Entering Corrie Nielsen’s studio is like going backstage at the theatre. To find it you have to wander down endless labyrinthine corridors deep in the bowels of Somerset House, where she has been in residence since winning Fashion Fringe in 2010. Twisting and turning, up and down stairs until you're thoroughly disorientated and then, like lifting back the curtain and peeping into the wings, you're there. The carcasses of those dramatic gowns that make such an impact on the catwalk rest in bits on mannequins, like sleeping dragons, waiting to be woken and reassembled into spectacular showpieces.
And there she is, shyly smiling, slight in battered jeans, cardigan and Converse ("I don’t know what’s happened, I need to get back into my own self, this is ridiculous!”) looking for all the world like a punk from Portland rather than a world-class couturier. In actual fact, she is both. And it's this dichotomy that fascinates me; that DIY rebellious attitude that found her hanging out on the Seattle grunge scene, then upping sticks to follow what she tells me was a lifelong dream to live in London and make beautiful clothes. Huh?
Actually it all makes perfect sense. Fashion’s biggest rebels all happen to be Brits: the likes of Westwood, McQueen (both of whom Nielsen’s been compared to) and Galliano (who picked her as the winner of Fashion Fringe) all mix anarchic attitudes with a deep respect for fashion’s past and sublime skill. Nielsen has all three in spades.
Of her misspent (or well spent, depending on how you look at it) youth in Portland she says, “There were so many artistic people that I hung out with when I was growing up there. It was great – I was introduced to all different types of things, because vintage shopping was really big back then. There was this one particular shop that I used to go to all the time where I’d buy shoes that were ‘30s, ‘40s, or an old pair of men’s Armani trousers that were Prince of Wales check and I would wear that with a big baggy shirt and at that time the new wave of punk, skinhead and that whole era was going on. People were quite individual and arty and it really opened up my mind, especially the music scene. It was a really good time.”
“And when I hit 18 I moved to Seattle and that was even more creative and I went from punk and nu-wave into the acid house scene that was kicking off in the early 90s. And I was hanging around with all these artistic gay men and musicians – my friends knew Nirvana and I dated Courtney from the Dandy Warhols... the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were some of the funnest times of my life.”
Corrie stands apart from the group of up and coming London-based designers who have been generating such a buzz with their fan base of premiers’ wives. She wants no part of that, preferring to do her own thing, totally disinterested in trends and movements, refining her own unique aesthetic. I love that quiet contrariness and independence of spirit. It's impressive to have such strength of character and to stick to your own path so resolutely in an industry that's obsessed with NEW and NOW and NEXT.
“I always do my own thing… I feel that I’m one of the few designers out there that’s doing something quite original – everybody else is doing digital prints and these little dresses and I wanted to bring something back into the industry that represents style, that also has something a little bit artistic to it, what fashion really is. So I try to remove myself from all of that because I see myself as an individual who is establishing a certain style – I feel like it has developed and it is getting stronger, and I’ve done it my own way.”
It sounds like an attitude... “If you look at the history of fashion, fashion is an attitude and I think fashion is quite individual. Most of my friends are men and they’re quite stylish and some of those guys dress very ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s and it’s a certain style so I think what I’m trying to do is set a stylish standard, but in my own way.”
“What I see happening in the industry – where we used to be and where we are now - is it’s gone so mass commercial that the art of dress has flown out the door – people don’t really care anymore, they just want to throw on whatever and go out – they don’t think about the look and how they want to present themselves to that particular environment or crowd. Everything is just so fast - next next next next - and I want to take a step back and slow it down a bit and really think about what we’re doing. If you look at some of the greatest couturiers – Charles Frederick Worth, Madeleine Vionnet, Madame Grès, Elsa Schiaparelli, Dior, Balenciaga - there was meaning in their clothing, style – what happened? How can you go from that to now? It’s just something that I want to bring back.”
Corrie has been refining her design DNA for several seasons, developing a distinctive aesthetic that is now recognisably hers. For A/W12 we got a macabre take on Scottish widows-style highland dress, complete with lace appliqued onto the models’ faces, lots of tartan and spectacular 3D silhouettes that were architectural in form. Lavish, dramatic and dare I say it, a teensy bit camp? (she winced when I used that word but acknowledged that her work IS theatrical and larger than life.)
This spring, Corrie was invited to put on a catwalk show at the Passion Ball in Singapore – the highlight of the social season. This glitzy society do was a suitably glamorous setting for her creations, as her couture pieces are favoured by wealthy women who like to stand out and have opportunities to wear such flamboyant gowns. Despite working in the rarefied world of couture – or maybe because it allows her a certain detachment - Corrie has a refreshingly blunt attitude to the fashion industry; “I have lots of different sized women coming to me for bespoke pieces, and if you can make a size zero you can make a size 14, 16 etc. I design for women. Every season when I do a casting, I’ve got girls walking in the door who are a size 2 and so we’ve been casting models who have bigger hips, bigger busts and of course there’s been a bit of criticism because I cast those particular models and people say ‘oh they look too big and this doesn’t make your image look very good’ and it’s like ‘no actually I set the standards, I set the rules and you don’t tell me what I should and shouldn’t be doing because it’s not about that’.
“The problem with the industry is I really feel they’re pushing young teenagers in – I had a 12-year-old girl and another was 16 and I said ‘I’m sorry, no’. The oldest I’ve had in my show is 35 and there was criticism about it – I didn’t care! So it’s been mixed, the reaction to what I’m doing and how I’m executing a collection – to me it’s a vision more than for the moment. I don’t design clothes that are for the moment. I’m trying to stay focussed and trying to deliver what I feel is right within my own vision… you’re constantly battling with what is ‘now’, what’s trendy – and I’m not trendy!”
And what of the next collection? Well I'm not going to give too much away - that way lies a House of Elliot-style disaster (plagiarism etc.) but I will say that it involved Corrie making several field trips to an iconic London institution and exploring the, erm, grounds... “The new collection is based on a place in London that was founded in the 1600s by aristocrats. The colours are light for next season, but there is colour.”
“I get an idea – it just comes, it’s almost like a painter – how does he come up with that painting? – it just comes to you and you get a feeling about it and you feel good about it and then you start researching the subject and when you read people’s diaries and facts about that period, that person, that era – there’s so many things. In the 1600s there were so many different people who did different things and they kept diaries. I do look at images, but it could be a shape of something like a compass and you can use that in a garment, or it can be a colour or even a texture. It’s all through research and finding and digging.” It's going to be dangerously beautiful.
And so to the quick-fire round:
What’s the best thing about being a woman? “I don’t know how to answer that. First of all, I love men – I love being around them, they’ve been my best friends. I’m drawn to masculinity. Maybe being a girl you’re able to wear more stuff...? If I could be a man for a day and then go back to being a woman I’d be able to compare what I like about being a woman.”
What would you tell your 16-year-old self? “I would probably tell myself to get into design school earlier, maybe focus more on what I wanted to do at the very beginning. I remember when I was in high school I wanted to move over here and I wanted to live in Europe. I think I would have come to London in the early 90s – this is where my roots are – my grandmother is Scottish and my grandfather is part English, part German. America didn’t really have a lot to offer, it’s such a new country...”
What are you watching/reading/listening to? “All kinds of stuff. I like watching documentaries, the History Channel and the National Geographic Channel - anything from programmes on the ocean to Africa. I read an awful lot. Music goes anywhere from classic to chill to jazz, I love ‘20s music, Billie Holiday, David Bowie, a lot of 80s bands like Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, Sex Pistols, everything except for current pop music which I can’t stand! Although I quite like Goldfrapp – her music is beautiful, so there’s a few but not very many.”
If clothes are capable of being both sombre and celebratory at the same time, Corrie Nielsen's are. Maybe it's because in their lavish, glorious shapes and textures and rich colours they're so unapologetically lovely, you feel good just looking at them. Even when it's a scary black cloak swishing down the catwalk (I can see Angelina’s Maleficent in the new Sleeping Beauty movie in this), it gives you chills.