08 November 2011 by

Grazia Catch up with Corrie Nielsen, 2010 Fashion Fringe Winner!

Corrie Nielsen Spring Summer 2011

Corrie Nielsen Spring Summer 2011 - her winning Fashion Fringe collection!

Call us know-it-alls if you will, but we have noticed that it usually takes quite a few seasons for a designer to really get the attention of the press and then even longer to get the same level of attention from buyers and build up their stockists around the place. Of course if you have got a great platform like NEWGEN, Fashion East or, where the real newbies start out, Fashion Fringe to back you up, it’s a step in the right direction. We loved Corrie Nielsen’s collection when she won Fashion Fringe just over a year ago, and so we were curious to find out what was happening with her one year down the line.

Corrie Nielsen in her studio

Corrie in her studio with her Spring Summer 2012 collection

So, we went to see her at her studio and she sat us down and told us the whole story – and most surprisingly of all, given her rave reviews and the exquisite construction of the clothes – it almost didn’t happen. Blimey!

Are you sitting comfortably?

Then we’ll begin. Somerset House is a grand, imposing venue on the Embankment of the Thames in London, but Corrie’s studio is hidden deep within the bowels of the building. It’s through a sort of Dickensian, costume drama-ish warren of tunnels that Corrie Nielsen and her PR lead me to the studio. This is all fairly appropriate because her work is pretty much of a costume drama itself. She burst onto the scene with her eye popping debut at Fashion Fringe over a year ago, a contest that John Galliano judged, and which Corrie emerged triumphant.  Hence the studio at Somerset house – part of her prize for winning the competition. 

Corrie Nielsen Spring Summer 2011 - her winning Fashion Fringe collection!

Corrie Nielsen Spring Summer 2011 - her winning Fashion Fringe collection!

Since then Corrie has shown two more seasons of her overblown, historical, but beautifully constructed collections on the London Fashion Week schedule. We wanted to find out a bit of the background to her story, and how she made it onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere.

Corrie – ‘I started life moving around different areas of the USA. Namely, Florida and then Portland Oregon, before spending time with a load of hippies in San Francisco and then setting off around the world mainly London and Korea’ where she was working as a model. She says she had varying degrees of success in this field – although she loved the fact that she could travel the world, and she did make it into the famous Juergen Teller book – Go Sees.

Corrie Nielsen Autumn 2012

Corrie Nielsen Autumn 2011

Then she decided to properly move to London and got a portfolio together to approach Central Saint Martins. She graduated in the same year as Christopher Kane but didn’t manage to get a job in design. She ended up working for Vivienne Westwood, ‘although I want to make it clear – I wasn’t working designing Gold or Red Label. I was working in the shops and I also modelled for them once or twice’. I was really a shop assistant, although I got to see how the company was run, and got to know Vivienne and Andreas a little bit.

Corrie Nielsen Autumn 2012

Corrie Nielsen Autumn 2011

But hang on . . . working in a shop for Vivienne Westwood? Although it’s a fairly upper class shop to work in, it was hardly what you dream of when you’re studying to become a fashion designer at Central Saint Martins. Corrie must have felt as though she was in danger of falling through the cracks in life, yet it was in another shop job that she received a tip-off that would change the course of her life. It was in Selfridges where she was working in the menswear department when a regular customer tipped her off about the Fashion Fringe contest founded by the former Sunday Times Style Magazine writer and author of a number of fashion books, including a notable biography of John Galliano – Colin McDowell.

John Galliano

Each year the panel of judges changed, but the year that Corrie entered her portfolio, it was Mr Galliano himself who was the star of the judging panel, only five months before his infamous downfall after a video of him emerged drunkenly slurring racist abuse at random people in a bar and his employers at Christian Dior took swift action to distance themselves from him.

Corrie of course, won Fashion Fringe that year, and it was clear to everyone present at the show that she was the outstanding candidate by far. Corrie’s style of dressmaking takes in a combination of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century shapes and sculptural forms, (her father is a successful rock sculptor and woods craftsmen) which she creates by draping, padding, starching or origami-pleating the fabric. ‘I like to use that quite heavy, formal fabric because it is stiffer, and allows me to sculpt the shapes with it.’ The collection that took the Fashion Fringe prize was actually inspired by ‘James Gillray and George Cruikshank, illustrators from the 18th century who mocked the vulgarity of British and French social, political and royal behaviour’

Corrie in her stuio at Somerset House

Corrie in her studio at Somerset House

Wow. It certainly caught one person’s eye. Did Corrie ever hear direct from Mr Galliano’s mouth why he chose her to win the thing? ‘Not to my face, but he told Colin McDowell that the reason I won it, in John’s words, “was because there were many many ideas that could be developed”. It was such a confidence boost for me to hear something like that’.

And how did you get on with John? Did you see a lot of him in the judging process or was he always kept behind a cordon sanitaire, away from the riff raff? ‘Well, there was a certain element of that, but when I was in a room with him, he was a lovely man. Genuinely interested in you, and what you were saying. Before the final show, when we [the finalists of Fashion Fringe] were introduced to him, I just came straight out with it and said; “John I would love to come and visit your atelier in Paris” I think everyone else was a bit shocked by me coming out with that but John didn’t flinch. He simply said [adopts cockney accent] “Awight darlin’ I think that can be arranged” And we did it! We went over to Paris for the day and we went to his atelier at Christian Dior and saw the people working there, all in their white coats – “les petits mains” making the embroidery and the toiles and everything, and then we went to his atelier for his own line and saw what they were working on there. It truly was the most exciting, inspiring experience. The man is brilliant. It’s really sad and I was shocked when it [the scandal] all happened’

Corrie Nielson Spring Summer 2012

Corrie Nielsen Spring Summer 2012

Does Corrie keep in touch with Galliano still? ‘No I don’t. My dad said I should write him and say hello, but I haven’t so far. Over the years I have met quite a few famous people including but not only fashion designers and I have to say, of all the egos and the diva-ish behaviour, and the not treating people with respect that you come across, he really didn’t have that. He seemed far more humble.

Early designs from her pre-student days on the club scene - we looked in her scrapbook!

Corrie’s own ascent to becoming a designer mirrored Galliano’s in a couple of ways. After excelling himself with his flights of fancy and astonishing degree show he struggled for years to get his business off the ground, while Corrie was working in fashion but not a designer, and wondering if her time would ever come. They both owed their debuts to time spent creating home-grown fashion to wear clubbing on the avant garde scene. ‘Oh yeah.’ Corrie reminisces ’the first clothes I made were for myself or my friends, including drag queens – who wanted something really wild to wear out or for performing in. I had my fair share of crazy times spend partying. Like the time a spent in San Francisco as a youngster, or my time in London when I was at college, going to clubs in Camden and hanging out with rock star types – and actual rock stars. Do you remember the Dandy Warhols for example? I went out with Courtney Taylor Taylor for a bit – I knew him in the States because he was friends with my cousin there. Then he rocked up in the same bar as me and my Fashion College friends in London.’

Corrie Nielson Spring Summer 2012

Corrie Nielsen Spring Summer 2012

But what’s next for Corrie? The prize for coming first at Fashion Fringe is money for business development, a studio space, plus a slot to show on schedule at London Fashion Week and considerable business advice, liaising with the British Fashion Council and Colin McDowell himself – ‘who I get along fine with. We’ve had our disagreements but I always give as good as I get’ Corrie is now working on expanding her business, finding new stockists and private clients, who can find her through The Couture Society.

He extraordinary garments started off so spectacular as to be quite costumey. Her show pieces are outstanding, but as yet there’s not much in the way of more commercial tailored pieces- she makes tailored jodhpurs which hang beautifully – but she needs more of these as well as (not instead of) the full length, rather operatic cloaks and gowns.

Her Spring and Summer show contained pieces that felt much lighter – both in terms of colour and in weight, in Geisha-influenced forms but modern materials. We think she is definitely on the right track.

It’s a dilemma that all avant garde designers have had to go through, Galliano, McQueen, Gareth Pugh – all had to experiment until they found a backer or a formula to turn the attention garnered from their unwearable showpieces into a cash-generating product to sell. We’re intrigued to hear how the rest of this story will turn out . . .


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