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On Set | Cecilie Bahnsen

By Lynette Kee

Never one to indulge in feminine clothing — my wardrobe only ever populated with variations of black trousers and structured silhouettes — a conversation with Copenhagen’s most decorated designer, Cecilie Bahnsen, sparked a compelling thought that perhaps, I should review my current wardrobe staples.

Bahnsen, 34, founded her namesake fashion brand in June 2015, after completing her master’s degree in womenswear design at the Royal College of Art in London — where she had lived for the next three years working for British label Erdem. Prior to her degree course, she also worked at John Galliano in Paris. By February 2017, she had debuted her first runway collection during Copenhagen Fashion Week, and in that same year, she was one of eight finalists in the 2017 LVMH Prize initiative. Now, the Copenhagen-based designer has become known for her voluminous, almost fairytale-like dresses, often finished with elaborate details resembling couture gowns.

Bahnsen’s Spring ’20 runway collection, her sixth to date, saw interesting additions of more fitted silhouettes alongside her signature style of big shoulder ruffles and exaggerated peplums. Despite breaking from her own mould, Bahnsen doesn’t veer far from her own aesthetic, punctuating dreamy sensibilities in the tailored pieces of her latest collection with sheer and textured fabric. Her inherent vision of beauty and her constant strive for newness is what got her noticed and crowned as one of the most recognised designers in Copenhagen, and now, the world. 

We were at Tokyo, So-Cal Link Gallery, for the presentation of Bahnsen’s Fall ’19 collection with Matchesfashion. The raw and airy space had sunlight spilling in from the floor-to-ceiling glass panels of the building. Whether or not incidental, Bahnsen’s use of texture and exquisite detailing was better witnessed in natural light, which rendered her clothing ethereal — a word that could also be used to describe Bahnsen’s aura as she walked in to greet me. Soft-spoken and delicate, Bahnsen’s tiny frame stood loud and elegant. She was wearing one of her own white dresses, a uniform complete with her ubiquitous Converse sneakers. In conversation about her designs, Bahnsen spoke fondly about the concept behind her brand, which is represented by the pragmatism and personality of its wearer. This is why anyone (even someone like me) could put on any of her romantic, frilly designs and yet feel no less empowered as a woman. To Bahnsen, it’s about celebrating subversive femininity. 

Here, Bahnsen shares with T Singapore, on her journey as an independent designer. 

LYNETTE KEE: You’ve spent quite a bit of time in London, where you completed your degree and worked for a couple of years. What brought you back to Copenhagen to start your own line?

CECILIE BAHNSEN: I’ve always loved living in London but I wanted to create a Danish brand and make Danish fashion in the same way we are known for furniture and architecture — really beautifully-crafted dresses and details. I also think Copenhagen has a very relaxed easy pace, and I think that kind of effortless energy really inspired me and I wanted
to recreate that.

LK: How was the transition to becoming an independent designer like?

CB: It was a lot harder than I had expected because it doesn’t just happen overnight. It was a lot of hard work to make a name for yourself and design a collection that defines who you are, but I also think it’s been the most interesting journey.

LK: You mentioned about wanting to start your own line to form a narrative for Danish fashion. How would you describe Danish fashion?

CB: I think what’s really exciting about Danish fashion in Copenhagen Fashion Week at the moment is that it’s really happening. There are a lot of exciting brands [entering] the market and so we now have a chance to define what Danish fashion is because it’s new. I think that’s really fun because you don’t really have a framework, you can decide for yourself what you want to do and that’s inspiring to me.

LK: Like you said, Danish fashion has been attracting a global following in the past two years with Copenhagen Fashion Week doing extremely well. What are your thoughts on this shift?

CB: I think it’s always exciting when new cities take a play and try to do [fashion week] differently [from other fashion capitals]. I think when you come to Copenhagen, it’s very different from London or Paris — the mood, and maybe the time taken to go around each show. You will also find that the locations taken to each show is very unique. For me, it’s the home to my collection and it really suits the brand.

“I think it’s important to wear feminine dresses and be a strong woman.”

LK: Why do you think Copenhagen Fashion Week has become so up-and-coming lately?

CB: I think it’s because it is really playful and easy. Danish fashion allows people to still be themselves. For example, if you were to wear one of my dresses, you can still style it in a way where you can be you, whereas for some of the bigger houses, you feel like you’re wearing their brand. So, I think it [has more room for] more personality.

LK: How do you think the popularity has impacted your brand?

CB: It’s amazing because this means that you can create a high fashion brand in Copenhagen and still have people all around the world look at it. [This made it] possible for me to launch my collections. I think it’s exciting for not just my brand but other designers as well. Also, you then get competitive and you always want the next collection to be better. It’s challenging because you want to impress and create a new emotion every time people see the show. So, it’s
a good motivation.

LK: What is your take on fashion?

CB: I think it’s very important to create collections that people want to cherish and not ones based on trends. Some of these dresses; you’d want to wear it now and you’ll [still] wear it in five years, you want to wear it on a Monday and you want to wear it for an occasion. I think there’s this new thing where timeless is no longer just minimalistic. It’s something that is beautiful and something you fall in love with over time. For me, that’s important.

LK: Cecilie Bahnsen is known for its ruffled pieces and whimsical silhouettes, which slightly derail from the typical minimalist Scandinavian style. What message are you trying to convey through your products? CB: The brand is a lot more feminine than most Danish or Scandinavian brands. I think that is what I’ve taken with me from working [in] Paris and London. I always dress romantically even as a kid and I think it’s important to wear feminine dresses and be a strong woman.

LK: Do you think it reflects who you are as a person?

CB: Yes, I do, both my younger self and myself now. It’s like I’m [taking] what I used to wear when I was younger — big poofy dresses with trainers — and making it relevant to different generations. It’s okay to dress up. I like the ritual of putting clothes on, tying the bow and all — It makes you feel special when you do it.

LK: How do you think your vision has evolved over the years from when you started?

CB: I think the interesting thing about launching a brand is that you learn a lot about yourself and you learn a lot about identity. My first collection was 12 pieces and now [each] collection has 65 [pieces]. Now, it’s not just about dresses. It’s blouses, trousers, [and] we also started doing suits this season! It’s difficult and challenging to add so many categories and still make sure that it’s really you. But I also think that’s the challenge [that makes it] fun as a designer, to keeps evolving and pushing who you are.

LK: You mentioned earlier about the strong furniture and architecture background in Copenhagen. How has that influenced you as a designer?

CB: In Copenhagen, we are very much known for functionalism and minimalism. It’s been a huge part of [my] growing up. I inherited furniture from my grandma, and I still think they’re modern even though they are from the '50s. So, that really inspired me to create collections that you would also pass on.

LK: Fashion has reached a mainstream with a growing number of consumers. How do you think that has benefited you having started your line in this modern era?

CB: It’s both amazing and challenging because of the platforms. Even though you might be based in Denmark, that might not necessarily be your biggest market – it could be on the other side of the world. It’s hard to grasp but I do think it’s inspiring to be able to do what you love and have different people love that. It’s such a privilege.

LK: What does it mean for a woman to design for other women in today’s context?

CB: I think it’s so important and it’s amazing to see womenswear brands with women as designers. You think about comfort and how it feels to wear it differently from a man. For me, it’s also about sensuality and femininity. It’s different from a female point of view. I think you will always understand better.