Monaco’s very own fashion designer, Isabell Kristensen opened her captivating showroom on the Rock more than 20 years ago. Isabell was Maid of Honour at Princess Charlene’s wedding and well before, she has created several gowns for Her Serene Highness, as well as for her daughter, Princess Gabriella. Isabell’s showroom is a place known for the most spectacular haute couture creations, dressing not only residents but also international public figures like Katy Perry, Nicole Kidman, Kate Winslet, Cher, Tina Turner, and Liza Minnelli.
Born in Hellerup, Denmark, Isabell Kristensen is a Monaco-based fashion designer, creator of the iconic couture brand, Isabell Kristensen.
What is your earliest memory linked to Monaco?
“Grace Kelly. Her significance as an international fashion icon cannot be overstated. A symbol of excellence and elegance celebrated for her talent, style, and beauty.She was an inspiration, and remains a notable figure in the history of some of the finest works of couture,” – remembers back Isabell.
Isabell believes that the Principality of Monaco is a true capital of ‘Joie de vivre’, a perfect place for anyone in love with life.
“I love to design for celebrations, parties, premieres, everything that makes people happy! Monaco is where people come to have a good time, whether for the Grand Prix, fabulous Galas, or yachting.”
What do you love the most about living in Monaco?
“I love the people, the memories, and the excellence that Monaco represents. Monaco, a tiny, micro-country, without much land, natural resources, or large export industries, has developed its identity and exported a dream to the World; the basis for which is a well-founded reputation for quality, excellence, and perfection in all things.”
Why did you choose Monaco over other fashion capitals?
“I always had many friends and clients in Monaco. On one of my visit, I asked the concierge at the Hotel Hermitage where I might find a local Couture House, he laughed and suggested I fly to Paris, London or Milan. I was so surprised,” – recalls Isabell. – “Soon after, I met HSH Prince Albert II at the Cannes Film Festival and asked why there were no local Couture Ateliers in Monaco, he responded by asking why don’t I come and open one. So I did, in 2000 on the Rocher where we are still sowing authentic ‘Made in Monaco’ Couture to this day.”
Do you remember your first fashion show in the Principality?
“I launched my fashion shows on the roof of the yacht club during the Superyacht Show and at Amber Lounge during the Grand Prix because I love to celebrate the best of Monaco. Other fashion capitals are great but Monaco is special. No need to wait for fashion week, every week is a party,” – laughs Isabell.
You started your career in Denmark with modelling from a very young age. How did you transform modelling into couture design?
“Denmark was typically less formal and the couture less common, very different to France or Italy, and vastly different in terms of style to the UK. When I worked as a model, I always knew my heart lay in design. I explored the works of great designers after my very first catwalk show. I recall being drawn by the works of Holger Blom, a great Danish designer of the 1930-40s and soon discovered the fine works of Eric Mortensen and his creations at Balmain as one of the only Danish designers to head up a French Couture Maison. However, it was clear, the couture that I craved could only be found abroad.”
After working in Italy and travelling in France, Isabell went to London and soon realised it was the place for her. British fashion was boisterous and aggressive at that time. This not only drew her to the UK but also encouraged and inspired her confidence to fulfil her dream to become a designer.
“As soon as I had the chance, I entered into a fashion design competition in London, which I was fortunate enough to win. I 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 exhibition I could not believe how positive the people’s response was. I began building my own couture house in London, first from my basement and later from Beauchamp Place where our boutique has been for 33 years.”
Do you have any idols?
“Coco Chanel. She worked so hard for almost six decades. An unquestionable contributor to the world heritage of Fashion design, Haute Couture, and the industry of luxury, dedicated to creating that which contributes to our collective ‘joie de vivre’.”
What is the source of your inspiration?
“There is no single source. In design, one must maintain an open mind to optimise creativity. For example, my 2014 ‘Dusk til Dawn’ collection launched in Jamaica was inspired by nature, the unique flora, and fauna native to the Island.
My 2018 Paris Fashion Week show ‘Gardens of Babylon’ was inspired by Ancient Eastern culture, myths, and legends. In the past, I have been inspired by works of other creatives and artists, for example, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales.
Inspiration must never be limited. Design must be free.”
How does the designing process work for you? Do you draw first by hand? How does a vision become a reality?
“The mind’s eye is a powerful thing. To visualise a design, defining and refining it through imagination is always the first step for me. Some believe one must draw to see, for me it is the other way round. Once clear in my mind, I might draw or begin draping directly on the mannequin. I am so impatient, whatever is fastest,” – laughs Isabell.
How long does it take to fulfil a custom order?
“Impossible to define without specifying the design. We have some pieces, such as the ‘Valentina’ dress, that can be made in as little as four weeks and we have others such as the ‘Galassia’, hand-beaded with over 12,000 crystals, that take more than four months!”
One would think that the world of Haute Couture, where every design is a limited edition is for the wealthy. However, Isabell and her team value all clients regardless of budget and therefore, aim to keep the brand accessible. To ensure this, they have beautifully elegant, demure cruise collection looks starting from €3,000, and stunningly breathtaking, fully hand-embroidered bridal designs from €128,000.
One can see the variety of magical dresses featured alongside this article, showcasing the range and creative breadth of the Isabell Kristensen brand through a selection of collections from different seasons.
Does Monaco have a distinctive fashion style?
“Monaco certainly has an identifiable style, with a strong influence of Italian Alta Moda and French Haute Couture. There’s an elegant blend of fashion culture, complimented by the temperament of a place broadly designed and built for luxury and leisure. An element of casual sophistication, a sense of style that lends itself to cruise collection designs as well as ballroom galas, the sort one may wear down the red carpet of some awards at the Forum, while simultaneously hopping on and off yachts or watching the Formula 1, or Rolex Tennis Masters. It is very special to me to be the single, longest-standing Couturier, manufacturing within Monaco. I hope I have contributed to Monaco’s unique style in some small way.”
The Isabell Kristensen design brand also features a showroom in London, UK.
“The special environments, unique to each of these two luxury and cultural hubs, undoubtedly impacts any brand born in Monaco or London. While some differences have narrowed, as the ready-to-wear market is more globalised, differences still exist.
For example, London’s fashion culture is evident in its aged yet evolving style, both timeless and refined, due in part to its stature in sartorial excellence. There is a reason it is the home of Savile Row. There is certain cultural confidence to London, a sense that everything there is the best.
This special sense of style has been nurtured and preserved through great British eccentrics and has also nurtured emerging brands such as mine in the late 80s. For example, my love of colour and ravish embellishment was unconventional, yet it was embraced.
London harbours a flawless pairing of old and new. The old is represented through a heritage of fabulous fashion icons, such as George “Beau” Brummel – largely responsible for dress codes, such as those at Royal Ascot.
While the new is evidenced in the innovative style forms such as Vivienne Westwood’s gorgeous use of tartan and tweed. She used these traditional materials in unconventional ways exemplifying eccentric British style, the likes of which were not found elsewhere.
This unique blend of classic and innovative design shaped my approach to design and the identity of my brand. I loved the old fabulous designs, the sort you will see by Cecil Beaton in ‘My Fair Lady’ in the Ascot scene, while I was also enamoured by the forward-thinking of McQueen’s – Plato’s Atlantis collection.
Without this eclectic ecosystem of diverse fashion concepts, the Isabell Kristensen brand would not have thrived and developed to come to Monaco.”
What are your favourite fashion brands? (Beside Isabell Kristensen of course.)
“Roberto Capucci’s original work, Tom Ford and Azzedine Alaia,” – smiles Isabell.
What is a typical day in the life of Isabell Kristensen? Do you have any daily routines?
“I love to do something new every day. Typical days are hard to come by. However, some routine is essential, I must start the day with at least five or six cups of coffee!
Driving up to my Boutique on the Rocher, you can enjoy the most spectacular view of Port Hercules, the yachts, the sea, and the mountains. It is like a cocktail of beautiful and fascinating things, it is impossible to see such a thing elsewhere in the world, a lovely dose of inspiration to start the day.
As I never travel without a collection of dresses, even if I am headed to the airport, I will be visiting the Boutique along the way.
Whether it is the BAFTA Awards in London, the amfAR Gala in LA, the Collection launch in the Caribbean, the Festivals in Venice or Cannes, the Fashion Week in Paris or Singapore, or a Film Set in Shanghai! There is always an opportunity to design and create somewhere new in the world!”
Do you have any memorable moments as a designer?
“Far too many to count! I have been fortunate to work with some of the world’s most beautiful and talented women, designing for Dame Shirley Bassey to perform at the Oscars and for HM The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Nicole Kidman’s Moulin Rouge Shoot for ELLE, or Katy Perry singing live in London. However, the most significant moment must be seeing my daughter Valentina walk down the aisle last year in the wedding dress which I designed for her. That was quite a special moment for me as a designer and a mother.”
Tell us about your first celebrity client, Dame Shirley Bassey?
“My mother and I always loved Dame Shirley, and after I saw her live the first time I promised my mother I would design a dress for Shirley one day. She did not believe me and said I was dreaming.
It was definitely a dream but one that I had to make come true. Years later I saw Shirley at a party in London and I could not contain my excitement. I had prepared a design for her as part of a project for design college and I had kept it ever since, so when I saw her I could not resist the chance to tell her about my design and how much I would love to dress her.
I made such a scene telling her how much I admired her music it must have been so embarrassing for her! She promised she would visit my Boutique at Beauchamp place. For days I waited but after a week I began to think that she was just being polite and that of course, she was too busy to waste time coming to my little shop. I called my mother to tell her I was wrong and that Shirley would not be coming but then the next day Shirley came and loved everything.
She was so happy and began to sing! We have been friends ever since!”
Looking back, do you think it was harder for you as a woman in the fashion world or does it have some advantages?
“There are always advantages and disadvantages, what is important is how one overcomes them and supports others to do the same. Everyone should be welcome to design and create.”
You were the Maid of Honour at Princess Charlene’s wedding in 2011. How did this relationship and honour happen and come to you?
“I cannot think of any experience more humbling. I was honoured to be a very small part of a very special day and cannot be more grateful to have had the opportunity to support two people very dear to me. I was very fortunate to have been friends with HSH Princess Charlene and HSH Prince Albert II for many years before their wedding.
HSH Prince Albert has always been very supportive of those who believe in Monaco. When I decided to create a Monaco-based Couture House he was the guest of honour when I opened my Monaco boutique. When they first started dating, I was launching a collection at Amber lounge during the Grand Prix. After the Fashion show, I was introduced to Charlene, who happened to be wearing one of my designs. She looked utterly divine! I told her that I really loved her dress and we both started laughing, and that was it.
We became friends very quickly. She asked me some years later to be the Maid of Honour at her wedding, which was such an honour, and of course, I said yes.”
Talking about marriage, congratulations on the recent wedding of your daughter. What does family mean to you?
“Everything,” – smiles proudly Isabell.
Do you wish that your four children follow in your footsteps?
“If that is their dream then of course, that would make me very happy.”
What does success mean to you?
Looking back to the beginning, your first inspiration was Jessica Rabbit. Can all women be feminine?
“Jessica Rabbit was one of the first silhouettes that I found striking, obviously a caricature, but a beautiful one. Even sketches in fashion often exaggerate the form slightly, it is part of the vision, part of the creative process. It was her enhanced hourglass figure that was so powerfully feminine. I loved Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe for the same reason. However, ‘Feminity’ is expressed elegantly in all sorts of ways, the hourglass silhouette is just one form I chose for inspiration. Many women experience and express their femininity differently, it is my job to understand and support them. A dedicated design ought to be an extension of the wearer’s personality, an accessory to her character.”
What would your advice be for women?
“When I first meet them, many of my clients feel like only a certain type of cut or style suits them. I say, enjoy your creative and adventurous side, my team and I are here for your journey. Allow yourself to explore, enjoy and evolve, don’t be too set on a single style. Good design can inspire self-confidence, do not be afraid to find your style, whatever it is.”
What do you think about fast-fashion?
“Waste and fast-fashion have become synonymous with an environmental issue. I am deeply concerned with the extent of pollution and exploitation. Sustainability must be a factor in design, if anything produced in 2021 has a high probability of ending up in landfills, then it is probably better that it is not produced.
Couture is the literal opposite of fast-fashion. However, couture is not accessible to all, so there must be affordable options too. The problem with fast- fashion is that these are mainly garments that are willingly disposed of. So the motivation is not poverty for lack of clothes, it is the marketing tactics, the artificially induced sense that ‘New is Better’. Craftsmanship and quality should be championed over marketing ‘fads’. A well-made garment can last many years, a well-designed garment will never be outdated.”
What is your opinion about environmental responsibility related to fashion?
“For me, design is based on key themes, creation, love, joy, and life. Not destructive themes such as pollution or exploitation. There is undoubtedly a responsibility on us all, particularly mass manufacturers who often cause damage to communities and ecosystems abroad and squash smaller, more sustainable home businesses. I have always admired Prince Albert’s Foundation for its commitment to protecting the sea. Much of the world’s oceans have suffered as a result of microplastics released, in part, by fast fashion synthetic-fibre garment production.”
How did the appreciation towards unique fashion pieces change since 2000, when you opened your showroom in Monaco?
“Couture is now craved by an increasingly acute and international clientele. As the luxury Pret-a-porter market has become so saturated, and the world more globalised, the search for originality has become more difficult. Our clients value creativity and exclusivity above all else, they seek a truly unique, bespoke look, solely for them. The appreciation for unique design has most certainly increased. This is why all our designs are strictly limited-edition.”
In 2012, you introduced a Floral Woody Musk fragrance for women. What does this scent mean to you? Do you plan to launch further fragrances in the future?
“You’re referring to my ‘Monaco’ fragrance, yes that is one of my favourite! The ‘Monaco’ perfume, was released in tribute to the beauty and romance of the Monaco Royal Wedding between HSH Prince Albert and HSH Princess Charlene.
I was honoured and humbled to serve as the Maid of Honour, an experience that will always remain close to my heart. They are inspiring, so dedicated to their roles as leaders and philanthropic champions. This perfume means an awful lot to me because it was a dedication to two very wonderful people who mean a lot to me.
‘Monaco’ was released after the Dreams and Endless Dreams fragrances for women. Both are a little sweeter with stronger floral and fruity tones, such as citrus and freesias. I once gave a bottle to Snoop Dogg as a gift for his girlfriend and he called me later that night after smelling it to request a whole crate!”
Your label now is known as the “Marchands de rêve” (the dream makers). Can you explain to our readers what does this mean/refer to?
“There is a lovely community on the Rocher. When my boutique opened the local, Monégasque came to view it. I felt very nervous, hoping that they would like the designs and be happy to welcome me to their special perch on the Rock. After this special inspection, a number of them said to me “Vous êtes des marchands des rêves” I was so moved by their kind words. Monaco is truly home to some of the kindest and warmest people. For me, to live one’s dreams is a sort of life philosophy, it is the reason I came to Monaco.
It is why I named my first fragrance ‘Dreams’.”