Tilley was born and brought up in Kapelle-op-den-Bos, Flemish Brabant, and studied painting for a time at the Sint-Lukas University College of Art and Design in Brussels before going on to study fashion at the Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts, where she was a contemporary of the Antwerp Six.
She never left her love for painting behind, and she also never entered into the side of the fashion business that concerns itself with trends. Her designs, which attracted the attention of Diana Ross and Halle Berry, were timeless in their fairy-tale aesthetic and seemed to belong to a far-off, imaginary place. As she later explained, she was not creating trends, she was creating another world.
I interviewed Tilley in 2009 on her sprawling property in the countryside near Asse, Flemish Brabant. Her home was a 12th-century mill transformed into a fairy grotto, and her workshop the former barn. There she showed me her inspiration books. At least once every year, she would take off alone to some remote, sunny place, bringing her paints and a book, usually a hefty antique tome whose pages she would whitewash and then draw over. On her return, the book, now filled with dreamlike designs, would be turned over to a patternmaker who would convert the flights of fancy into garments.
Her fans loved her creations for their romance, theatricality and wispy fragility. Just as her home contained no straight edges, so her dresses seemed to have no seams, hems, fastenings or any other intrusive signs of workmanship – as if an idea could be conjured straight onto the body without passing through the rude process of dressmaking.
Tilley’s death came as a shock, and the details are still not public. The feeling of a talent cut off in its prime is heightened by the fact that she was riding a new wave of creativity. Following years when she had fought off cancer and lost her businesses in Antwerp and Brussels, she was again producing work, not only dresses but also furniture and jewellery. Fittingly, one of the last jobs she undertook was the design of the costumes for a new Flemish musical of Peter Pan. If anyone could convince you that the too, too solid flesh of a stage actor might be able to fly, Kaat Tilley could.
Read our 2009 interview with Kaat Tilley here: www.flanderstoday.eu/content/dreams-design