There’s something about Cecilie Bahnsen’s dresses that make you feel like you’ve had them forever. The Danish designer’s creations, often in diaphanous fabrics sweetened with generous helpings of embellishments and embroideries, feel like they’ve been plucked right out of a little girl’s wardrobe — supersized to fit her 15-years-later physique. They’re whimsical and rather nostalgic, but stop short of veering into Lolita territory.
Their prettiness would suffice as a calling card, but Bahnsen — having done an internship at John Galliano and time at Erdem before launching her eponymous label in 2015 — is also offering up pieces that are a cut above in craft. A made-by-hand proposition. Meticulous handiwork she attributes to her time at Galliano: “There wasn’t a computer in the whole studio. It was all made by hand and that really inspires me. It’s something I still keep in the way I design now.” It’s working. She’s already earned a spot on the LVMH Prize shortlist in 2017, and the physical and virtual racks of retailers the world over like Dover Street Market.
She’s cultivated not just a signature look, but also a signature detail: a generous cut-out on the back of her garments that are often delicately tempered with bows. “There is that surprise when you go into the store; something that you didn’t catch from just an image,” Bahnsen explains. “The collection is so tactile that you have to go and see it up close and turn it around.” The element of surprise is something she speaks fondly of, and has also birthed an unlikely — but beautifully hand-beaded — collaboration with Japanese outdoor footwear brand Suicoke. She’d approached them upon wearing a pair of their sandals with her designs, and falling in love with the feminine-masculine contrast. “I always think the best collaborations come out of these surprises. Something that maybe is not an obvious mix, but really complement each other.”
Bahnsen is not alone as she flourishes into a household name in the international fashion scene. She is coming up at a time when Danish brands are making Copenhagen Fashion Week a fixture on retail buyers’ schedules, and its street style a must-cover for websites of fashion magazines. The latter perhaps, satiates the general curiosity of whether the country’s style stereotype — the “Danish Girl” — is indeed as effortless as she is quirkily stylish. Bahnsen puts it this way: “The way that they just ride on their bike with a big dress or a colourful jumper…”
That style stereotype however, doesn’t seem to apply to its designers. Copenhagen is now known for — amongst hygge, furniture and Michelin stars — Saks Potts’ rainbow-hued fur, Ganni’s eclectic but wearable wardrobe, Rotate’s casual-glamour proposition, and this designer’s dreamy and quietly elaborate pieces. “Every show represents something so different that I think there’s a relaxed ease. A non-competitiveness. Nicolaj [Reffstrup] who was CEO of Ganni — he’s a friend of mine and he gives me advice. It’s this thing where we’d rather work on making [Danish fashion] better,” Bahnsen shares.
And for her, better means a love for repetition in a time where the race to put out something new (and radical! or hype!) is fully afoot in fashion. But it’s not repetition without refinement and evolution. “It’s so important that you push yourself as far as you can and add new things, but also keep what is core to you as that’s essential,” she says. This core we presume, being that whimsical girlishness that is at once delightful, yet familiar and comforting — almost like our wardrobe’s past returned, albeit elevated. Of which, she too has hopes for her designs to transcend time: “I like to think that my dresses will have a longer life than just one season; something that you’d treasure after and maybe even your daughter would wear one day.”
You had an internship at John Galliano and went on to work at Erdem. How have those experiences shaped you as a designer?
“I think both of them are very romantic, very colourful and extreme in applications of textiles and embroideries. Coming from a Danish design background, it was so inspiring to have that challenge of pushing your design so far. You can always add more, especially at Galliano where it was so decadent and an amazing place for a first internship. I did print for them and we would design all the prints and hand-paint them. There wasn’t a computer in the whole studio — it was all made by hand and that really inspires me. It’s something I still keep in the way I design now; I really love to draw and paint and work with textiles.”
When did you feel ready to start your own label?
“I had the urge since I graduated from the Royal College of Art, but there’s so much in the fashion industry that I didn’t know anything about. The production, sales…That was why I worked at Erdem too — to see a brand like his grow is very inspiring. My boyfriend, an illustrator, was offered an art residency in Bangkok and we had the opportunity to go away for four months and just focus on creativity without having any restrictions. That was kind of when I decided this possibility doesn’t just come along everyday. There also wasn’t a fashion brand in Denmark then doing like, almost couture or on the high-end level, and I wanted to do that — to try and design something like we [the Danish] do for architecture and furniture, but in fashion.”
You’ve been inspired by the idea of uniforms despite not having to wear one to school growing up in Denmark. Why do they appeal to you?
“I think everything in Denmark is quite relaxed and easy, and I loved that as a kid. I would wear the craziest things to school. Funny combinations. But when I started at the Royal College of Art in London, I remember sitting at Hyde Park and there was this beautiful group of school girls in trapeze jackets and matching hats, and there was just something so strong about their identity. It was this repetition of a look that inspired me very much. I also liked that when I went up close, it was still very individual. They’d put on a badge of their own or make their dress a certain length. It’s like yes it was one thing, but then again it’s not.”
What draws you to repetition in a time when attention spans are so short, and it’s always about what’s new and next?
“It’s almost like a sustainable aspect of it all. I like to think that my dresses will have a longer life than just one season; something that you’d treasure after and maybe even your daughter would wear it one day. As a designer, it’s also to refine and make things better. It’s so important that you push yourself as far as you can and add new things, but also keep what is core to you as that’s essential. To keep making it better.”
Do you think there’s a sense of Danish identity in your clothing?
“Many Danish brands would probably look at me and say I’m not that Danish as my textiles are elaborate and the embroideries are very complex, but there’s always a balance. If my fabric is complex, the silhouette is simple. It’s always this balance and a challenge to myself that I can be decadent while still being light, simple and easy. It’s what makes it Scandinavian I think. There’s this cool, minimalistic thing.”
Although your take on minimalism isn’t necessarily what most would associate with Scandi minimalism.
“It’s more in the effortlessness. It’s also a part of what I think when I design. I want the dress to feel comfortable, I like them to be dressed with trainers, and there’s always this comfort playing up against the complexity and details.”
Danish fashion is having a bit of a moment. There’s Saks Potts, Ganni and of course yourself. Why do you think the time is now?
“The brands happening now in Copenhagen are so different from each other that it’s a very interesting fashion week to attend and follow. Every show represents something so different that I think there’s a relaxed ease. A non-competitiveness. Nicolaj [Reffstrup] who was CEO of Ganni — he’s a friend of mine and he gives me advice. It’s this thing where we’d rather work on making [Danish fashion] better.”
Like a community.
“Yes, exactly. And I think that’s what makes it special, and what makes it work, because it is an effort to get people to attend Copenhagen Fashion Week compared to Paris, for example. There is also that [Danish] dressing that inspires people at the moment because it’s so effortless and playful. The way that they just ride on their bike with a big dress or a colourful jumper…”
Given that you graduated in London, what made you decide not to show at London Fashion Week?
“The first two seasons we did showrooms in London just for sales and that worked amazingly for us. It was important for us to say that the brand is Danish, but it’s also international. I think Copenhagen Fashion Week is placed so early in the calendar compared to the other fashion weeks that you get to show at a time when people are maybe craving something new. It’s a bit more quiet, and your images last longer on social media. You get to be the first one to say this is what I think 2019 should look like. That’s really fun and inspiring for me.”
Your clothing are not just beautiful from the front, but the back too which usually has quite a bit of details. Was this consciously cultivated?
“Yeah, I love looking at different ways of closing the dresses so often it’s closed with a big or small bow, or a drawstring. I think it feels natural to move all of those details to the back so it also looks really simple from the front, but there is this surprise at the back. It works really well for Instagram but for the catwalk, not so much because there’s all these things you don’t see behind. There is that surprise when you go into the store; something that you didn’t catch from just an image. The collection is so tactile that you have to go and see it up close and turn it around. I think that is important because those details make you explore it more.”
What do you think is the appeal of a woman’s back?
“I think it is very elegant. My collections are not sexy, and to open up the back instead of the front is much more appealing to me. You can be feminine and elegant without being sexy. It’s a quiet way of being sensual.”
Is it a quiet rebellion with how we judge people once they walk into the room and very often, by their face?
“I’ve never thought about it that way but I really like it — that you really can’t judge something till you’ve seen it all. I think that’s a really nice way of thinking about it. It’s mysterious.”
Cecilie Bahnsen is available at Dover Street Market Singapore.
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