It’s one thing to wear a Gucci dress with emblazoned snake gracefully, another to handle the bite of this very poisonous Kingsnake. Caroline Van Thillo knows how to manage both.
The first time I met the travel writer turned interior designer turned fashion consultant, I was standing on my head on a particularly soft rug in the lobby of a french alpine hotel. I immediately noticed the cool boots she was wearing, followed by a ravishing ski outfit, a raven black head of hair and a very big smile. It all looked cool upside down and even more so a couple of dizzy seconds later when I was back on my feet. (In my defense, I was eight years old and totally supposed to perform tumbles in a hotel lobby.) My best friend told me Caroline was her aunt and I remember being completely dumbstruck: this was a MOM?! Moms weren’t supposed to look like this! No offense to my mother or any other one in the world, including myself, but in my eight year old mind she just looked way to cool to be doing that job. It wasn’t until I saw her own little miniature cradling around that very same lobby that I could actually believe it. Now, more than twenty years later, both the little miniature person and I are all grown up, Caroline is still cool and she invited me for a little chat, feet on the ground this time, in her head-turning dressing filled with vintage finds, beautiful design and enough playful looks to dress the entire cast of Sesame Street -would they ever decide to make a life-action, fashionable movie.
Her most priced possession, however, turns out to be… a folding plank. “It’s the one thing that almost made me consider stealing once. You must know I am a terrible maniac (the rows of immaculate jeans and shirts, all sorted by colors, kind of gave this away) and I have always noticed these planks sellers use to fold basically everything. I think it is the coolest thing in the world, which I mentioned once to someone who owns a store and before I knew it, I received a very impressive parcel in the mail containing one of these beauties… best gift ever!
What has she been up to, while I was very busy growing up? A lot, so it seems. She started out writing travel stories about Belgian expats (“Met a lot of nice, and a couple of really nasty people. Overall, everybody was interesting”) and then set up a successful interior decorating business. “I’m passionate about interior design and helped out a lot of my friends to decorate their houses. After a while I realized I had become some sort of pro deo decorator and decided to make an actual job out of it, which turned out to be quite a big business. I also started consulting for Belgian fashion house Natan. At first, I was a bit anxious about that, because who am I to judge the work of other, far more talented people? It all went down really smoothly, however. When you’re a designer and you have been working on the same collection for months, a fresh look at it can actually help you re-focus and see your work in a different light, which is really inspiring. Natan is one of the very last houses that still works with an in-house crew of so-called petites mains, everybody is stuck together in a big mansion on the Avenue Louize in Brussels and the atmosphere there is really amazing. Fashion has always been a big passion: to me it is a form of art, considering all the research, technical work, passion, skills and craftsmanship it requires. In this light, it’s saddening when people call it vain or superficial.”
“Minimalist” is clearly not a word in Caroline’s book, but where’s the line between eclectic and cacophony? How to avoid living in a place that looks like it was decorated by Ali Baba on crack? “One rule: white walls! You can go bananas in small spaces, like a child’s bedroom or a toilet, but overall the walls of your main living rooms should be calm and sober. It neutralizes all the other crazy stuff, monkey lamps, bright pink sofas or extreme art you’d like to bring into the house, plus it gives you the chance to re-decorate every once and a while. If you want to change your furniture, drapes, cushions, etc, you wil never be hindered by a hysterical wall. I find a lot of stuff online, I can spend hours searching the internet, but beware, you’re never really sure about quality. I once bought these amazing vintage butterfly lamps in an online sell-off, but only half of them arrived in one piece. It’s part of the game. I also learned not to look too far when it comes to furniture shopping, I find a lot here in Belgium, the flea market in Paris and in The Netherlands –you’d be surprised how much you can find there, Dutch people are very playful in their design, I like that.”
“I like fun fashion, but I’m not so keen on hypes. You’ll see a lot of Gucci in my closet and I admire what Alessandro Michele is doing. It was a genius idea to, among other things, put a snake on an entire collection, but I wonder how long you can keep doing that. Sometimes the show takes over the fashion, and it inevitably provokes copycats: people with a lot of talent and resources suddenly start lowering themselves to slavishly follow some hype of putting snakes everywhere; it is disappointing. So yes, beware of reptiles… By the way, the kingsnake, Gucci’s unofficial emblem, is crawling around in the garden of my Brazilian holiday home and it is super poisonous: if you ever get bitten, go straight to the vet or you won’t live to tell the tale!” So much for this cool mom’s fashion and survival tips.