Helena Christensen: 'Anything that tries too hard or comes on too strong is unappealing'
Supermodel, snapper and smalls designer: Rebecca Gonsalves meets the inimitable, adaptable Helena Christensen
Don't be fooled by its apparent delicacy, lingerie is a remarkably high-tech design discipline.
Done well, structure and support meld seamlessly with the flimsy and feminine. It is refreshing then that Helena Christensen, Triumph's newest high-profile design recruit, is frank about the help she received on the technical aspects that underpin her new line. "One of the more exciting parts [of the design process] was to travel to Hong Kong", she explains, in London to debut the collection. "And visit the places where the samples were being made by hand and talk to the seamstresses.
"There are so many details in just that tiny little bra: the wiring, the straps, the clasps, and then the fabric of course. I felt like this was a good education for me to understand the clothing pieces from a different angle, a different perspective."
Born on Christmas Day in 1968 to a Danish father and Peruvian mother, Christensen was crowned Miss Denmark in 1986. Although she was unsuccessful in her bid for the title Miss Universe, Christensen decided to put on hold her interest in photography and concentrate instead on a modelling career. One of the original supermodels, her reign over the catwalksand covers of the Nineties is fashion legend, but in recent years she has forged a career behind the camera for Oxfam, as well as magazines Nylon and Elle.
Having modelled for Triumph for three seasons, Christensen has now not only turned her hand to designing a collection for the brand, but directed and starred in the campaign. The photographs, shot at her beach house near Copenhagen, capture a romantic idyll far from the aggressively sexual imagery that lingerie brands so often turn to. "The most important thing for me with lingerie is it can't look like you're trying too hard," she says. "I think anything in life that tries too hard or comes on too strong is unappealing.
"I always had ideas in my head that I draw and make sketches of, and I'm always ripping out pages that inspire me from magazines, taking pictures of books or stills from movies. I love colours and drawn in watercolour or oil. In a way there was a lot in me, but we all have ideas, we are all inspired but to learn how to take that and watch it materialise into something real was only possible because Triumph was there helping me through the whole technical part."
"Celebrity-designed" lines are notoriously often no such thing, but as well as enthusing about colours and fabrics, Christensen is candid about the compromises to her artistic vision because of the practicalities of production: "I really like when it's not just a seam that ends something. [The nude mesh] gave the body-suit a little bit of a deconstructed feeling. If it was up to me, the seams would have been raw but that would have been a step too far. They would say 'the reason you can't do that is because when you wash it, it will start opening up'. I think there is beauty in things falling apart but I understand they have to keep up the reputation of good quality."
The compromise was a pale underlay which is a reassuring juxtaposition to the intricate black lace strap details. "With lingerie if it's overtly sexy, that to me is not feminine or beautiful at all. I don't feel comfortable in anything that is pushed or forced. I might put on a dress that is really sexy but I don't leave the house in it, I end up in something that's slightly shapeless. Designer pieces are so beautiful and amazing but I'd put them on and I would feel like a little child in a grown-up person's clothes."
Christensen knows all about the intricacies of getting dressed up. "Modelling is very different – then you have fun with it because for that moment in front of the camera you play with it. Whatever you wear makes you feel different so it would inspire me to be another character.
"The more eccentric the clothes, the more your character evolved. I was always very grateful for those big crazy pieces. It was humbling to wear couture that you knew these extremely talented seamstresses had been making for months. There'd be five little ladies putting you in pearls. In my early twenties, I'd stand there and think 'God, this is taking forever' – now I see how fortunate it was to have been in that moment."
An intimate knowledge of the fashion world didn't stop Christensen's surprise at the amount of work in launching her own label in 2007. A collaboration with long-time friend and business partner Leif Sigersen, she says the 10-piece line: "Gave me an insight into how much work and effort and time you need to put in to being a new designer. It really gave us so much respect because we did everything from scratch. Everything! I would say it was a great learning experience the first time around, but that's also why I appreciated this time so much – because that was rough!"
New beginnings may be rough, but Christensen is not afraid of them. After the birth of her son Mingus in 2003 she turned a photography hobby into a career. She was amazed to be approached by Oxfam for a trip to Peru to document a climate-change campaign. "It made me very proud of being Peruvian and seeing nature in a different way. I came back with a completely renewed respect and longing for my Peruvian heritage."
Christensen's photography has no doubt benefited from her front-of-camera work for some of the most respected photographers in the world, but capturing compelling images far from the glamour of a magazine photoshoot interests her more now. "A lot of my photography is not fashion. I want to shoot reportage, to work for a newspaper. I recently went with Oxfam to the slums in Nairobi and that was probably the most hardcore eye-opening experience. To be with 20,000 displaced people gives you a reality check."
Having commanded huge fees for a single day's work, it is doubtful that Christensen's continued career is financially motivated. "For all those years, I came in, got dressed and sat in front of the camera," she says. "That was where my input was. I never really felt connected, I never really felt like I got under all the different layers. But now I'm doing that and if I had stopped working in my early thirties I would never have reached this level."
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