Representing the creative future

The 2020 Hyères winner Tom Van Der Borght on probing the digital

The Hyères festival winner takes us in his studio and shares his views on the fashion industry during the pandemic

Belgian designer and Hyères winner Tom Van der Borght describes his work as a story, a book of battles between “hope and darkness” where a kaleidoscope of colour and identities prevail. “It is a reflection of myself, a self-portrait, in which I hope others can find recognition,” Van der Borght tells me. His vibrant unapologetic creations arise through a self-described process of “anti-editing”, an accumulation of assortments intended to challenge society’s ingrained perception of normality. Adhering to his art school roots, it is not commercial demand that Van der Borght seeks with his acid-hued designs, instead, his focus is on developing a diverse future for his label.

Graduating from Stedelijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten Sint Niklaas in 2012, Van Der Borght came to prominence last October when he won the Première Vision Grand Prix at the 35th international Hyères Festival. His designs were compelling to Jonathan Anderson, President of the Jury, who praised Van der Borght’s ability to create a “new type of form, new type of shape, new type of commitment to a silhouette.” He founded his eponymous label the following year, utilising unconventional materials in his work, spawning creations from the wonderlands in his mind.

Van der Borght Autumn/Winter 2021 collection entitled “7 ways to be TVDB” was developed on his initial Hyères contribution, featuring tailored two-piece suits emblazoned with comic-style illustrations, macramé garments, and faux. The mosaic of sequins, tinsel, and beads was fused with the alternative use of cable ties and cords, probing the “concepts of normality, contemporary rituals and queer,” as Van der Borght suggests.

Despite fashion momentarily transitioning into the virtual – somewhat threatening the tactility of garments from designers like Tom Van der Borght –  he does not fear this Orwellian age, viewing this as an opportunity for designers to elucidate the many facets of a singular garment. “I think standing still is the biggest threat to mankind, to the fashion system,” Van der Borght continues, “fashion can now be more performative, it is seen in more depth.” Surrendering to the grey doesn’t seem likely for Van der Borght, who envisions a radiant future for his brand, where he continues to celebrate individuality and raise the questions many fear to approach.

Tom Van Der Borght in his studio

“To me, a piece is finished when I get the feeling that nothing else can, or should be added. In that sense, you could describe my approach as anti-editing.” – Tom Van Der Borght

What is the inspiration behind your work?

I always hope people discover their own stories in my work. Everything that I want to say is visualised. The collection is part of a bigger artistic research where I explore concepts like normativity, contemporary rituals, queer topics, and non-conformism. To make a comment on these topics, I can only tell my own story. My own story is a battle between hope and darkness. It is a reflection of myself, a super personal self-portrait, which I hope others can recognise. My recent collection is like images of cocoons, contemplative spaces where there is time to heal, think and evolve. To me, they are like survival gear and simultaneously, a visual diary. Reminders to myself, about things I should never forget.

The Tom Van Der Borght designs are like an eruption of colour, a mosaic of psychedelic prints, sequins, and fur, how do you know when creation is finished?

I have always loved the concept of accumulation. I like it when there is an overload of information. To me, a piece is finished when I get the feeling that nothing else can, or should be added. In that sense, you could describe my approach as anti-editing.

“Belgian artists and designers are celebrated for their individuality and non-conformist vision, the essence of this comes from our bricolage-culture, where there is the liberty to develop your own personal identity, which has allowed me to become the designer and artist I am today.” – Tom Van Der Borght

Belgium is often seen as the nest for conceptual designers, possessing the legacy of the Antwerp Six, how do you think Belgium has shaped you as a designer?

I am very proud of my Belgian heritage. I feel very privileged to come from a country that has produced some of the greatest contemporary designers. I do think there is a Belgian approach in my work. Existing in the centre of Europe, there is a mixture of different cultures and languages, making our little country very complex, slightly messy, and trashy in places, which I love. Belgian artists and designers are celebrated for their individuality and non-conformist vision, the essence of this comes from our bricolage-culture, where there is the liberty to develop your own personal identity, which has allowed me to become the designer and artist I am today.

Tom Van Der Borght's show, Photographed by Andreas Rentz

You say you are not seeking ‘traditional beauty’ throughout the creative process, and instead exploring the boundaries of beauty. What is beauty to you in a society where we have an entrenched idea of perfect beauty?

On a personal level, I think creating is a basic need for me, just like eating or breathing. It’s the way how I cope with life and the world. I search to explore new territories and I’m always curious to find alternative not-normative ways of approaching beauty. I want to evoke a reaction out of people with my work, I want to confront them with something that breaches their reality. I am not looking to find answers or explanations, I want to question what we consider normal, or traditional, and acceptable. I love to find beauty in what’s considered ugly or strange or unfitting. Beauty for me is the unexpected and surprising, it should always have a sense of discovery.

Many notable designers leaned towards a more unadorned approach for Autumn/Winter 2021 rather than conceptual, are you concerned that your designs may not achieve commercial demand?

Not at all. I’m convinced the world and everyone in it are waiting for change. I think it’s the perfect time to celebrate the beauty in fashion, to ensure a positive and colourful movement. My brand focuses on creating timeless precious luxury items, and there is always a place for this. I think now is the time for commerciality to evolve from quantity to quality.

“Change is not the responsibility of people with a disability. My message goes towards the fashion industry and the world itself, to challenge the mentality that views disabilities as a restriction. ” – Tom Van Der Borght

I understand that you have a genetic muscle disease, what would you say to other aspiring designers who also have a disability and feel this is restricting them from pursuing a career in fashion?

Change is not the responsibility of people with a disability. My message goes towards the fashion industry and the world itself, to challenge the mentality that views disabilities as a restriction. My advice to designers, any designer, is to always follow your dream and perceive disability as an opportunity, not a limitation.

“We are living in a time where there is a lot of insecurity, uncertainty, and instability. This is a very challenging time for young brands. ” – Tom Van Der Borght

Where do you want your brand to head towards?

Straight to a bright, sustainable, socially aware, and diverse future.

What are the biggest difficulties of running a brand and how do you get over them?

We are living in a time where there is a lot of insecurity, uncertainty, and instability. This is a very challenging time for young brands. Now is the time to change and act, to reconsider our ways of living, thinking, interacting, travelling, working, and producing. For me, it’s rethinking how we want to connect with ourselves, each other, our community, and our planet. With my work and label, I want to actively research these innovative and new ways of moving forward.

“Living with a progressive muscle disease, I have had to learn to adapt and there is great comfort, but also opportunity in that. I think standing still is the biggest threat to anything, to mankind, to the fashion system.” – Tom Van Der Borght

Is there anything in the fashion industry that you would like to change?

I’m a hopeful person. Mostly because I’ve seen some black snow in my life, but I have always found a way to focus on the light as opposed to the darkness and troubles that surround me. Living with a progressive muscle disease, I have had to learn to adapt and there is great comfort, but also opportunity in that. I think standing still is the biggest threat to anything, to mankind, to the fashion system. The current situation will force us to adapt rapidly, which is actually already happening. I think we have all realised how valuable and precious slowing down can be. I see the digital experience gaining in power, which might be a great development, as heading towards the digital means there is more opportunity to approach fashion and clothes in a much more multi-faceted way. Before the attention was solely on the fashion show, now we can offer consumers more ways of perceiving a collection. Since the pandemic, I have seen so many great Instagram stories and TV, artists, designers showing their artistic process, taking the time to show behind the scenes. It allows for fashion to become performative, to go more in-depth. Our lack of closeness and contact will eventually morph into an urge for more tactility, so I don’t fear waking up in a hostile, digitalised world.

Your show is part of your Hyères prize – given by Mercedes-Benz, as part of the luxury brand’s commitment to continue supporting talent – how important it is for young designers to be backed, particularly during these challenging times?

Mercedes-Benz has always been a very valuable partner in fashion, especially with their Talent Program that aids young and emerging designers like myself. For me, it was a dream-come-true to be supported by Mercedes-Benz and have the chance to present my work during MBFW Berlin. To be able to use this platform to present my work internationally is extremely important.

1 Granary

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