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Undress to impress: Carine Gilson’s lingerie couture mixes old-school craft and contemporary chic
Since graduating from the fashion department of Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1988, Brussels-based designer Carine Gilson has become synonymous with the market of couture lingerie, turning out one-of-a-kind garments from the finest French laces and silks.
“Lace has been a passion of mine ever since I was thirteen,” says Gilson. “I like its precious side and the fact it’s made by hand.” A turning point came soon after her graduation when she came across a small vintage lingerie manufacturer, Maille France, near Gare du Nord in Brussels. “At the atelier I had this real coup de foudre for the artisanal nature of lace, this incredible savoir-faire,” she says. She bought the atelier and launched her own brand in 1990.
Gilson’s day- and nightwear draws on top-quality Lyon silk and Caudry lace from the Calais region. She’s particularly known for her painstaking work with lace inlays, which run over kimonos, lingerie, gowns, jackets and camisoles, combining with shimmering silks to create an ethereal, decadently feminine mood.
“My inspirations at the start were all the rituals of déshabillé: for me that was about silk garments, and I’ve always loved the sensual side of the 1930s and the 50s. I did a collection about the early 20th-century couturier Paul Poiret that had this whole orientalist influence. It’s from there that I started working with kimonos – but creating ones with a more Western influence.”
Other obsessions – Art Deco, the designer Madeleine Vionnet – have resurfaced over the years, as Gilson’s brand has expanded to take in beachwear and swimwear lines, as well as boutiques in London’s Belgravia and Saint-Germain, Paris. Her garments are also stocked in high-end multi-brand shops in more than a dozen countries and regularly worn by celebrities including Nicole Kidman.
Gilson (pictured) has recently opened an office in the Middle East, where she sometimes creates entire trousseaux for brides. “It’s a market I’ve been familiar with for a decade and we have a very loyal customer base there,” she says. “They’re collectors, working women, above all people attracted to exclusive things.”
Last year saw the launch of an intimate, boudoir-style flagship on Boulevard de Waterloo in Brussels, masterminded by crafts-oriented architectural duo David Raffoul and Nicolas Moussallem. Meanwhile, until next April, the capital’s Fashion and Lace Museum is paying tribute to the designer and charting her label’s evolution in its exhibition Beautiful Lace & Carine Gilson. “Above all it was important to show the style and vision of the label, and this dialogue with lace that I’ve had for nearly thirty years,” she says.
Today, Gilson’s team produces 8,000 pieces a year, all handmade by artisans in her Brussels atelier with no recourse to outsourcing. “It’s a niche market because we work on the lingerie like haute couture,” she says. “There’s a lot of work that goes into it and each piece is unique, which is what makes it true Belgian luxury.”
Starting in the early Renaissance, when Emperor Charles V decreed that lacemaking was compulsory for girls in convents and béguinages, Belgium developed a thriving lace trade. Even in the early 20th century the country had, by some estimates, 47,000 lace makers but the craft has now dwindled despite the efforts of hobby clubs.
“There aren’t many artisans working with lace today,” says Gilson. “It’s this craftsmanship that I want to protect. Not by actually making the lace, but by the way we work with it and give it a contemporary signature. I’m proud to say that, in Belgium today, I’m the guardian of the temple of this kind of savoir-faire.”
This article first appeared in WAB (Wallonia and Brussels) magazine