Isabell Kristensen, haute couture designer with shops in Monaco and London
ML: Can you tell us about your journey from Denmark to Monaco, and to becoming an internationally acclaimed designer?
IK: From a young age I worked as a model and I loved fashion but always knew my heart lay in design. I spent many years exploring fashion and the works of great designers – the colours, the shapes, the structure – as I had never seen such pieces in Denmark. Roberto Capucci was one of my early favourites.
Travelling was always a source of inspiration for me, I worked for some time in Italy and travelled in the South of France. As soon as I had the chance, I entered a fashion design competition in London, which I was fortunate enough to win and was sponsored to take part in the “Clothes Show Live”, the first fashion exhibition available to the public. I took so many orders during the event and I could not believe how positive the response was. I began building my own couture house in London and later throughout Europe.
ML: You have a shop in Vielle Ville. Do you remember your first impressions of Monaco?
IK: My first impressions were that Monaco was quite special, surrounded by mountains so close to the sea and with a unique culture and community. It has a city feel, with the glamour and business qualities, but as you integrate deeper into Monegasque society, you realise it carries all of the charming humbleness of a small town as well. The Monegasques are such lovely people, it is the type of place where everyone knows each other and says good morning as they pass in the street.
ML: What is something people would be surprised to learn about Monaco?
IK: Monaco is very glamorous and that is the side that everyone expects but there is so much more to it. It’s a welcoming and diverse place while maintaining a strong and unique cultural feel. I learn so much from living here and meeting all of the international people who are also drawn to this amazing place. All throughout the year there are events such as the Yacht Show and the Grand Prix, for example, that bring people from all over the world together.
ML: Where you do you prefer to shop?
IK: All the world’s best brands are in Monaco it is impossible to choose one.
ML: Your favourite view?
IK: On the drive up the Rocher to my shop, there is the most spectacular view of Port Hercules, the yachts, the sea, and the mountains. It’s like a cocktail of beautiful and glamorous things, you cannot see anything like it elsewhere in the world.
ML: Let’s talk about your shop and Isabell Kristensen design.
IK: I established my company almost twenty-five years ago and my goal as a designer has always been to create unique and individual pieces that highlight the best aspects of each unique and individual woman. Ralph Lauren once said, “I don’t design clothes. I design dreams.” This is very much the way I feel and my reason for why I love my work. My clients in Monaco often say “vous êtes des marchands de rêves”. A dream is pure and creative, something that one has thought up entirely independently, something unique to you. The dream is the most important thing. I named my first fragrance “Dreams” for precisely this reason. A perfect Isabell Kristensen dress ought to be an extension of the wearer’s personality, an accessory to her character.
ML: How does the designing process work?
IK: I draw inspiration from many things, for example Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, however, the natural world has often been a source of stimulation for me especially when designing a collection for a launch somewhere I have never held a show before. Such was the case for a collection I launched in Jamaica. Many of the pieces were inspired by the natural beauty of the island’s unique species of flora, as well as by the Jamaican national bird and even the Jamaican Boa. This is always what most inspires me, something uniquely beautiful.
ML: Can you share some names of women who have worn your clothes?
IK: I have been extremely fortunate throughout my career to be able to dress some of the world’s most beautiful and talented women including Katy Perry, Nicole Kidman, Kate Winslet, Paris Hilton, Joely Richardson, Shania Twain, and Liza Minnelli, who 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 London Boutique in Knightsbridge.
The first public figure I ever dressed was someone of whom I was a huge fan, Dame Shirley Bassey. She believed in my designs when my brand was still in its infancy. I walked up to her at a cocktail party and said “I designed a gold dress for you” and she graciously took my card. Five days later, my shop had just opened, she came in, looked around for 20 minutes and then left saying she would be back with her agent. She did turn up the next day and bought 32 dresses in one go. She literally started my business in a fantastic way, and is my good luck omen.
When I got the cheque I told her I was going to put in on the wall for good luck and she said “Oh no, I’d put it in the bank because there will be many more.”
To this day she is still a client of mine, and when she tries on clothes in the shop she starts singing. We worked together for her performances at the Royal Variety Show, performance at the Oscars and Her Majesty the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
ML: Favourite designer moment when someone wore one of your creations?
IK: I have so many different design projects in many countries, it’s difficult to choose just one moment from another, but I was very proud to dress HSH Princess Charlene for the Princess Grace Foundation in New York, she is really one of the most elegant women I have been fortunate enough to design for.
ML: What does success mean to you?
IK: For me, success goes hand-in-hand with happiness. It may seem a cliché but there are few better feelings then when you dream of doing something and then have the opportunity to do it. For example, when I had the opportunity to realise one of my life-long dreams to work as a costume designer for a feature film. I worked on the set for “Shanghai Baby” dressing the star Bai Ling over the course of several months and it was a wonderful experience. Not only working on a movie set but also getting to travel to Shanghai and live in an entirely new culture for the course of the project. Working on this movie was another chance for me to learn and experience so many new things and it was amazing.
ML: What do you make of today’s fashion and would you say Monaco has its own distinct style?
IK: Fashion fads will come and go, and while it’s good to be aware of fashion trends and cycles, never let them consume you. Your own unique sense of style is what makes you a designer.
Monaco certainly has a specific fashion style. There is an element of sophistication, a certain sense of style that lends itself to attending important business meetings while simultaneously hopping on and off yachts, sitting by the race track watching the Formula One and then immediately attending a fabulous gala after. There are few places that can compare.
ML: How did you become a CREM partner?
IK: We were approached by CREM to do a fashion show, they had heard about our fashion shows and really wanted to work with us. We took on this event at the heliport as we loved the idea of getting to place our catwalk over the landing pads overlooking the sea, this had never been done before and we are always striving to challenge ourselves and demonstrate what can be done in Monaco.
ML: What is a typical day in the life of Isabell Kristensen?
IK: My day starts very early. I wake up and drink my coffee, I only drink a special chocolate coffee that I buy in Denmark, and travel all around the world with it. Immediately upon waking my head is already filling with designs, so I try to sketch as many out as possible, coffee in one hand pen in the other. After my coffee, depending on which country I find myself in, everyday is different.
ML: What is the advantage and disadvantage of being a woman in business?
IK: People often ask me how did I manage, starting a new business in such a competitive industry, building my business across different countries, expanding into new sectors, developing new products and all with four children? It is interesting how men never get asked this question, which I think exemplifies a great hidden advantage of being a women in business. So much of what we women do goes unnoticed and because of this we are often underestimated and also highly self-motivated. If you try working late on a collection, reviewing a new marketing campaign, analysing your figures all while simultaneously looking after your children, you develop laser focus and a strong ability to concentrate efficiently because your time is divided by four. The disadvantage is that there are not enough of us.
ML: What is the one app or device you cannot live without?
IK: Whatsapp, it keeps me connected to my family all over the world and often works faster than emails in business. Also, the music on my phone, the one thing I cannot live without is music.
ML: What is the best and worst part of aging as a woman?
IK: This is easy, the best part of maturing as a woman is grandchildren. I would not exchange time with my grandchildren for anything. The hardest part is probably glasses, I break mine all the time!
ML: I’ve read fun elements about you. You once filmed an underwater shoot and also you wanted to test zero gravity. Where do these ideas come from?
IK: Yes, I actually did do an underwater photo shoot in Monaco, and I will have to say in all my years of doing photo shoots it was definitely one of the hardest. Having to hold your breath and stay underwater with your eyes open long enough to take a picture was all part of the struggle, not to mention I was wearing an evening gown that had to be specially made to tolerate water. I also went into zero gravity, that entire experience was amazing, you cannot explain the feeling until you try it, it’s like flying. I have always wanted to do a fashion show in zero gravity. These ideas come from a constant desire to turn thought into reality just as I do with designs, it is like I said dreams are so important so I try to fulfil mine and do what I dream. If I dream of flying I will find a way to fly!
ML: You have four grown children and grandchildren. What did motherhood teach you about yourself?
IK: Yes I have four children and three grandchildren actually my eldest daughter has a son and recently had twin girls. I myself have three daughters and one son and they are all grown now. Motherhood is the most wonderful experience a woman can go through in her life and it teaches you a lot of things. I speak to each of my children and my parents each day. I also travel a lot and visit my family all over the world so I never go too long without seeing them. My son, Martin, works with me full-time often in different countries developing various areas of the business, but we are always together for the tough stuff, big projects, big collections, big deals so that strengthens the relationship. I love having family involved, my youngest was recently modelling at my show, she is so beautiful and so talented, for her at this stage walking the catwalk is like walking down the street.
ML: What woman do you most admire for her elegance and style?
IK: Grace Kelly. Without a doubt, a true fashion icon, so effortlessly elegant. She achieved so much, a fantastic international career, a fantastic role model but most importantly a fantastic Mother. Remarkable women of her stature are a great source of inspiration and admiration. In my latest collection “Les beautés de la Mediterrannée” I could not help but consider the exquisite Princesse Grace Rose Garden as one of the Cote d’Azur’s most notably beautiful special places and a source of inspiration. The dresses inspired by the Princesse Grace Rose Garden were made up of dozens of carefully sewn silk organza roses, each with a delicately embellished rose bud.
ML: Can all women be feminine or do you have to wear the right clothes?
IK: Absolutely. I have always loved a woman’s shape. My first inspiration 25 years ago in London was Jessica Rabbit, a cartoon character, but I loved her voluptuous body. Women should be comfortable with themselves in their bodies whether they are one shape or another and I design clothes that bring out the individuality of the woman.
ML: Best piece of advice from another female?
IK: The best piece of advice I think I ever received was from my grandmother. She and I were very close and I used to spend everyday with her after school eating Danish pastries and playing cards. She was quite a character and never left the house without a hat. She taught me to be strong willed and believe in what one can achieve. At that time in Denmark people would always laugh at me when I said one day I would be a designer and live and work in London, the South of France and all over the world. With her advice, I believed in my dream and now I am sitting in Monaco with you.
READ ALSO: The Women of Monaco Life, A Series: Margaret Hepburn
READ ALSO: The Women of Monaco Life, A Series: Johanna Rossi
READ ALSO: The Women of Monaco Life, A Series: Helga Piaget
READ ALSO: The Women of Monaco Life, A Series: Anette Shine
READ ALSO: The Women of Monaco Life, A Series: Laurie and Sandie Giacobi
Article first published November 14, 2016.