry allowed him a truly free approach to clothing and textile in general. This way he redefined the concept of vestments as a way to bring people together.

It is obvious that Sofie’s work within fashion and her art practice stand in a fruitful relation. This is most evident in the atypical way she constructs her outfits. Through Photoshop she brings together a wide array of her drawings, graphic patterns, materials and textures. It allows her to transmit the creative freedom she found in her visual work into her garments. “It is a very easy way to quickly build up an atmosphere. I can shape and design the images the way I like and get an idea of what works or not. At school we learned a very classical way to work. It was a matter of  materializing your well prepared sketchings in the exact same way. But for me, reality never coincided with what I had put on paper. The blue of the fabric was never the blue I had in mind. It didn’t really work for me. In my third year I decided to try a different approach. I studied my materials first, took pictures of them and started to manipulate them in Photoshop.” It is striking how this method made it possible for her to close the gap between her designs and silhouettes without abolishing the uniqueness of both.

Concerning future plans, Sofie is thinking about an internship at a major fashion house. “Fashion can be quite an elite and closed-off affair and I sometimes wonder if I really want to get involved. Still, once out of a school context the inevitable questions arise about the business aspect of fashion. How am I going to sell my clothes? I like to see firsthand how fashion brands deal with the daily hassle of being a company before I come to a conclusion.” Her search for alternative routes within the circuit already got her to design a look for Post-Couture Collective, a young fashion label concerned with sustainable and affordable clothing, based on open-source principles and 21st-century production-technologies. However, in the face of upcoming technologies and innovation, Sofie emphasizes the lasting importance of craftsmanship and artistry. Maintaining the balance between both is crucial to her. “Everything passes through my hands and I think this is quite decisive. It makes a difference, even for the most basic elements, like the patterns. I have been drawing bust darts the same for years and I believe it shows. Like a face that you always draw in the same manner, my hand knows no other way to go. It is something of a signature and helps to develop an image which is wholly personal.” As these remarks bring to light one last time, Sofie’s way of doing fashion equals a relentless search for what is self. This quest never ends in stale stereotypes though. It is a way of investigating possibilities.

Words Rosanne Claes

Images Victor Pattyn
Images final row Max Meyer