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For Tom Van der Borght fashion is an embodied practice, “an interactive layer between the body of the wearer and the world surrounding that.” The Belgian fashion designer’s work is a material and conceptual exploration of the discipline’s uncharted territories; his unapologetic and boldly boundary-breaking haute trash retains certain ‘art school sensibility’ which for many is often lost amidst the commercial demands post-graduation.

Van der Borght graduated from Stedelijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten Sint Niklaas in 2012 and launched his eponymous label shortly afterwards. “I believe that dealing with a commercial context only motivated me to develop my radical research and conceptual approach more,” the designer says. “I think I’m like a ‘hunter’ that Björk sings about in her album Homogenic, a species that’s always on a quest, on a search for something new, fresh, exciting, unexpected.

Van der Borght is an imperfectionist. “I love errors,” he declares. “I like to challenge the functionality of tools. What I like is that every tool, next to its ability for perfection, also has the ability to fail.” The designer's devotion to the antidote of sublimity negates perfection. His latest collection, 7 ways to be TVDB, for example, purposefully defies the classic rules of knitwear, mixing dead stock merino wool, transparent acrylic and a lurex to achieve the “roughness” in the digital knit, mimicking the idea of bricolage and recomposition.

Cable ties, colour cords and experimental knitwear; The collection is fashioned from unconventional materials and is built around the concept of the ritualistic procession, examining the “tension between wearing and being worn, between carrying and being carried.”

As much as his work revolves around the process of searching, Van der Borght is not interested in finding anything. “I don’t really want to find answers or explanations,” the design affirms. Neither does he care about achieving traditional, idealistic, outdated standards of beauty. After all, as Oscar Wilde would say: “A subject that is beautiful in itself gives no suggestion to the artist. It lacks imperfection.”

Tell us about yourself. Who is Tom Van der Borght? What are your first fashion memories?
I’m a multidisciplinary fashion designer and artist based in Belgium. I think for my first fashion memory I have to take you back to my childhood. My mother is a classically trained couture teacher, so I have always been surrounded by patterns, fabrics and sewing machines. When I was 8 years old, the Antwerp Six made their entry at London Fashion Week. I still remember I was looking at a now iconic fashion magazine Fashion/This is Belgian, seeing all those crazy, colourful, amazing new shapes and forms. I believe the seed of my love for fashion was planted there.
What was it about fashion as a creative outlet that urged you to become a designer?
I think, maybe we have to get to the essence of what I do to understand this better. I don’t consider myself a designer. Designers shape and give form to functional items, in my opinion. I’m personally not so much interested in this approach. I think I always want to express a story, an artistic desire, a reflection on what is surrounding us. I believe fashion is a fantastic medium to do this.
I like that fashion is like a container where you mix different media and ways of expression. Maybe I have to explain what fashion means for me; to me, fashion is an embodied practice, it is an interactive layer between the body of the wearer and the world surrounding that. That’s where the power of fashion lies for me. It has the ability to confront an artistic vision and point of view in a very direct and interactive way. I have never felt that art should be in a museum, fashion should be on a catwalk, opera should be in an opera house… This way of thinking is too binary for me, and I believe we are ready to enter those new times. I think the current crisis even leads us there; to break all those old habits and ways and current boxes.
What I love about fashion is that it’s so hic et nunc: it’s always a reflection of the present, and at the same time, it has the ability to show us a potential future. I felt this very strongly when I watched the online fashion show of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp; it gave such a beautiful and emotional sight on the current state of our (fashion) world, and at the same time, it suggested a beautiful, interesting and rich future – maybe with other codes and ways, but still strong. I love that sense of urgency.
You graduated from the Stedelijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten Sint Niklaas. To this day, your bold designs retain the ‘art school sensibility’ which for many designers is often lost amidst the commercial demands post-graduation. How has your time at art school affected your design approach? If not your daring aesthetic, has the commercial aspect changed your approach to design?
The school I attended is a smaller school in Belgium with a growing reputation. It is a very nice place to be, and my teachers, who I’m still in touch with, always motivated me to define my own universe, to develop my own visual language. I even believe they had a better idea than I did of what my universe was when I started there. It is important to know that I only started my fashion education at the age of 30, after a career in social work. I tried for years to fit into a ‘box,’ and I believe studying fashion was like breaking free. I think my education really nurtured this freedom, this limitlessness.
I learned to develop work in the sense that anything is possible, and I love that a lot. After graduating in 2012, I launched my own label and produced more wearable collections during a few seasons. But every time I started a new collection, I felt I had the strongest connection to the unique pieces, the pieces where I had the liberty to explore the unexplored territory. In that sense, I believe that dealing with a commercial context only motivated me to develop my radical research and conceptual approach more. I think I’m like a ‘hunter’ that Björk sings about in her album Homogenic, a species that’s always on a quest, on a search for something new, fresh, exciting, unexpected. That drives me to create more.

“What I love about fashion is that it’s so hic et nunc: it’s always a reflection of the present, and at the same time, it has the ability to show us a potential future.”
Gent, where you are based, is a short drive away from Antwerp, which is considered the epicentre of avant-garde fashion. Has this affected or influenced your aesthetic and creative process?
I am very proud of my Belgian heritage. I feel very privileged to come from a country that has produced many of the greatest contemporary designers. I do think there is a ‘Belgian approach’ in my work. Being in the centre of Europe, being a mash-up of different cultures and languages makes our little country a very complex, a bit messy and trashy place that I love a lot.
I think Belgian artists and designers are mainly celebrated for their individuality and non-conformist vision. I think the essence of that comes from our bricolage culture, where there is big liberty to develop your own personal identity. In that sense, living in Belgium has definitely made me the designer and artist I am today.
You are not in search of ‘traditional beauty or honey-sweet cutesiness.’ What is it that you are in search of through your creative practice?
On a personal level, I think creating is a basic need for me, just like eating or breathing. It’s the way I cope with life and the world. I search to explore new territory, and I’m curious to find alternative non-normative ways of beauty. And I always want to move people or evoke a reaction.
I like to make people think; I like to confront them with something that is unfitting in their common reality. I don’t really want to find answers or explanations. I like to question what we consider normal, traditional or acceptable. I like to question beauty, and I love to find beauty in what’s considered ugly or strange or unfitting.
Daring combinations of bright colours, psychedelic graphics and an underlying sense of humour in your work equate in their sensibility to the bold, unapologetic approach of Walter Van Beirendonck. Are there any fashion designers or artists that inspire you?
I have an ultra strong connection with the work and universe of Björk. I grew up in a typically Belgian middle-class family, where culture and arts didn’t really have a place in daily life. So I took my first artistic inspirations from sources that were easily accessible. I grew up in the ‘90s, so MTV was a huge thing at that time. I remember secretly watching it before going to school, and one morning, I saw Björk’s iconic video for Big Time Sensuality, where she’s dancing on a truck crossing the streets of New York. I totally fell in love, and to this day, I follow and have a huge respect for what she does. I saw her latest show, Cornucopia, which was the last concert I saw before lockdown, and it was one of the most immersive experiences in my life. I love that she always manages to stay extremely authentic and accessible while exploring mainly uncharted territory.
In fashion, I have a huge appreciation for designers like Craig Green or Iris Van Herpen, who really push the boundaries of what fashion is, was, it can and will be. I love the performative approach of Victor & Rolf. And, of course, I have the most enormous respect for Walter Van Beirendonck. I think he is a true visionary, and I love how he always brings a powerful message while doing it in a very humorous and intelligent way. I love the imaginative power, I love how he decontextualises very common things and creates a totally crazy and unique universe with a visual language that is so recognisable and personal. I still find the exposition of his work in 2012 at the MoMu in Antwerp one of the most inspiring and powerful fashion moments I have ever experienced.

In your work, digital co-exists with traditional craftsmanship, defying the divide between crafts and innovation. How do you think digital techniques have affected our perception of the handmade and vice versa?
I think the division between digital and craft is a normative categorisation that only exists in our heads. I believe there is a way to sail around this. I consider both of them as my tools. Just as a hammer, a sewing machine or a plastic tube, a computer is also just a tool. I think I like to challenge the functionality of tools, I like to research what else they can do or be other than the thing that they were made for. It is exciting to work with them in an unconventional way. What I like is that every tool, next to its ability for perfection, also has the ability to fail. I love errors.
For example, for my Hyères collection, I developed some knitwear pieces with Cousy, Belgium’s most innovative knitting company. We started from dead stock yarns with very different specifics; merino wool, transparent acrylic, lurex… Following classic knitting rules, you would never mix those fibres. In the design process, I found out the ‘errors’ or roughness in the digital knit really mimicked this idea of bricolage and recomposition. This results in a piece that defies the classical approach to knitwear, and it takes a weakness as a starting point for the aesthetic. I love to work like that and I find this a great example – how handicraft, tradition, innovation and digital approach coexist in my work.
Meticulously finished details in your work employ couture techniques. But the aspects of your earlier work toy with streetwear tropes. How would you personally explain the signature aesthetic of TVDB?
That’s a great remark. Well, I hope I do something that crosses boxes and boundaries. I think TVDB creates menswear that’s not necessarily made for men; it’s street couture, it’s haute trash, it’s too artistic to be fashion, it’s too much fashion to be art. I think a signature TVDB look always questions wearability and normativity.
Next to that, I’m an extremely detail-oriented person and I love to create hidden layers. I think more classic fashion is always constructed around a shape first, and colour, detail, texture and fabric are added later in different steps of the design process. I think in the TVDB aesthetic, there is no clear boundary between shape, colour, detail or texture. I think they all merge into one complex structure. Oh, and a TVDB look is always head to toe… literally.
You established your namesake label in early 2013. What was your experience like navigating the hierarchical system of fashion as an upcoming designer and how do you think the system has changed for good or for worse since then?
I have been super blessed so far with an amazing path full of wonderful opportunities and experiences. I have already shown my work in many great places in the world. At the same time, I always felt a bit like an outsider, because of my non-conforming artistic approach. I look at the young generation of designers with excitement. I see a lot of attention to important topics like sustainability, cultural appropriation and social injustice. I find that powerful, and I really believe, influenced by the current crises, that this young generation has the power to change the system rapidly from within. It’s already happening, and I think the world will force us to change our ways of thinking, living, behaving and designing drastically.

“I like to make people think; I like to confront them with something that is unfitting in their common reality.”
For your latest collection, 7 ways to be TVDB, you have used non-normative fashion materials to explore the idea of restriction. Has the self-imposed restriction in materials allowed you to be more experimental? Why do you think restriction often breeds more creativity?
I have a very chaotic brain, and some days my head feels like a fountain of ideas. It can be like a train: when it starts driving, it doesn’t stop and ideas keep coming. In that sense, I think the concept of restriction is a necessity for me to be able to shape my ideas. I think it often works as an external form of focus – it helps me to focus on a limitation, which brings you closer to potential errors and mistakes.
There lies my fascination: where things go wrong, and how they offer us alternative questions and another way to look at reality. It generates this bricolage spirit where you force yourself to play around with the limited materials you have, which forces you to look outside regular boxes. Our minds are too accustomed to abundance and to the fact that everything is available, at once, always. I like to wander around in a zone where there is an impossibility to do what you want. It’s at that point that my brain makes a turn into interesting directions.
When I was a child, I had one Barbie doll, and I had a very beautiful piece of broderie anglaise that I got from my mother. It was just one strip of white embroidered fabric but I spent days, even months with it. wrapping it around my Barbie in all possible ways. I like to play. I think we should all do that more! I saw more happy faces during the lockdown, I saw parents playing with their children because they had to stay at home. I believe in the power of play.
The showcase of Act 01: Create a Safe Cocoon examined the idea of “tension between wearing and being worn, between carrying and being carried.” Could you tell us more about the idea behind the catwalk performance?
I have a very strong fascination for contemporary rituals, and I believe I design for a non-normative urban contemporary tribe. I wanted to search for a ritual to reinvent the catwalk space, and that brought me to a ritual I knew from my youth. Every year in Christian church, we celebrated a procession through the village. What attracted me to the idea of a procession was that there are a lot of similarities with a catwalk – you also have this simple act of just ‘passing by’. Another thing that makes processions really great is the fact that everything is carried. In my native language, the ‘wearing’ and ‘carrying’ is the same word – dragen. I liked the tension between those things and I decided to incorporate that into the performance.
I wanted to search for a performative reinterpretation of the catwalk space, and I developed the idea of performers dressed like copies of myself that carry around the models in a different manner. I wanted to create an image of collectiveness, of mutual support, of interdependence. At the same time, the act of carrying emphasizes the ‘cocoon feeling’ I wanted to put in my looks. I like to play with this idea of wearability, and I think the performance adds an interesting layer where you question the wearability of the looks.
It is difficult to speculate the future when so many unexpected forces are at play, but how do you think the recent global events will contribute to the long-needed change of the fashion system?
I’m a hopeful person. Maybe because I have already seen quite some black snow in my life, but I always find a way to focus on the light rather than the darkness and the troubles surrounding me. Living with a progressive muscle disease taught me to be adaptable. 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. I hope and believe the current situation will make us adapt rapidly, and it’s already happening. I think we have all experienced now, in a very short time, how valuable and precious slowing down can be.
I also see the digital experience gaining power, and in many ways, this might be a great evolution. Going more digital means there is also more opportunity to approach fashion and clothes in a much more multi-faceted way. Where before all the attention went to the catwalk show – that lasted 15 minutes –, now we can offer our customers and viewers more opportunities to look at the collection. I saw so many great Instagram stories and IG TV where artists and designers were showing their artistic processes, creating time to look behind the scenes and clothes. There is an opportunity to let fashion become performative through video, apps and so on. There is a unique opportunity to go much more in-depth, and I love that.
I also believe our lack of closeness and contact will evolve into an urge for more tactility. So I don’t fear to wake up in a cold and digitalised world. I believe handwork, crazy tactile experiences and immersive ways to experience fashion are the ways towards.

Nini Barbakadze
Portrait and photos
Kaat Pype

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