Designer Cecilie Bahnsen talks her Suicoke collab, quilted dresses and building a global fashion label from Copenhagen
The age of innocence
Danish fashion designer Cecilie Bahnsen is one of those creators who carry their clothes just as well as their clients and celebrity admirers do. When we meet her at Dover Street Market Singapore for the unveiling of her collaboration with shoe brand Suicoke, she's dressed in a billowy-sleeved white dress of her own making and sipping French press coffee, looking every inch the ethereal young lady that her designs appear to speak to loudest.
Experiences at the Danish Royal Theatre, John Galliano and Erdem equipped Bahnsen well to found her Copenhagen-based label. A serene but practical sense of romance informs her work, which has found fans in Ariana Grande and Leandra Medine Cohen — just two examples of women for whom femininity doesn't preclude steely strength. We chatted to Bahnsen about the fusion of Parisian and Danish aesthetics, the wonders of hand-worked fabrics, and how to break in her precious garments (which, until recently, the designer admits she couldn't afford).
How did Cecilie Bahnsen start? And what was the driving force behind it?
Cecilie Bahnsen (CB): It was 2015, and I had just returned to Copenhagen from London. I wanted to start a womenswear brand influenced by Denmark's history of minimalist craftsmanship, architecture and furniture design, combined with the more decadent fashion I was exposed to during my time in London and Paris. My goal was to create an international brand in Copenhagen. For my debut collection, we exhibited in showrooms during London Fashion Week, where the collection was bought by Dover Street Market. That was our starting point for retail, and it allowed us to remain super creative and true to our DNA.
What would you say are the defining characteristics of the Danish aesthetic?
CB: Within Danish fashion, definitely simplicity, comfort and wearability. Even though my dresses are sculptural, rich and detailed, I want them to be wearable, or something you feel that you can put on everyday.
Like a comfortable piece of art.
CB: Yes, exactly.
What is your design ethos?
CB: Femininity is a very strong and important core value for me. I make dresses for women to feel beautiful, strong and independent, and would never want a design to outshine the woman wearing it — it's very important that they add their own personality to it. There's always a sculptural aspect to my work; I am very inspired by art, and try to make each piece something you would cherish and love for a long time, just like the best art pieces.
Who would you say that you design for?
CB: My last collection was designed for a group of women — it was based on the idea of being stronger together, so the dresses were all different but shared the same school uniform elements. For the spring/summer show, the ladies entered one by one and walked really close to the audience, but at the end, they huddled as a group in the middle of the space; it demonstrated the cohesion of all the collection's individual pieces, and how each supported the other, just as women do.
What are some of the traditional techniques in your designs that are noteworthy or uncommon in clothing today?
CB: Our historically-inspired textiles. I love quilting, patchwork and everything handmade, but enjoy giving them a super modern in something like a crisp cotton, or any fabric you wouldn't normally expect.
Do you have a favourite historical reference that you always return to?
CB: I love quilting, and we've done it now for a couple of seasons. It can be really heavy for outerwear or super-light but either way, it holds volume beautifully.
Could you share a little about your earlier career?
CB: While I was studying at the Danish Design School, I had a mentor who I first assisted with costume design for the Danish Royal Theatre. When she started freelancing for John Galliano, she took me with her and got me an internship. I was working with a lot of older textiles and it was really inspiring; Galliano's aesthetic was so colourful, he layered technique on technique in wonderful fabrics. There was nothing Scandinavian about it, but being forced to design in such a different way taught me much more than I would have learned working my your comfort zone. I learned to take a design to the absolute limit, then slowly pare things back. That's often how I work now.
Has that been the biggest lesson? To 'over-design' then reduce it?
CB: Yes, to design as much as possible, then take a step back to analyse and edit. One over-the-top dress containing too many ideas can be spun off into three different dresses.
Your designs are very feminine. Have definitions of femininity changed or perhaps expanded in today's society?
CB: There are definitely more women designing for women, which is very nice. I think we are moving away from androgyny, and are allowed to be more feminine now.
It's true that androgyny is often biased towards masculinity.
CB: Yes, and it's important to me that both masculinity and femininity inspire each other. It's in the balance between the two that something special happens.
Are there designers you always look up to?
CB: I love Balenciaga's work from the '50s; the sculptural designs of the old couture houses looks just as modern today as they did back then. Also, everything Rei Kawakubo does for Comme des Garçons is absolutely out-of-this-world — it's art.
Are you inspired by fine art?
CB: By the process behind it, perhaps. For our first two collections, we exhibited at an artist's gallery in Copenhagen; we showed the clothes of the first alongside his works in progress, and by the second, the palettes and moods of our collection and his work had begun to blend. Art and fashion share a lot of inspirations and thought processes.
How do you design? What form do your earliest ideas for a collection take?
CB: I always start with fabric, I'm definitely a textile-obsessed person. Once I have my fabric, I put it on the stand to see what kind of volumes and shapes lend themselves best to it — it's a very tactile process, and it's important for me to get away from my computer and desk. I need to have something in my hands to create.
How do you discover new textiles?
CB: I visit a lot of archives and libraries to look at historical textiles, or go to flea markets and vintage shops; those in Paris are especially good for cotton embroidery and things like that.
What has been your favourite flea market purchase?
CB: An extremely detailed, voluminous lace Christening gown.
What are you most passionate about, besides fashion?
CB: Some people choose yoga or meditation, but I sketch constantly on the go — whether it's for my collection or landscapes or botanical studies. I live really close to the sea in Copenhagen, and love going there to take a break. It's my quiet zone.
What is the first thing you think about when you wake up?
CB: Unfortunately, I'm like most people when it comes to Instagram. Checking Instagram is one of the first things I do when I wake up, along with grabbing my morning coffee.
What's on your feed?
CB: Friends, dresses and maybe cute dog pictures.
How do you take your coffee?
CB: I usually get a flat white.
What's the last thing you think about before you go to bed?
CB: I love to read, but am often tired, so I'll read the same page twice!
What are you currently reading?
CB: I'm re-reading Jane Eyre.
What do you love most about it?
CB: She's a strong woman, and the story is about how she's finding herself. That has a lot in common with my collections, which revolve around discovering who you really are.
What do you wear on a daily basis?
CB: I always wear my own stuff, because it's so nice! I couldn't afford my own clothes when I first started, but now, I can get a first-hand sense of what's comfortable and what's working. I bought some Suicoke sandals when I was in Japan, and when I wore them with one of my dresses, I said to myself: "We need to do something with them, it's such a perfect match." That's how our collaboration came about; their shoes have a masculine touch that goes so well with our feminine designs.
Do you also test-drive your samples?
CB: Yes, sometimes!
Tell me about your current collection.
CB: Spring/summer 2019 was really interesting, in that we chose to stay away from black and kept everything mostly white with a hint of colour — we had these beautiful laces that were mint and blue, or pink and white. We wanted to achieve a very airy and innocent look, but the lighter colours also brought out the detail, craftsmanship and volume of the dresses.
Do you have a favourite piece?
CB: It would be the white quilted outfit that we opened with. The quilting artwork is hand-drawn is unique to each piece, and at the open back there's all these bows. I like that it looks like a simple cotton dress from the front, but is a lot more detailed at the rear.
That says a lot about women too, don't you think? Behind the side you most frequently see, there's so much going on.
CB: You really have to pay attention. When the model wearing that outfit turned on the runway, I heard a little gasp in the audience from someone who had noticed something they'd missed in the beginning. It's the sort of feeling you hope people will have looking at your collection.
Do you have any thoughts on delayed gratification? Everything that we want now is so instantaneous. Are you for or against it?
CB: I try to make our stuff timeless so that it has longevity. You want people to fall in love instantly with a piece, but also hope that it will spark a romance which lasts beyond the season.
How do you maintain your pristine white clothes?
CB: My pieces are mostly cotton, so they can be hand-washed. It's important to me that they be easy to maintain, which also has an eco-friendly purpose; not all of our pieces are dry-clean only. I want you to feel at home in your dress; if you bike to work and it gets a little bit dirty, that's ok, because it's better that it's being worn and cherished.
It's interesting that you want people to feel like they are 'at home' in your clothes. What does that mean for you?
CB: If I were to go to a party or event, I would want to wear something that made me feel beautiful and comfortable. It's about how a dress allows you to be yourself; they can have a lot of the designer's personality, but there should still be space to style it in a way that feels right for your own.
What did you once wear that you don't anymore?
CB: I don't wear heels or jeans anymore. My neutral uniform used to be black jeans and a white T-shirt, so that what I wore wouldn't influence what I was designing. But now, I really love that I can wear what I design, and that I can feel how it is to wear my own clothes.
Do you remember a day where you decided that you were done with your 'uniform'?
CB: It was my boyfriend who encouraged me to wear my stuff more. In the beginning, they felt so precious, but after getting used to them with a few wears, they feel even better.
What current trend are you most excited about?
CB: I'm really not a trend-based designer. I stay away from trends because they're a little bit dangerous; as a designer, you get confused if you try to follow them too much. But I do like the idea of women wearing flat shoes and trainers, or generally dressing in a more casual way. You can be just as pretty in a dress with trainers.
What is the one thing that you can't live without?
CB: Probably my work and my boyfriend. Both of those things, and my family, who I'm very close to. A big part of moving back to Denmark was to be able to do the work that I love so much, but to still be around the people I love. It's been very hard to find the balance between both in my career, and I'm grateful to have found it.
What did you wear as a child?
CB: I loved playing around and dressing as though I was a Christmas tree for kindergarten, with things like wheelies, glittery socks and big tutus. It was always something different every day. I also enjoyed dressing my friends up — that design instinct has always been there. At the age of 12 I did an internship at school, and I was just so fascinated discovering that you could make a career of art and fashion. Both my parents are doctors, and my sister is a schoolteacher, so it really inspired me to do something that was completely different.
What is something painful that you can live with?
CB: How messy I am. As a creative person, I like to develop things. It's inspiring in the moment, but afterwards there's just stuff everywhere, and because you created it all, you have to be the one to organize the mess. If there was a middle ground between chaos and order, that'd be really good, and I think my boyfriend would also appreciate that; because if I'm really into a project, I'll take the craziness home with me. It's always about going back to a clean space.
I notice that you braid your hair and undo it as you speak. Is that something that you've always done?
CB: Yes, my assistant Sophie always laughs at me. She says I can have 10 hairstyles in a day because I braid it as I think, so one moment it's this way, and 20 minutes it's another way.
That's the cutest!
CB: I do it especially if I'm a bit nervous... It's really funny, because my hair does change a lot over the day!
What do you look forward to doing in the next year or two? What can people expect from you?
CB: I think we have pinned down what the brand is about, who we are, who our girl is and our key silhouettes, so it's really about building on all this now. I want to do more outerwear and trousers, and build a full wardrobe. I'd like to challenge ideas of what a Cecilie Bahnsen jacket or trousers would look like, and hope that people would still recognize them as ours right away. That's super exciting for me.
Cecilie Bahnsen's spring/summer 2019 collection — as well as her shoe collaboration with Suicoke — are now available at Dover Street Market Singapore.
Buro 24/7 Selection