Portrait // Tom Van der Borght, presented by Mercedes-Benz
In anticipation of today’s opening show “Mercedes-Benz presents Tom Van der Borght,” the Belgian multidisciplinary designer spoke to MBFW Berlin about his background, his work and why there’s only one box he fits into: “human.”
Tom Van der Borght has been fascinated with the process of turning fabric into clothes since very early childhood. His mother, a classically trained sewing teacher, unconsciously ignited his passion: “My first fashion-related memory goes back to a story my mother always tells. When I was only three or four years old, I used to hang around her sewing machine and take small scraps of fabric that were lying on the floor to make pants, dresses, etc. out of them,” he remembers. No one really expected it at the time, but what started as a childhood pastime turned out to become Tom Van der Borght’s true calling.
Fast forward about four decades: His collection entitled Seven Ways to be T.VDB wins the 2019 FASHIONCLASH Festival Talent Award and earns him the Première Vision Grand Prix as well as the Public Prize at the 35th International Festival of Fashion, Photography and Fashion Accessories in Hyères. Interestingly, the Ghent-based designer believes his approach to making clothes has remained the same all these years: “I think the way I was working with fabric as a child…it hasn’t changed that much. Back then I was already into combining things that you wouldn’t immediately put together. I really like to use leftovers or pieces that already have cuts in them, as I find it more challenging and interesting to work with.”
Tom Van der Borght began his studies at the Stedelijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten van Sint-Niklaas at the age of 30, an age at which he, like many others, began to self-reflect. “I think when you get to your thirties, for everybody it’s a time where you look back – as well as ahead – for the first time in your life. You wonder if the direction in which you’re headed is really the right one,” he explains.
Before he started focusing on his fashion career, Tom Van der Borght was a social worker engaged with young people coming from a difficult background or family situation. His strong point was working with these children on their self-expression. “So, I knew I had an interest or connection with creating things, but it wasn’t fashion-related per se,” he says. Aside from his social work, Van der Borght reveals he had been cutting hair as well: “I think I was just as experimental in hairdressing as I am in fashion,” he jokes. Yet despite these other pursuits, his childhood hobby stuck with him: He started making clothes from fabrics he purchased at thrift shops, went to a sewing and pattern making course at his mother’s urging and soon found himself fully emerged in the craft.
“I suppose the most interesting part of it compared to social work is that, after working with people for eight years, you make certain evaluations – but I sometimes found it difficult to see a ‘final result.’ People are not products: You cannot ‘finish’ them. When I started making clothes, I really liked that you start with something, you make it and then it’s finished,” he explains.
Tom Van der Borght founded his eponymous label in 2013 with the aim of questioning the status quo and breaking free from conventions. His work seeks to challenge the norm and rethink the notion of wearability though playing with texture, volume and, notably, with fabrics. His most recent award- winning collection used recycled climbing ropes, leftover plastic, overstock car seating, plant-based faux fur and sturgeon leather, skillfully combining those elements with sequins, metal pearls, studs and braided elastic. His designs are quirky, joyful and loud, finding their place at the intersection of bricolage, haut couture and avant-garde. They are unbelievably detailed and intricate. Tom Van der Borght himself calls them “remixes”: “I like to make my own prints, but when they are finished, I like to distract them with embroidery on top. So it’s kind of a self-remix.”
The jubilant T.VDB universe knows no boundaries – it’s “uncompromising,” as designer and jury president of the 35th Hyères Festival Jonathan Anderson put it. When working on a collection, he thinks in looks rather than individual garments – always keeping the bigger picture in mind. “What most interns working at my studio always find the most interesting is that in a lot of fashion schools and with a lot of designers, they have the tendency to take something away or leave something out whereas I always say: ‘let’s add something!’ or ‘it needs something extra!’ It’s almost like anti-editing,” he says. He knows a look is done once there is nothing else left to add.
The 42-year-old’s overall creative process is very tied to the way he sees the world, to his own particular optimism: “Everybody always talks about the bad sides of the times we live in – and of course it’s a very big challenge. At the same time, I think crises have always been the best catalysts for evolution.” He also conducts the majority of his research on the internet, as opposed to reaching for traditional academic texts. “My pieces are a reflection of the complex world we live in, over-saturated with imagery, slogans, words.” Speaking of words, there’s one word that Tom Van der Borght is not necessarily fond of hearing, at least when it’s referring to himself: designer. What would he rather call himself? “A human. That is really the only box I am comfortable or secure enough with. I have always struggled with the concept of boxes, which is really connected to this notion of a non-edited reality. I think the way we use them is to edit our reality.” While he agrees that this is a term used to describe his profession, he does not define himself by it. “Of course I make fashion. I make clothes. But I also make videos, performances, installations, drawings, prints,” he explains.
Winning the top prize at the Hyères Festival was a big push for Tom Van der Borght’s career, and not one he was anticipating: “When you send in the file, you dream about being selected. And once you are selected, you’ve reached your dream – but it also becomes a reality. I just really wanted to make my collection work.” And it certainly did. When asked about what he thinks it was that brought him this far, Tom Van der Borght laughs hesitantly. Then, he explains: “My mother always says to me ‘you can never stop! It’s never enough for you.’ And I think that after ten years, she realizes this is exactly how and why I got to where I am now.”
The show “Mercedes-Benz presents Tom Van der Borght” will be streamed on Monday, January 18th, 6 PM at mbfw.berlin.
text by Kelly Niesen
edited by Melissa Frost
images: Louis Kerckhof