Meet the Rare Designer Who Debuted With Couture

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Story image for Designer Collection from New York Times

Rather than produce clothes on the fast-paced ready-to-wear schedule, the designer Christine Hyun Mi Nielsen, who launched her brand last year, chose an unconventional path: She shows her collections on the official haute couture calendar.

Her first collection, which she presented in January, was sold only to private clients through made-to-measure. Last month, she showed a fall 2017 collection that will be sold through a multi-brand Paris-based designer showroom in September. (Pieces begin at around $600.)

Gaining entry to present during haute couture week in Paris can be immensely difficult for unestablished brands, let alone major fashion houses. All applications must go through the exacting Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the governing body that requires brands to submit information on points of sale and annual turnover, as well as previous lookbooks. Nielsen had none of those when she applied, and instead submitted work-in-progress sketches and photos from fittings. She was accepted as a guest designer in late 2016 — and last month presented her second collection alongside other guest labels, including Iris Van Herpen, Proenza Schouler and Rodarte, in addition to permanent members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture such as Chanel and Dior.

The Danish-Korean designer, 40, wears her straight, dark hair parted down the center and often dresses in a uniform of minimal clothes. She graduated from Royal College of Art in London in 2003, and went on to work at Burberry Prorsum before joining Alexander McQueen. (She worked under McQueen himself, and then served as Sarah Burton’s right hand.) She went on to became the studio director at Givenchy and head designer at Balenciaga before she launched her own line last year.

Nielsen keeps her team in the atelier extremely small: She works with only an assistant and an intern (with the exception of specialists she hires shortly before the show to help complete pieces), which she describes as “something along the lines of subversive poetic realness.” She often sources inspiration from folklore and fairy tales, as well as childhood memories. Growing up in South Korea and Denmark with a mother who worked as a children’s librarian and a father who was a professor in political science, Nielsen says different aspects of her upbringing and Scandinavian midsummer nights have always inspired her. Her latest collection featured a surprising structured dress made entirely out of denim — and an asymmetrical yellow gown with an A-line silhouette. “At some point during this season I became obsessed with the idea of bright yellow,” she says. “It reminded me of summer in Denmark, playing in the field as a child. Picking flowers, braiding crowns of dandelions.”

An unexpected illustration tacked to her research board in her atelier also provided inspiration for the recent collection, which featured structured dresses, cotton poplin jackets with latticework, coats with hand-cut leather spikes, dresses trimmed with ermine and outerwear constructed of gathered tulle — all extremely technically challenging details. “I was working with weave-like patterns in various materials and textures,” she explains. “I found an illustration by the Japanese artist Tetsunori Tawaraya. It was really weird and amazing, somehow it was perfectly in tune with what I was working on, black and white: graphic texture and volume.”

Continuing to show on the haute couture calendar as a guest designer is one of Nielsen’s goals. While she admits it’s extremely rare to be accepted as a guest designer on the official calendar — especially with a debut collection and as a new brand — there’s a reason why she prefers it: There are only two seasons a year, and thus it’s easier for her to take a more seasonless approach. Of course, the process hasn’t been without its challenges. “Being self-financed has limitations,” she says. “It is very different from working in-house in a luxury group with huge teams and budgets. Starting a new season is always sweet, you hope and dream and have total freedom and no limitations,” she says, then pauses. “But then later the reality kicks in.”