Couture house dresses stars off-the-rock
Danish fashion designer Isabell Kristensen remembers distinctly the moment she first met longtime idol Shirley Bassey in 1993. “I walked up to her at a cocktail party in London, took a deep breath, and said, ‘I designed a gold dress for you,’ and then offered her my card,” she recounts.
“I made such a scene telling her how much I admired her music it must have been so embarrassing for her. But she promised to come to my boutique at Beauchamp Place.”
Five days later, in walked the Goldfinger singer to Kristensen’s newly opened Knightsbridge shop. After browsing for 20 minutes, Bassey left saying she’d be back with her agent.
On cue, the songstress returned the next day and purchased 32 dresses in one go. “She was so happy she began to sing. She still sings to this day when she tries on clothes in my shop.”
Bassey kick-started the Isabell Kristensen (IK) label. “When I told her I was going to hang her first check on the wall for good luck, she replied, ‘Oh no you don’t! Put it in the bank because there will be many more to come.’ ”
Bassey has been a client, and friend, ever since and the pair has worked together for performances, most recently at last year’s amfAR Gala in Los Angeles, the 2014 Royal Variety Show, the 2013 Oscars and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Six foot and blessed with model measurements, Kristensen could be mistaken for a Bond girl. She has dressed Katy Perry, Nicole Kidman, Kate Winslet, Cher and Tina Turner. “Liza Minnelli funnily enough approached me at a party in London and asked where I got my dress from. Two days later she was being fitted in my Knightsbridge boutique.”
Kristensen's career began when she won a fashion design competition in London and was sponsored at the ‘Clothes Show Live,’ the first fashion exhibition available to the public. The positive response led to the launch of her own line, now a family-run business with her only son Martin (she has three daughters) heading up business development.
The decision to open her shop in Monaco came in 2000.
“I will never forget when I first visited Monaco, asking the concierge at Hotel Hermitage where I could have a dress made sur-mesure. He laughed, ‘Madame you’ll have to go to Paris, London, or Milan.’ ”
Her exquisite boutique on rue Princesse Marie de Lorraine on the Rock features talented members of the atelier team who specialize in embroidery and beadwork. “We were the first to produce couture within Monaco, and are still the only business that makes its clothing within the Principality.”
A Monaco resident, Kristensen, who was Maid of Honor at Princess Charlene’s wedding in 2011, has created several gowns for Her Serene Highness, as well as her daughter, Princess Gabriella.
Last year the Isabell Kristensen Couture House took part in Paris Fashion week for the first time.
“Our ateliers are currently in London and Monaco, so we cannot legally claim Haute Couture status as per the regulations of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode,” explains Kristensen. “To be recognized as Haute Couture, you must have a full-time atelier in Paris that employs at least fifteen staff, regardless of the quality of workmanship and sewing craft considerations.”
As an independent Couture House, the cost to put on a regular prêt-a-porter show during fashion week is eye-popping. “It’s not uncommon to hit six figures.”
The IK Couture label, whose designs can be viewed on BBC’s Strictly and ITV’s Dances on Ice this season, is working to establish its third atelier in Paris to secure the Haute Couture status.
For the moment, the company has a unique place in the fashion industry, an industry that is facing tough challenges from a more environmentally and socially conscious consumer.
Last year, Burberry admitted it incinerated almost $40 million worth of stock to “preserve product scarcity and brand exclusivity.”
In its 2018 report, the Pulse of the Fashion Industry revealed that “fashion generates 4% of the world’s waste each year, 92 million tons, which is more than toxic e-waste.”
With statistics showing 235 million items of clothing dumped at UK landfills every year as detailed by the UK Environmental Audit Committee, fast fashion in particular now faces the same unprecedented public war as single-use plastic and banning plastic straws.
“The fashion industry as a whole does not have a good environmental track record. Consider the basics. It takes 2,700 liters of water to make a single T-shirt, many of which are highly disposable and typically sold at $5 to $10. The T-shirt has been around for ages so why hasn’t this been addressed?” asks Kristensen.
And these same clothes are clogging our oceans. “Single wash clothing release as many as 700,000 microplastic fibers that end up damaging the ocean’s delicate ecosystems as marine species ingest them. This is why I admire the work of key organizations such as the Prince Albert II Foundation that work together with other sea-protectors, like Ellen MacArthur and her no-waste circular economy.”
Beyond the environmental concerns Kristensen thinks fast fashion “easily allows the copy-culture of stealing ideas from genuine designers and churning them out into cheap knock-offs to be shifted fast on the high street or online.”
While fast fashion doesn’t affect Haute Couture, the impact is more considerable in terms of high-end ready-to-wear that often matches Couture prices. “Off-the- rack dresses can be found on Net-a-Porter at prices as high as $10,000 to $15,000. This has meant that Couture brands have to push to survive.”
Part of this survival is focusing on the sustainable and ethical values associated with their locally sourced production, which is increasingly recognized by consumers who rebel against the carbon footprint caused by massive containers carrying millions of tons worth of clothes from China to the West.
With nearly three decades behind her, Isabell Kristensen and her IK label are known as the “marchands de rêve” (the dream makers), and her designs have been featured in the Fantasy chapter of Jo Ellison’s annual Vogue: The Gown. “These days, there is a craving for mystery, for fantasy, for fairy-tale looks. Notably many of our more romantic cuts with phantom silhouettes, designed for added movement are drawing stylists and celebrities looking to really express themselves on the red carpet,” reveals Kristensen, adding she draws inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen’s tales.
For Kristensen, who will return to Cannes this May, the best tools in fashion remain the meticulous mind of the designer and the extremely talented hands of the atelier team. “No machine nor technology can surpass the skill of the women with whom we work. This is Couture. We are not about to start 3D printing dresses.”
“Shirley still sings when trying on my dresses,” says Kristensen, pictured with Dame Bassey in 2018.
MADE IN MONACO COUTURE
The number of precise measurements needed to produce each individual garment. Clients order up to a year in advance, so seam allowance must be increased for those who experience frequent weight fluctuations.
Average price for IK daywear, but count on more for tailored suits, made-to-measure items from the Collection, made-to-measure bespoke designs, or off-the-rail samples.
Ball gowns start around $8,000 and $9,000 for bridal, but they can cost three or four times as much. An IK fully-embellished crystal dress runs around €40,000.