Fashioning Renée’s Journey: an Interview with Steven de Wilde

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“WHAT MORE IS THERE TO SAY, WEARING A 1959 CAPUCCI DRESS, SURROUNDED BY ONE OF HER FAVORITE FLOWERS, RENÉE WITH HER CHLOÉ SUNGLASSES IS IN SEVENTH HEAVEN…”

Let me tell you about a woman named Renée. She is a woman who travels the world wearing only the most fashion-forward of garments, a woman with impeccable taste and style, and a woman whose journey has one important objective: to collect as much money as possible to support young fashion talent. She is effortlessly stylish, endlessly enchanting… and entirely from the imagination of artist Steven De Wilde.

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Steven in front of his most recent piece from his latest “Renée’s Journey” project. Renée wears a couture mask by Viktor & Rolf.

Steven worked for over twenty years as a bridal wear designer before returning to his first love: drawing and painting. In rediscovering his passion, Steven conceived of the international art project “Renée’s Journey.” A glamorous “patron with a mission,” Renée is a vehicle through which Steven can pursue his passion for art and philanthropy. A percentage of the profits from each of his projects—which consists of twenty pieces of art per — goes to fund a young fashion designer.

You can follow along with Renée’s captivating journey on Steven’s Instagram account @stevendewildekovrigin and at www.reneesjourney.com.

In a long overdue Fashion History Talks, Steven reveals the origins of his project, his passion for his work and shares his thoughts on the art of dress.

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“SUCH A PRIVILEGE TO WEAR “LA PERSE”, A 1911 MASTERPIECE BY PAUL POIRET. THE FABRIC WAS DESIGNED BY RAOUL DUFY, RENÉE ENJOYS EVERY SECOND OF WEARING IT…”

Art of Dress: Tell us about yourself and what you do as it relates to the history of fashion and dress. Why is the study of fashion and dress history important to you?

Steven: When I was a child, drawing and painting was a way to amuse myself.
Also when it came to dress up or to decorate my room, I knew what I could put together to have my own personal style. After Saint-Lucas artschool (my best time ever in my young days) I joined the army which was nothing but a lost year for me. I did it before I joined the Royal Academy of Fashion in Antwerp so I could, once graduated, start my own business right away.
During my first year I understood that, running your own brand and making (in those days) 2 collections a year wasn’t what I was looking for. I knew I would end up doing something in fashion but at that time I didn’t have any clue of what it could be.

So the day after I finished that first year and left the academy, I started working in a fashion shop. Nothing special but more important, in my free time I could focus on practicing making clothes.

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Paul Poiret’s “La Perse” coat, 1911, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

One year later I started working for a shoeshop selling high end designer shoes and it was there that I decided to start my own little boutique of couture wedding dresses. Why wedding dresses? Well in that shoe shop clients often came to buy their wedding shoes but had many difficulties in finding the right dress. So after 2 months, it was November 1994, and before my colleagues from the academy even graduated, I opened my little boutique of couture wedding dresses which I continued doing for 20 years.
By the year of 2014, time had changed so much, the wedding dress business in general became more and more important and with that, more and more brands started to play on that same field. At that same moment, the love and missing of what used to be my childhood love, meaning drawing and painting, little by little made me dream of a new career, and that was to become a full-time painter.
It was immediately clear to me that I was not going to paint just “whatever” I liked.
No, I wanted to create something unique, something with a great story where the focus would not be on the artist and on top of that, some fund that should be connected to it which could support young designers financially.
To be honest, I didn’t take me a lot of time to come up with the story we know today as “Renée’s Journey.” I was dreaming about a lady who would be easely recognizable and with a name that everybody, in every country, with its own language would have no difficulties in pronouncing. By hearing people’s reaction, I immediately knew “Renée” (which comes from the French word “Renaître” like in “reborn” and also because of the male/female thing), was the perfect name for my muse. Searching for that “easely recognisable detail,” my idea to give her this haircut and color, made my story complete….
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“RENÉE AT VILLA EMPAIN WHERE SHE WAS INVITED FOR AN ART EVENT. FOR THIS SPECIAL OOCCASION, SHE’S DRESSED IN A JEAN PAUL GAULTIER HAUTE COUTURE GOWN FULL OF SEQUINS AND PAILLETTES…”

As we all know, a lot of bad things happen in our world, unfortunately. Hearing people see that they get a joyful moment, a smile on their face just by looking at my Renée paintings and on top of that, being able to support some young talent gives me a wonderful feeling, it’s like I’m putting some positive vibes into our world which is so nice.Being able to create my own fantasy world by painting all the beautiful and amazing creations our world has to offer, I can only say that my dream came true.

My dear husband Sasha Kovrigin who is my all time hero, daily pays a visit at my painting studio and with his critical eye, he supports and advices me in every single way. On top of that, he’s a fantastic graphic designer which is the perfect complement when it comes to design businesscards, invitations and so on…
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“RENÉE IN “LE CHOU NOIR” AN AMAZING 1967 CREATION BY CRISTÓBAL BALENCIAGA, THE FLOWERS FROM CASAMANCE SHE BORROWED FROM CLAIRE TONDELEIR, A WONDERFUL COMBINATION…”

Art of Dress: In your opinion, is fashion art? 

Steven: I would say that “in general”, fashion isn’t Art but for sure, some masterpieces of different designers in all kinds of periods are. When we say “Museum”, don’t we all immediately think of “Art”? If fashion has nothing to do with Art, why are there so many wonderful exhibitions worldwide in the most fantastic museums that attract thousands and thousands of people, causing them to enjoy and fantasize for a moment, how it could be to wear one of the exhibited masterpieces or to live for a moment back in the days they were created…
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“FOR RENÉE IT WAS A REAL HONOUR TO WEAR THIS AMAZING SCHIAPARELLI CAPE ON HER WAY TO A RED CARPET EVENT. THE CUTE “FIFTIES” HAT SHE FOUND ON THE INTERNET…”.

Art of Dress: Who is your favorite fashion designer? Past and Present?

Steven: Not an easy one. With this and as an example, I must think back to the moment I posted one of my first paintings where Renée, in her big polka dot coat, walks by a window in Pierre Cardin’s “Palais bulles” in Cannes. Somebody commented on my post and asked if Renée was wearing a “Marni” coat. When I replied that it was not a Marni but a Moschino coat, that person’s reaction was “ahhh to bad…”
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Renée’s hat featured above is in Steven’s personal collection.

I reacted by saying, although Moschino is far from my favorite brand, when a design is interesting and beautiful, well, then the design is interesting and beautiful. It’s easy to judge any design just by the name of the brand or its designer…That same person replied, “Steven, you’re absolutely right, It is a great coat!”.

Today I think there are so many great designers who create so many beautiful and inspiring pieces in every kind of way, that it makes it too difficult for me to just name “one.” For the past, for sure I would say Elsa Schiaparelli simply because of her strong, over the top, funny but most of all inspiring creations. If you look at how many designers have been inspired and influenced by her designs, that explains everything to me.
Art of Dress: If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be?
Steven: Also on this one I’ll be very honest to  you. I don’t have any explanation for it but the best books for me are the ones with a lot of images, not the ones that need to be read.
Somehow I get so easely distracted, that it’s  hard for me to remember what I just read, it has always been like this. I see myself more as a constant observer of everything happening around me. It’s a constant urge to not miss a single thing that could, in some way, inspire me.
For me, the eyes are the most priceless treasures…
Art of Dress: If you could recommend one movie for the period costumes alone, what would it be?
 Steven: The Piano.
I think this movie is a pure masterpiece in every single way. It’s the combination of a strong story with strong images. The costumes, the beautiful nature, great music and acting performances, it needs a hell of an actress to say so much without even speaking one single word… Phenomenal!
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“RENÉE IN A FRIDA KAHLO MOOD, WEARING HER CHIFFON GUCCI DRESS. THE CHAIR SHE FOUND AT AN ANTIQUE SHOP, SHE GOT REFURBISHED BY A.TL AGENCY. THE WHITE GOLD RING WITH PEARLS AND 1 LITTLE YELLOW DIAMOND WAS ESPECIALLY DESIGNED FOR HER, LUCKY LADY…”

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Glamour on Board: Fashion from Titanic the Movie at Biltmore House, now through May 13

 

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(c) The Biltmore Company

I recently had the distinctive honor of being invited to visit Biltmore’s current exhibition Glamour on Board: Fashion from Titanic the Movie. George Vanderbilt spared no expense in his creation of Biltmore House, his grand 250-room Renaissance-era French chateau in Asheville, North Carolina, a marvel of Gilded Age era architecture. Today, an entire team of conservators and curators are tasked with the daily preservation and maintenance of George’s vision, a lavish interior filled with an impressive and eclectic mix of artifacts, curios and prized artwork from different time periods and cultures. Be it sumptuous curtains hand-woven in Lyon, France, rare samurai swords and vases from Japan, or the impressive collection of Albrecht Durer engravings, the home is magnificent! An avid collector, George read over 3000 books in his lifetime and collected over 20,000, half of which are on display in the two story library, overlooked by an 18th century Italian painting imported from Paris.

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George Vanderbilt, (c) The Biltmore Company.

I could not imagine a more perfect setting for the first large-scale exhibition of costumes from the 1997 blockbuster hit Titanic. Luxury ocean-liners such as the Titanic were known as “floating palaces” of the sea, an indication of their success in mirroring the ultra-luxurious settings of their most affluent clientele. For the Titanic, these clients might have included George and Edith Vanderbilt had they not changed their plans to travel on the ship shortly before its ill-fated voyage.

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(c) The Biltmore Company

The Titanic made every expense to imitate the lives of its most wealthy clientele and like the Vanderbilt home included grand ball and dining rooms, as well as a premiere swimming and work out facilities. But the Titanic also catered to the broad economic spectrum. Our tour guide took us downstairs into the kitchens, laundry rooms and servants’ quarters of Biltmore House, giving us “behind the scenes” access to a world often hidden from view, just as it would have been on the Titanic on which so many steerage-class passengers lost their lives.

Over fifty costumes by Academy-Award winning Designer Deborah L. Scott are thoughtfully interspersed throughout the Vanderbilt’s home, arranged in settings picked specifically by Biltmore’s Curator of Interpretation Leslie Klinger to mirror those of the film. I have decided that Leslie has THE dream job. Not only did she hand-select each and every costume for the  —i.e. she went to Los Angeles and into the costume archives!—as Curator of Interpretation for the Biltmore Estate, she is tasked daily with developing a better understanding of the ever-intriguing lives of the Vanderbilt family, the estate and the many people who called it home. Please stay tuned for an interview with Leslie in the coming weeks!

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Edith Vanderbilt, (c) The Biltmore Company.

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Part of Edith’s suite of rooms included her private bathing quarters.

I took multiple tours while visiting Biltmore House and each was fascinating as the next. In an “Upstairs/Downstairs” tour, we were admitted into Edith Vanderbilt’s “suite,” a series of rooms behind her bedroom and otherwise hidden from view. These rooms included her bathroom, massive closet and lady maid’s quarters. If you are making a connection to Downton Abbey here, you are not alone. I kept making the comparison between Downton and Biltmore time and again throughout the tour! Especially when we visited the private quarters of the respected and beloved head housekeeper (Mrs. Hughes, anyone?!), the domains of the butler and the numerous laundry rooms, kitchens and other facilities used by staff. I was pleased to learn how generous the Vanderbilt family was in taking care of their staff, and that it is a tradition still carried out today. Biltmore Estate that is still family-owned and operated.

I am a little embarrassed to say that prior to this experience I had NO IDEA that Biltmore Estate existed. But it is now hands down one of my favorite places in the country and quiet possibly the world! I have been to castles in Europe but none provided such open and intimate access, or such historical context! Biltmore House itself is a wonder of turn-of-the-century architecture and a fantastic testament to the legacy of one of America’s most renowned families. The surrounding Estate is a wonderland and we had the pleasure of staying there, at the four star hotel The Inn on Biltmore Estate, one of two available hotel accommodations on the property. Just a short walk and shuttle ride from the Inn was the Antler Hill Village Area which offers a wide array of culinary delights. We enjoyed a delicious farm to table meal at the Village Social before heading to a complimentary wine-tasting at the Winery’s tasting room next door. Biltmore House, which is about a fifteen minute shuttle ride from the hotel, offers its own range of delightful shops and restaurants. After our tours, we enjoyed many strolls in the Estate’s beautiful gardens, at one point stumbling upon the glass-roofed Biltmore Conservatory which houses a variety of exotic plants! I simply cannot say enough things about this wonderful gem of a place. I cannot wait to come back to this castle in the sky…

If you are interested in learning more about Biltmore, visit Biltmore.com or follow their official social media handles: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Find out more about the aforementioned exhibition and plan your visit here. Thank you again to Biltmore for hosting me!

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Just a girl and Biltmore.