The Obscure World of Lieve Van Gorp

Words by: Joshua Croasdale

An exploration of the overlooked.

Belgian-born fashion designer Lieve Van Gorp is not world-renowned like her predecessors Raf Simons and Martin Margiela. Simply put, her story is not easy to follow. Lieve is in-fact so greatly undocumented, the only issue that arises when inspecting her work is the potential of misinformation. My scattered research of the subject comprises of rough book translations, auction listing descriptions or simple word-of-mouth. Unlike designers of fame and grandeur, Van Gorp’s work is significant due to what ‘might have been’.

Beyond the naïveté of romanticising the brief stint of an undocumented designer, there are so many cerebral elements of her work. She was a maniac in a good sense. Her sensibilities produced many ominous, compelling pieces in limited quantities and insane materials. Lieve Van Gorp saw herself as a superstar. Her personal expression was only emphasised by the fantasy of her clothing. This unsung designer is worthy of far more than praise in my eyes.

From 1980 until 1982, Van Gorp studied filmmaking at The Royal Institute for Theatre, Cinema and Sound in Brussels, Belgium. This course didn’t only include practical work. In-fact, the bulk of it was of philosophical theory. This led to an advanced inspection of the arts, politics and the media landscape of the time. This broader education ameliorated Lieve in her career path, planting references in her head. Her research, alongside a well-revered personal aesthetic, would lead her to a very distinct and pessimistic worldview.

The end of 1982 saw Lieve change career paths, now studying fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. The degree was “also very visual but in a much more applied way.” (Van Gorp, 1982) Her dark, cerebral approach only amplified from this point in time. After graduating from this arduous degree, Van Gorp pursued various interdisciplinary roles. “Learning by doing, isn’t what you were necessarily taught at the Academy” (Van Gorp, 1989) Her various styling and assisting jobs proved to be more worthwhile than the Academy had assumed. It was also rumoured that she designed for Scapa Sports/Scapa of Scotland before Walter Van Beirendonck.

In 1991, Lieve presented her first collection, titled ‘Warriors’. Warriors only consisted of leather accessories, mainly belts, bags and other random leather goods. This premature, humble accessories collection granted her a nomination for the coveted Golden Spindle Award, previously awarded to greats like Dirk Van Saene, John Galliano and Lee Alexander Mcqueen. Later that year she began teaching where she had once studied, the Royal Academy’s fashion department. “Nice job if you can get it, but also horribly exhausting; the students expect you to know everything” (Van Gorp, 1992) These early years communicated the importance of knowledge and having an obsession with quality. She attributes her preference of high-quality leather to her time at the academy.

In a balancing act between teaching, designing and consulting, Lieve Van Gorp’s label would slowly expand. 1993 saw the introduction of her formal ‘Accessories’ line but her real branching out did not occur until 1995. This year was the beginning of her best work. Despite Spring-Summer 1995 having a ‘collector’s items’ theme, it was her first collection to consist of real clothing. Alongside this, was the launch of a flagship store in Hopland, Antwerp. 1995 saw Lieve come into her own.

Two years later came her first men’s collection in the Autumn/Winter of 1997. As Lieve designed for both women and men at this point in time, her first collections for men were mostly an afterthought of the women’s collections. As time went on, she slowly began to rely less on using women’s elements in her men’s collections. Her evolution saw strong, identifiable and separate collections, although they are arguably inspired by one another.

The starkest difference between her collections for women and those for men is that her men’s designs are 2D: classical, simple constructions with only a front and back. Contrastingly, a major distinction for her women’s pieces is that Lieve would approach them 3-dimensionally, utilising a range of techniques like draping to accentuate the female body. Van Gorp’s bad-girl image matured with her worldview and aforementioned skill. Her upscale gothic universe was only expanding.

Always fighting for individuality and self-expression, Lieve produced rougher women’s collections than ever before. One look from Autumn/Winter 1997 saw a wild experiment. Lieve made a jacket fully constructed of human hair, “40 metres of hair = 1 human life.” While Spring/Summer 1998 “Our Girlie Gang” characterised women in a transverse masculine fashion while keeping her gothic edges. 

In Autumn/Winter of 1998,  Lieve developed a more nuanced collection than usual in terms of her political and cultural sensibilities. Named “Victim or Hero” this collection displayed various headstrong political and religious figures. Ranging from Jesus Christ to Ché Guevara, each subject was underscored by the question ‘Victim or Hero?’. This collection’s message was not caught-up in character assassinations. A/W 1998 aimed to question individual morality in a historical perspective. “Picking out your favourite hero, was never so much fun!”

Spring/Summer 1999 “First feeling for fashion” blatantly references her battle against Catholicism. Lieve’s disdain for the social constructs associated with the denomination is deeply inextricable to fashion itself. Indeed, her expression was born while customising her Catholic school uniform in-order to “rebel within her own rules”. This could well-be conceived as a first step towards an interest in fashion.

Autumn/Winter 1999 “Gothic and rock classics” was her Paris runway debut. This show presented men’s and women’s clothing side-by-side. As arguably one of her strongest collections, her strength is truly characterised by the many binaries of this show in particular. Emotional but aggressive, conservative while innovative. This blend of rock, classicism and simplicity within menswear truly created something polarising.

A/W 2000 was her most extensive and lavish collection to date. A/W 2000 “Forever Yours – Rockstar in Love” references Van Gorp’s sources of rock inspiration and personal aphorism “In my dreams, I’m a rock star, but unfortunately I can’t sing”. Among the pieces presented were artisanal cut and sewn shirts referencing niche metal bands like Metalium and Hammerfall. Just how specific these references are, really exemplifies just how authentic her work is. Not to mention how brave it is to handle the sheer costs of production, especially of her leather goods in such low production numbers.

“There are new levels of bureaucracy,” she said after presenting her final show in Spring/Summer of 2001. Her penchant for leather goods, fabric apparel and personal identity had morphed into a gothic body of work against the odds. “Now, it’s too big. It’s so messy, there’s not enough room. The level of goods is going down.” (Van Gorp, 2001) As much as critics and journalists of the time prophesied her future success, in true down to earth fashion, she was a true cynic. Her scathing criticism could have predicted her early departure from the industry. Any sense of romanticism surrounding her work is only amplified by the fact that she did not choose to leave the industry, her hand was forced.

Despite her aforementioned thoughts and hardships, Lieve faced a different barrier at the turn of the century. Her partner (Greet Ruelens) was diagnosed with Dystonia, a rare disease that is difficult to treat. This movement disorder causes prolonged muscle contractions, resulting in atypical movements and body posture. After this diagnosis and many other consequent challenges, the pair decided to close to the brand in 2001 to dedicate their life to Dystonia research and the support of Dystonia patients in their fight against this incurable disease.

Lieve’s last-known creative endeavour outside of Dystonia research was one curation project for ModeMuseum (MOMU) the fashion museum of Antwerp. This project was titled “Marriages”. Using the work of a multimedia artist and a musician, she married the two in presentation (with the binding factor being fashion). MOMU offering this role to Lieve is also said to be a root cause of her decision to leave the fashion industry. 

One can only imagine her concerns for the current fashion industry. I’d like to think that she is beyond disconnected from it. Her premonitions and stark assertions towards the quality of goods declining and a new level of bureaucracy rising, could not characterise the modern fashion industry more accurately. One can assume her thoughts of the current landscape, even from words she uttered over 20 years ago.

While fixated on research and planning within her Dystonia Foundation, Lieve has not cowered away from other creative roles. Until 2007 and potentially beyond, she worked as an advisor for art collectors. Admirably, she formed another foundation, the Lieve Van Gorp Foundation for Women Artists in mid-2008. This non-profit foundation has granted women worldwide a platform through-which to present their work.

With less than ten years of collections, with only four presented on a grand scale. Van Gorp nearly vanished without a single trace. Leaving the industry before internet forums makes it very hard to track down work. On one hand, it is amazing that her work remains untainted by today’s industry but it is disheartening to know that her pieces don’t get the attention they deserve. 

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