“It felt like being a painter standing in front of an empty canvas and I had to make this fierce brushstroke,” muses Joanna Chlust about how she set out to design her MA collection. The Antwerp graduate is referring to “horror vacui,” the urge to fill in the entire space of an artwork with detail. This art term would eventually become the perfect title for her final designs. “This master collection really explained my way of working to myself,” the designer clarifies. “I find the process of designing inspirational. It is about this organic way of working, I love to take a technique and then find my own way to work with it.”

The 32-year-old has just returned from an all-night bus journey from Prague. Joanna was invited to show her graduation collection at WE’RE NEXT; a collaboration between UMPRUM Prague and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp. At the moment, she is living in Hamburg, where she grew up and completed her first BA in fashion. “I had this rebellious attitude towards fashion,” Joanna admits. “I was never looking at magazines, I wanted to see the more artistic side of it.” Eventually, she acknowledged that it was a path she was destined to follow. “I always liked drawing and painting, so it took some time to think about it and say, ‘I want to do this.’” Yet, she wasn’t convinced. “I didn’t know whether to continue studying design or switch to illustration. But I felt that if I studied fashion, I wanted to make clothes. So I applied in Antwerp.”

“This might be the last time I have the freedom to express my ideas and to work in this creative way.”

Joanna arrived in Antwerp six months before the entrance exam. To fill the time she completed an internship at Pelican Avenue, the brand launched by Caroline Lerch. After completing her second BA, Joanna decided to take some time off. A year later, she felt ready to start the MA.

Slowly but surely, a collection started to take shape. Joanna couldn’t get her mind of an exhibition she saw by Geta Brătescu. The Romanian artist’s collage work and especially her artpiece The Rule of the Circle, The Rule of the Game kept churning in her head. “I loved how the colours were combined but also how the organic spirit mixed with a structured approach.” Somehow, a mental hospital came to mind and she delved deeper. “I found these images of people lying in a bed wearing suits. That became the starting point of this collection: outerwear that you can wear in bed,” she explains. Another influence was the work of photographer Deborah Turbeville. Images of people being grouped together but who seem disconnected from one another. “I gathered all those thoughts and pictures that gave me a sense of the atmosphere. When I look at Turbeville’s photographs, I think it is very clear that you have those isolated figures. This gave me the idea for a monochromatic colour scheme that I used in each look. I wanted to give each silhouette its own space, yet connect them to the collection,” she says. Her main goal was to dream up an atmosphere from which she would conjure her creations.

“It came to this point where I didn’t know whether to continue studying design or to switch to illustration.”

The result is a menswear collection of sharp-tailored suits, shirts, cloaks and dressing gowns with a feminine sensibility. There is an almost collage-inspired approach to them (undoubtedly an influence from Brătescu) with each garment consisting of various fabrics, patterns and techniques that Joanna moulded together. A colour palette of magenta and lilac in different shades and white runs through them. Stripes are interspersed with florals, an effect achieved through knife pleats, knitting and embroidery. Each silhouette is different, yet Joanna made them all look like they belonged together. One might wonder whether it would be something the modern day Oscar Wilde would go wild for.

The designer describes her collection as unisex. “Tailored suits are very important to me but I wanted to soften them and take the squareness away.” To achieve that she focused on pleats, a technique that is often considered an element of womenswear. “I wanted to see what happened if I made a suit that is completely pleated. What would happen if I used that technique to fix pleats on parts close to the body and let them hang free on other parts? This came back to an idea of having controlled and uncontrolled areas.” That concept was further explored through quilted and flowing fabrics.$

“It scares me that there is no more space for creativity.”

If you get a chance to look in Joanna’s design portfolio, you will find, among scraps of fabric and knitting, illustrations she made before physically putting the garments together. “That was a search for the colours,” she confesses. “I started painting on paper and from these came the idea to work with pleats, which went back to stripes. I start my collection without really knowing which direction it will go.” It is clear from the drawings that the collection was already formed unconsciously in her mind. Joanna even dyed the fabrics herself so that she could get the patterns and colours exactly as she envisioned them. She also collaborated with EE Exclusives to develop her own jacquard fabric, which resulted in a blend of striped and floral patterns.

Whatever you think Joanna’s graduation collection is about you are probably wrong. “This master collection really explained my way of working to myself,” the Antwerp graduate reveals. “It might be the last time I have the freedom to express my ideas and to design in this creative way.” All in all, Joanna loves working with and developing textiles, which is why she dreams of working for Marni. But when she reflects on the current state of the fashion industry, she feels uneasy about what this might mean for her. “It scares me that there is no more space for creativity. Especially when I see how much I enjoyed making these fabrics myself. There is no time for it anymore.”

Words Marijn Brok