Patience and passion are the hallmarks of Belgium-born, Brussels-based couturier Carine Gilson. She speaks with Elle Blakeman about luxury, how to learn from mistakes and her new exclusive line with Kintsugi
For some people, fashion is about bold logos and expensive finishing touches, to be admired by others. Carine Gilson is not one of those people.
‘Luxury is not marketing,’ she tells me when we meet over Zoom, the pandemic having grounded us to our respective houses and countries. (She is ‘itching’ to get back to her workshop.) ‘When you have a lot of money, you can do a huge marketing campaign and have everyone say, “That’s a luxury brand.” But true luxury is different.’
This year the Belgium-born designer celebrates an impressive three decades of her eponymous lingerie brand. ‘My birthday gift was Covid!’ she notes wryly. And as a woman who singlehandedly resurrected haute couture lingerie and loungewear using exclusive materials and creating each piece by hand at her Brussels workshop, she is ideally suited to define luxury.
A true couturier, Gilson’s sartorial education started when she was a child: surrounded by the beautiful fabrics and dressmaking accoutrements with which her mother created made-to-measure pieces for the women of Brussels. Before ‘ready-to-wear’ was a thing, Gilson absorbed the art of reading patterns, of making things by hand and of listening to materials, seeing how they respond to touch and movement before deciding how to alchemise them.
Her mother tailored dresses and coats to withstand the elements, but Carine was entranced by the fluid silks and sensual laces of the slip dresses beneath: le flou, as it is known in tailoring. She adored the Old Hollywood glamour of screen sirens dressing for bed in sweeping floor-length silk or removing their outfits to reveal secret, feminine layer between them and the outside world: Grace Kelly in Rear Window or Marlene Dietrich in Desire.
And if the young Carine dreamed of creating such pieces herself, she did not have to wait long before it came true. At twenty-two, with a degree in fashion from Antwerp’s prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Gilson found a small, struggling Brussels atelier that manufactured fine slips. Despite her youth, she convinced a bank to loan her the money to take it over.
Her vision was of ‘lingerie couture’: traditional dressmaking techniques and premium materials for pieces all but concealed from the world. She tracked down the mills producing the world’s finest lace and silk – Caudry and Lyon respectively – on traditional machines, in processes unchanged for centuries.
‘You cannot imagine!’ she enthuses, with scholarly delight at the technical intricacy of each piece of fabric. ‘The Jacquard machines they use are from the eighteenth century. Imagine that today, in the twenty-first century, we are using these! And they still produce such a beautiful lace that is more precious than ever.’
‘People who work with lace look at the world in a different way,’ notes Karen Van Godtsenhoven, curator at The Met, in Gilson’s book Garden of Lace. ‘A way that puts beauty, a slow approach and materials first.’
It is rare for a long-standing designer to stick so steadfastly to just two fabrics, however opulent they may be. ‘Silk and lace are vocabulary for her,’ says Catherine Esgain and Catherine Gauthier, curators at the Fashion and Lace Museum in Brussels, where Gilson was invited to exhibit. ‘These are the materials she cherishes and returns to time and again, understanding them thoroughly.’
A love of nature inspired Gilson’s signature lace pattern: a floral motif that, as Van Godtsenhoven notes, ‘hovers on the brink between Art Nouveau and Art Deco.’ Gilson spends countless hours deciding where to attach the lace to the silk. It’s delicate decorative work that reflects a lifetime of skill.
Today her collections can be found in chic stores – Harrods, Barneys at Saks, Neiman Marcus – or in her palatial, dove-grey stores in London’s Knightsbridge and Paris’ 6th arrondissement. Women who have fallen under her spell include A-list celebrities and royalty.
‘Her work invites us to dream,’ notes van Godtsenhoven. And while it evokes ‘mysterious lands and ethereal skies, it is also a labour of patience and constancy, and forever beginning anew.’
‘It’s about respecting the value of the craftsmanship,’ says Gilson. ‘That is luxury. And there is luxury in the rarity: to know that you don’t have two thousand pieces the same, because each is made by hand.’
It’s an interesting time to be speaking with Gilson. With the world on pause, we are all stopping to consider our roles and the effects of our choices. This is particularly pertinent in the usually frenetic world of fashion. ‘In some ways it needed to happen,’ she notes thoughtfully. ‘We needed a rebuild. Before the crisis, everything in fashion was so fast, you needed to show five collections a year. And to do that, you need to be a machine. I was not in my element.
‘I used to just do two collections a year. But then everyone needed more and more – so, like everyone else, we moved to five. For creativity, it’s too much. We need to take time to make beautiful things by hand.
‘I think the idea of consuming will change now. People will consume more quality and will think more about what they really need, and what it says about who they are.
‘People need to take time to understand the reality of fashion; that there is a real process behind it. It’s not just, “Click and it happens.” Each of our pieces takes a minimum fifteen hours: one by one, piece by piece. It’s the total opposite of fast fashion.’
Gilson has exacting standards in her workshop. ‘I’m very strict,’ she notes. ‘Every piece is made under my eye.’ Where most designers would turn to cotton to create a toile (sample), she insists on experimenting in silk, to see the drape and flow of her designs.
‘I learn from my mistakes,’ says the self-taught designer. ‘It’s important for me to make things by myself, to understand my mistakes. If I understand my mistake, I learn from that and I find the right process. And that’s the same with Kintsugi: you need to make mistakes to rebuild. Accidents can be a good thing.’
Gilson is well versed in the philosophy of Kintsugi, having worked with founder Al Reem Al Tenaiji on an exclusive line of kimonos and nightwear. The collection is as exquisite as one could hope. Sweeping silk kimonos and two-piece sets fall gracefully to the floor. Opulent slices of screen-printed gold and pieces of golden Chantilly lace run prettily across the backs, echoing the gold bonds of Kintsugi on porcelain.
‘I called Al Reem and said, “You cannot even begin to imagine what’s going on in my head sewing this lace inlet!”’ she laughs. Bringing pieces of silk together and allowing bare skin to be seen through lace was a painstaking process.
As with Gilson’s other collections, each piece is handmade. ‘The gold on the sleeves is created using a very old technique: it’s done individually and by hand. We sketch the Kintsugi patterns one by one, then add the lace. It’s very intricate. Each piece is unique.’
This is the kind of project that Gilson lives for. ‘If I do something, I do it with all of my heart. For me, this is the only way to work.’ Spoken like a true Kintsugi woman.
The Kinstugi x Carine Gilson collection will be available to order this season on kintsugispace.com