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At Bellevue Arts Museum, as a new exhibit is being installed, an array of dresses stand quietly on mannequins among the clamor of hammers and drills. Their colors are bright, their skirts flowing, their draping softly dramatic; styles indicative of a time long gone. Next to one pleated dress in vivid blue, a cloak lies on the ground in a poufy blue cloud, as if its owner had carelessly dropped it there after hurrying in the door. It looks soft as silk — but it, and all the dresses here, are made of paper.

“A World of Paper, A World of Fashion: Isabelle de Borchgrave Meets Mariano Fortuny,” opening at BAM on Thursday and continuing through Feb. 16, is a conversation, crafted in painted paper and pleats, between two great creative forces who never met. Mariano Fortuny, the legendary Spanish-born designer of textiles, fashion, stage lighting and theatrical sets, died in 1949, leaving behind a legacy of beautiful gowns crafted from his own fabrics — intricately pleated, elaborately painted (often in metallic shades), echoing silhouettes from fashion’s distant past.

Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave, like Fortuny, trained as a painter and designed fabrics — until, in 1994, she was captivated by the idea of creating costumes from paper; not slavishly imitating garments, but making unique homages.

“By not replicating the dresses in fabric, she’s not copying, but elevating the work to a new dimension,” said Stefano Catalani, BAM director of art, craft and design.

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The initial inspiration, for de Borchgrave, came from a visit to New York to see the Metropolitan Opera and the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art nearly two decades ago. There, de Borchgrave was given a rare opportunity to touch 18th- and 19th-century dresses, to carefully turn them inside-out and examine their construction. Dazzled by their intricacy and beauty, she began work on a series, with collaboration from costume historian Rita Brown, called “Papiers a la Mode,” which re-created 30 iconic looks from fashion history over several centuries, crafted with only paper and paint. Subsequent collections have been inspired by the court dress of the Medici dynasty, and the costumes of Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes.

In 2008, de Borchgrave was invited to exhibit her work at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, once Fortuny’s home and atelier. For that show, she created more than 40 works of art — dresses, caftans, accessories — along with a whimsical tent, made from lace-like sheer paper, inspired by one Fortuny built in 1911. The BAM exhibit, which will also include a replica of de Borchgrave’s own Brussels studio, marks the first time that this complete collection has been shown in North America (though some of the pieces were included in “Pulp Fashion,” a de Borchgrave exhibit at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor in 2011).

In the fashion world, Fortuny is perhaps best known for the Delphos dress, created in 1907 and manufactured until the designer’s death more than 40 years later. Worn by the likes of dancer Isadora Duncan and actress Eleanora Duse, the loose, body-skimming gown was typically made of richly colored silk pressed into numerous tiny pleats (through a process Fortuny patented); its shape was columnar, puddling into a mermaid silhouette at the hem. Coming at a time when women’s clothing was highly structured and corseted, the Grecian-inspired Delphos gown was revolutionary — so lightweight that Fortuny sewed glass Venetian beads along the seams, to help the whispery dress hang properly.

Numerous examples of the Delphos dress populate the exhibit; some simple and unadorned, others accessorized with a shawl, tunic or coat. It’s hard to believe they’re constructed of paper; they seem as if they might dance in a slight breeze. Other garments reflect other Fortuny influences — Asian, African and Renaissance motifs. Both Fortuny and de Borchgrave, said Catalano, share a fascination with “bringing the past alive.”

Though de Borchgrave wasn’t able to come to Bellevue to visit the exhibit personally, she’s represented by two staffers from her studio who face a daunting challenge: how to “fluff up” these paper garments after the inevitable crushing caused by crates and shipping. They use special irons, tiny paintbrushes, and their hands to re-crumple, re-pleat and somehow magically turn painted paper into “fabric” before our eyes.

Catalani, who was entranced by de Borchgrave’s work in “Pulp Fashion” and subsequently worked to bring the Fortuny exhibit here, said that the artist’s creations fits in perfectly with BAM’s mission. “They exist between art and craft, both sculpture and dress,” he said — a gaze back across time, beautifully clothed.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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