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Cecilie Bahnsen Makes Her Paris Debut

In a white-walled studio in the Third Arrondissement of Paris two days before Cecilie Bahnsen’s fall 2022 runway presentation, the Danish designer is sitting on the concrete floor pawing a Pop It! toy with a co-worker’s toddler. The casting for the show — her namesake brand’s first in the French capital — is underway, and models are walking up and down the room, narrowly avoiding Bahnsen and the child, who is the daughter of the stylist Emelie Johansson. Then Bahnsen turns her attention to a tall woman with braids who has just entered the room. “Shall we try her in the dress?” she asks her team. They know which one she means: They’ve been working on it all morning.

Five minutes later, a hush falls as the French model Kathia Nseke strides in a shiny black jacquard mini with an asymmetrical hem that puffs out like popcorn. “It’s so short! Are you happy?” asks Johansson, as Sara Bro-Jorgensen, the brand’s head of design, adjusts drawstrings that make the dress pucker up even more on one side. “It’s short but it’s good!” says Bahnsen, clapping her hands in delight. Around her, all 27 members of her team, who have flown in from Copenhagen to work in this temporary space — many of them sporting the label’s unofficial uniform of a voluminous organza dress worn over a cable-knit sweater and jeans, and with Salomon sneakers — break into whoops.

A number of the dresses in the collection have drawstrings in their hems, which allows the wearer to adjust their length, or to create an asymmetrical effect.Credit…S. Mirlesse

For a day so charged with anticipation, the overall mood is remarkably relaxed. Then again, much of the hard work is already done: The looks and running order were edited back in Copenhagen and adhere to the confident and consistent aesthetic codes of the brand, which launched in 2015. Since then, Cecilie Bahnsen has become synonymous with ultrafeminine, voluminous dresses in black, white and sugary shades like powder pink and dusty blue. The 38-year-old designer also favors bows, beads and a baby-doll silhouette, as well as quilting and cutouts. She grounds each ornamented look with flat shoes. In the past, these have included beaded hiking sandals — a collaboration with the Japanese line Suicoke — and chunky rain boots created with the Italian mountaineering manufacturer Diemme. This season, Bahnsen is launching her own neoprene ballerina pumps and boots, inspired by rock-climbing shoes and hand-embellished with acrylic trumpet flowers and Swarovski beads.

It’s a style that’s proved more versatile than it sounds. “I always wanted the brand not to be too precious, even though we put so much love into what we create,” says Bahnsen. “It’s about wearability. Some of the drapes that we took from last season, where the skirts were tucked into the side, came from the way the girls in the studio tucked them in [to their waistbands] before getting on their bikes.” These women have many counterparts in fans of the brand and, after five years of showing in Copenhagen — and two of digital-only presentations — Bahnsen felt ready for a spot on the Paris Fashion Week schedule. “Paris has always been a second home,” she says, reminiscing about her days as an intern for John Galliano (she also worked at Erdem in London for a time). “Copenhagen is where we found our voice, but taking that to Paris and getting to focus on the romance, the craftsmanship and pushing things creatively. … It’s something I’ve always dreamed of doing.”

Working alongside the casting director Megan McCluskie, Bahnsen was determined to assemble a lineup of models who wouldn’t be overwhelmed by her decadent designs. “It’s about energy and the models having their own personality in the dress,” she said.Credit…S. Mirlesse

The morning of the show, Bahnsen has traded her puffy dress for a capacious navy skirt, a white T-shirt and a tennis necklace with tiny diamond daisies and an assortment of wave-shaped rings on loan from her friend the Danish jeweler Sophie Bille Brahe. The sound check is taking place in the Palais de Tokyo, and “Night Wandering,” a 1939 poem by the Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen that Bahnsen had translated into English by Michael Favala Goldman and performed by the Danish experimental musician Frederikke Hoffmeier, also known as Puce Mary, is intoning over the loudspeaker. Copies of the poem’s text have been printed on ribbed white paper and left on the three-legged stools that await their sitters. Bahnsen grew up reading Ditlevsen’s poems, and this one has a somnolent quality that lends itself to her dreamy, even cloudlike designs. “Going somewhere new, I really wanted to take a part of home with me,” she says.

As the models line up backstage, quietly sipping water from paper cups, the choreographer Marianne Haugli delivers a last-minute pep talk. “Just remember how extremely emotional this moment is for Cecilie and her team,” she says. As if on cue, Bahnsen, who has been twirling her hair anxiously, begins to cry. “Enjoy it — and fill the room,” says Haugli. By now, other members of the team are also in tears, and it’s infectious. “Models, please don’t cry!” yells the makeup artist Rikke Dengso Jensen. “We don’t have time to redo your mascara!” Below is a step-by-step account of the 48 hours leading up to the show.

Monday, Feb. 28, 5 p.m.

Up Front

Credit…S. Mirlesse

Bahnsen’s designs often feature ties and cutouts in the back, but this season she changed things up. “For me, there’s so much femininity in the back,” she said. “But now that we’re doing runway, I thought it would be nice to bring some of it to the front.”

5:10 p.m.

The Great Debate

Credit…S. Mirlesse

Bahnsen consults with Sara Bro-Jorgensen, the brand’s head of design, on whether a dress requires another layer underneath. “It’s been the debate of the day — with pants or without pants?” Bahnsen said and then laughed.

5:15 P.M.

Play Time

Credit…S. Mirlesse

The stylist Emelie Johansson’s young daughter contributed to the familial mood in the studio as she played with her toy cars while model casting carried on around her.

Tuesday, March 1, 1 p.m.

Upstairs, Downstairs

Credit…S. Mirlesse
Credit…S. Mirlesse
Credit…S. Mirlesse

On the upper level of the light-filled studio, the sales team took appointments with buyers from the brand’s 125 wholesale partners, who were reviewing more wearable, everyday versions of the catwalk pieces being tried on below. The model’s hand-beaded neoprene pumps were inspired by rock-climbing shoes.

2 p.m.

Books and Blooms

Credit…S. Mirlesse
Credit…S. Mirlesse
Credit…S. Mirlesse

With the team taking care of final fittings, Bahnsen headed out to get some fresh air. She wore a raincoat from her ongoing collaboration with Mackintosh. “I just love the craftsmanship of what they do,” said Bahnsen. “Its father and son [artisans] and all handmade.” She ended up at the Yvon Lambert gallery and bookshop, where she found a French-language reprint of “On Weaving,” the artist Anni Albers’s seminal 1965 text about transitioning from handcrafted to machine-made weaving. Then she passed by a flower stall and reveled in the acidic color of a bunch of mimosas. Her autumn collection features similarly vibrant shades of green and cobalt blue, a departure from Bahnsen’s habitually pared-back palette.

2:36 p.m.

Coffee Break

Credit…S. Mirlesse

At Le Progrès, a cafe on rue de Bretagne, Bahnsen took five with a flat white, her coffee order of choice. Her habit of absent-mindedly braiding her long hair influenced the hair styles for the models in the show. “We’re going to do plaits, a little bit like how I do them when I’m wondering what to do!” Bahnsen said. “So, all different sizes of plaits woven with ribbons from the collection.”

Wednesday, March 2, 1:23 p.m.

Finishing Touches

Credit…S. Mirlesse

Backstage at the Palais de Tokyo show space two-and-a-half hours before the presentation was slated to start, models had their hair and makeup done.

3:40 p.m.

Walking the Walk

Credit…S. Mirlesse

Before the rehearsal, the choreographer Marianne Haugli instructed the models to channel ethereal energy. “The task is waking up from a dream that you cannot remember — feeling a little bit confused and a bit fragile but then strong. Don’t just put on your catwalk face,” she said.

3:43 p.m.

Places, Please

Credit…S. Mirlesse

After the rehearsal, guests began filing into the venue, and the models lined up backstage and chatted among themselves. “I usually go to Costa Rica,” one of them said of her post-fashion week routine. “I like to surf.”

3:58 p.m.

Tied Up in Bows

Credit…S. Mirlesse
Credit…S. Mirlesse
Credit…S. Mirlesse

Bahnsen ran a lint-roller over a few pieces backstage. “I’m getting butterflies now!” she said, while other members of the design team secured bows on the dresses to make sure they didn’t come undone. The show’s closing look was an embroidered dress in an unexpectedly punchy shade of green.

4:11 p.m.

Garden Party

Credit…S. Mirlesse

The floral patterns featured on some of the looks were drawn in the Copenhagen studio and embroidered in Italy using a broderie anglaise technique that allowed some of the faux petals to peel away from the body. The flaps bobbed gently as the models walked. “They come alive as they’re moving, kind of blossoming,” explained Bahnsen.

4:12 p.m.

A Few Words

Credit…S. Mirlesse

When Haugli delivered a rousing pep talk, Bahnsen teared up.

4:27 p.m.

Shining Bright

Credit…S. Mirlesse

As the models strode out onto the runway, Bahnsen reviewed their progress via a monitor backstage. She wore a necklace and rings designed by the Danish jeweler Sophie Bille Brahe, who is a close friend of hers. “We always support each other,” said Bahnsen. “It’s a little bit like a good-luck charm.”

4:40 p.m.

Pretty in Pink

Credit…S. Mirlesse

For the show finale, models walked out in small groups of threes and fours before taking their place in front of the photographer’s pit, holding hands and looking out into the audience.

4:41 p.m.

A Job Well Done

Credit…S. Mirlesse

The designer steeled herself as she stepped out onto the runway to take her bow. Ordinarily, her family would be in the front row, but they were back home in Denmark and watching via the livestream. “They’re going to have Champagne and dress up as if they were coming to the show,” Bahnsen said with a smile. “But I think it’s probably good that they’re not here. My mum gets even more anxious than I do!”

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