Je ne cherche pas. Je trouve.

Picture a pond in the dead of winter, with a chilling fog rising up from the water, the thin layer of ice breaking as the air blends with the morning sun, and a wooden table astutely sticking out of the water. A frail girl, dressed in nothing but a peach colored slip and fuzzy ear warmers is perched on top of the table, staring out at the surrounding bleak, leafless woods, yet nothing about her indicates the freeze; she seems warm and still. It was a breathtaking photo, part of a series I had not seen before in a Belgian magazine, and it made me wonder: who is Chaja Birdsong?

She calls the house in Antwerp a “girls nest” or “doll house” because after the divorce it’s just Chaja and her two daughters, half-sisters Billie Olive (a dreamy, creative, musical 5 year-old) and Ruby (a funny, scientific, edgy 16-year old), three red heads under one roof on the second floor,  “with completely different personalities, but very compatible. The age difference works perfectly. We inspire each other,” she says. Tenants now occupy the rest of the house and the odd mile radius peripherals belong to Houdini, a big, menacing cat, with crooked ears and scars on his nose, whose name has a telling history. “When we just got him – we found him in the street as a lost, wet, hungry kitten – he always escaped although all the doors and windows were closed… It’s still a mystery.”

Chaja’s husband was American. She lived in Brooklyn for three years, until 9/11 forced her to move back home. “We were completely bankrupt and I had a really hard time combining my work and child without my family around and a husband on tour.” In a way it was a relief because she missed Belgium, and “mostly the bad things,” she laughs, “the negative, complaining side of the Belgians, the rain… They gave me comfort I guess. Americans have a way of wanting everything and everybody to be happy and positive. Sometimes this optimism felt very unnatural to me – I don’t know if that is my heritage or just my personality. I like the Belgians’ sober, pure, no-nonsense approach to fashion and their high demands when it comes to quality and craftsmanship. And the surrealism that is just everywhere here in Belgium – on every street corner.”

This surrealism is the driving force and inspiration for her editorial work, her own sense of style and the collages she makes. “It’s very much about found art and the “Je ne cherche pas, je trouve” approach. When I go shopping for my styling jobs I look around for myself and whatever catches my eye. I think that is the only way to deal with vintage anyway. You don’t know what you’re looking for or missing until you see that one piece.” She has a profound passion for industrial work wear, college uniforms, embroidery, her grandmother’s kitchen dresses, overalls, pajamas and aprons, which she fervently collects. And she can not “cannot leave anything on the racks with an animal application either, but nothing too girly or frilly. It’s just not me. But wow – I love it on others!”

I love listening to Chaja. She’s a real Antwerp woman, with blunt opinions and strong statements. She embraces her vices without pardon – “I shouldn’t smoke but come on, give me one thing I can regret” – and enjoys her bohemian, artistic life style as freely as possible. She admires the look and work of women like Jane Goodall, Amelia Earhart, Gena Rowlands, Lauren Hutton, Lee Miller, Venetia Scott, Tierney Gearon and Sally Mann. Like her they are sexy but in a boyish way, and expose an earthy, crafty intention I find refreshing. She tells me that as a kid she used to dress her barbies (“well, not real Barbies, the hippie alternative, the sunshine family”) in toilet rolls on which she would glue silhouettes cut out from magazines. And her first fashion crush was “without a doubt, the mini-crini from Vivienne Westwood, anno 1987! I still want an original one. At the time I couldn’t afford it but if you know where to find one, let me know!”

Chaja’s vintage shopping addresses:

Modes in Brussels, close to the flea market

Sarah in Paris at the Porte de Clignancourt flea market

Atelier solarshop in Antwerp

Ra 13 in Antwerp

Verlaine in the antique neighborhood of Antwerp

Labels inc, second hand designer wear in Antwerp

Ave, a former stylist with her own small collection of vintage and designer labels in Antwerp

Ohm, a small, crowded vintage shop on the Vrijdagmarkt in Antwerp

October 4, 2012

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