Cecilie Bahnsen on Pursuing a Vision That Makes Sense
In mid-2017, I travelled to Denmark to speak with fashion designer Cecilie Bahnsen, a dear friend and ex-colleague. At the time of our conversation, Cecilie’s brand was in its infant years, while Advance Copy was a nameless project dedicated to documenting a new era in independent fashion.
Time is sparse for anyone growing a company and so, close to midnight, we sat in Cecilie’s Copenhagen apartment and spoke about locality, seasonality and the daily realities of starting a fashion brand. It was impossible to predict how Cecilie Bahnsen would go on to charm the world of fashion and the wider creative fields, seemingly transcending industry boundaries to inspire with her dream-like take on modern, architectural femininity. Our conversation captured a unique yet fragile time, a young designer on the cusp of growth, a wonderful moment to look-back on knowing she has achieved, truly, well deserved success. Bahnsen is a shining soul in fashion; humble, dedicated and in gifted with an instinctual vision.
Advance Copy: Hi Cecilie, thanks so much for taking the time at the end of a busy day for our conversation. Having recently moved from London back to Copenhagen how do you feel about Denmark’s creative scene, how is it currently developing?
Cecilie: I think being a Danish designer, there is a lot of things happening in Copenhagen. People have started to appreciate the heritage for [Danish] furniture and architecture; our fashion should evolve on the same qualities. Customers are looking for designers with that passion to make iconic pieces that last, that are simple, beautiful in craftsmanship but also functional. There is something unique about Scandinavian design, it might be very detailed or very complex, but essentially it boils down to something beautiful and wearable. I believe it’s time for our fashion to represent that and it’s interesting to see that you can build something and it’s part of a movement, you’re not the only one who’s trying to create it. In Paris, you see a lot of up-and-coming designers, it’s something that French fashion has had for many years with established houses, but we need young brands to do something completely different. I think we are fighting for that design heritage towards a different scene, what excites me is seeing that you can build upon history; that feels amazing.
“We need young brands to do something completely different.”
AC: What direct benefits have you noticed of growing Cecilie Bahnsen independently in Denmark?
Cecilie: For example, I wanted for the size of the collection to be narrow from the beginning, to be very precise about what we do. That’s something we can do because there is no pressure from an investor. We can keep it to a very small, clear vision. So far it has worked, people find it easier to buy into because it’s so precise and you know that the collection you see is the same collection that was on the catwalk. For me it’s important that what you see is what you get, that’s the freedom that I have. I would say that, even if you are following seasons like I am, follow them in a way that makes sense to your brand.
AC: Do you think it’s becoming less important for designers to be based in key fashion capitals like Paris, London or Milan?
Cecilie: I think that as long as you show during big fashion weeks, or are represented there, then the company can be based wherever you wish for the rest of the season. People love stories of brands that build on their heritage or have remembered their roots that will be even more important in the future.
“It’s more important that people love my clothes when they wear them, and for the quality of design to be strong enough when you see it in-store.”
AC: What approach have you taken to promote Cecilie Bahnsen, how would you like people to discover your work?
Cecilie: We’ve been lucky because the collection was stocked at Dover Street Market London right from the beginning and for us, it’s worked as a marketing name in itself, it has carried the brand a long way. Instagram is free, so we’ve been able to do a lot there too. For me, it’s more important that people love my clothes when they wear them, and for the quality of design to be strong enough when you see it in-store so you want to buy it even if you haven’t seen it in a magazine. Maybe that’s the difference between being based in London or Copenhagen; there is a hype around London with pressure on being featured in press and for your collection to be successful. I think we managed to skip that a little bit, just focusing on the design, the stores and customers.
AC: You mentioned fashion weeks; at the moment there are many conversations about bringing flexibility to the classic seasonal fashion system, more brands are experimenting with alternative formats of sharing and shipping their collections. As a young brand with a clean slate, what is your approach to presenting and delivering new collections?
Cecilie Bahnsen: I’ve always preferred to work in seasons, to have a deadline so you know what you’re working to, somehow that works best for my mind. In some ways it takes the pressure off, knowing that you will be doing the next collection a couple of months later, it’s not the be-all and end-all of what you make.
The really hard thing for me is the delivery windows, being able to make these unique things with quality craftsmanship that I want to make, but also turn them around so early on in the season. I like to design for fashion weeks, this way of presenting where you tell a story and create an atmosphere, but I think the seasons are a little bit lost now, it’s a confusing matter when we are delivering autumn/winter collections in June.
“I wish there was less of a rush to put things on sale, for the clothes to get the life span they deserve, for sustainability of fashion itself.”
AC: Would you consider exploring alternative delivery cycles?
Cecilie: Because we make a lot of dresses the collection is, in a way, unseasonal. I think as a Scandinavian brand, especially for winter, I like this idea that you do your layers, knitwear, overcoats, and all of these other elements. But as a small brand you deliver everything at the same time, so you can’t deliver your heavier weight product later and in that way, it can get difficult.
I try to create non-seasonal designs, so that you could wear a dress a year after or 10 years after and feel like it’s still relevant, therefore it’s a shame when these garments get a short lifespan. I don’t know if it’s on the store or the consumer side, but I wish there was less of a rush to put things on sale, for the clothes to get the lifespan they deserve, for sustainability of fashion itself. For example, I have a friend who decided to make a collection when she feels like there is a need to make one. There is some beauty in this [approach], it seems more exclusive, there is a good story to tell and a product to sell just when it feels right. I think there will be more brands that will do this and stores are also starting to find it very interesting.
AC: Could you share some important lessons that may be useful to other young brands, or designers looking to start their own business? What have you learnt on this journey and what excites you the most about the future of growing Cecilie Bahnsen?
Cecilie: I definitely underestimated working for other people and then starting to work for myself, the pressure that is on you when you start your own brand, to run a business and be creative. That’s when independence becomes a real thing because you need to be two people to do both the creative and business sides, to be able to handle it in a good way.
“Once you’ve built your company it’s not about you, it’s about the people who are making this company.”
As a fashion designer the day you decide to launch a brand you also decide that you are going to work with others, it’s not just about you. I think that’s where we need a change; even if you’re putting your name on the brand, and your vision of how the collection looks, once you’ve built your company it’s not about you, it’s about the people who are making this company. For me, they are the ones that come first and they will keep coming first and that’s the only way we can make such beautiful things that we make right now. That’s the reality you don’t learn as a student, you don’t learn this unless you work for somebody else. Many fashion designers start brands without working for other labels first, if you’ve had that experience and made a few mistakes, you’ll know how you want to be spoken to or what a good working day for you is.
“You dare to plan ahead.”
What excites me in general, is just seeing that it is possible and within last year we’ve managed to make it possible. I can see that we can now employ one person and this collection is funding the next one, it’s starting to be a cycle, for me that is the most amazing thing. You dare to plan ahead.
AC: Cecilie, thank you so much for sharing your time and thoughts with me this evening. We wish you the best of luck!