Danish-born, New York City-based designer Christian Juul Nielsen is knee-deep in prepping for New York Fashion Week when he hops on a Zoom call with me. Behind him is a rack of clothing, presumably from his own brand, which he founded in 2019. Nielsen is animated as he describes how floored and thankful he is to be at this pivotal point in his life. “I’ve been very lucky that I’ve always had a lot of support from friends and industry people that I’ve met here in America,” Nielsen says. “I know that I couldn’t put this [runway show] together if I didn’t have them.”
For anyone unfamiliar with AKNVAS, which will present its first NYFW runway show on Sept. 13, the womenswear and menswear collections lean into a minimalist and clean aesthetic punctuated with surprising cuts, graphics, and colors. Take his muted mauve blazer with a bustier outline from the Fall/Winter 2022 drop, for example, or his plush chunky knit sweaters styled underneath an equally as cozy quilted vest all in shades of bold green. Nielsen’s collections for AKNVAS (there have been two thus far) straddle the delicate line between being overly trendy and actually wearable. “Nobody wants to look ridiculous [in their outfit],” he says, referencing the fashion industry’s proclivities for creating avant-garde designs that, while look amazing on the runway or in editorials, sometimes doesn’t translate well on the ready-to-wear racks. “I’m always like, ‘How can I make someone look very relevant and cool? How do I make her look as good as I can?”
In other words: AKNVAS pieces aren’t meant to reinvent the wheel, they’re creations that become permanent, fun staples in your closet. Giving consumers what they need before they even know what they want comes as second nature to Nielsen, whose career resume boasts names such as Christian Dior (where he worked under John Galliano, then Raf Simons), Oscar de la Renta, Nina Ricci, and Hervé Léger. Nielsen became Hervé Léger’s creative director in 2018, absorbing the responsibilities there in tandem with the demands from AKNVAS.
When I ask him how he juggles designing for both labels, he candidly says that he’s still figuring it all out. “It’s quite a lot. I work every night almost until 10:00 p.m. and I work every weekend at the moment,” he shares. “But you know what? As I always say, I would rather do this than be out partying. I think it’s interesting that I’m building up two things simultaneously, and I enjoy the processes. I enjoy where [my journey] is going.”
Ahead of Nielsen’s imminent catwalk debut, where he will show his brand’s Spring/Summer 2023 offerings, he reflects on his journey as a designer and creative director with TZR, from important moments in his career to the importance of listening, and creating, from your own heart.
What propelled you to start AKNVAS?
When I was in Paris [doing couture/ready-to-wear], I was [always making] something fabulous, balanced, and cool. I did things that I thought were beautiful. When I came to America, however, I learned how important the position of merchandisers are and how even if I would make beautiful things, they would then come back and say: ‘this is too expensive, you used too much fabric, can you take the embroidery off? You should do it again.’ I can work with limitations, but don’t let me create something, then tell me to change it. This constant theme of ‘money, money, money’ was a big focus in America so I decided to start my own brand with no merchandising team and where the merchandiser is me.
Whether people like [AKNVAS] or not, I want to create clothes for men and women that I think they look fantastic in. I don’t want to create [clothes] that I know are going to be best sellers and be on every single rack or have [the pieces] go on sale and you make a profit off of that. I want to make beautiful things and create a brand I consider modern/cool with no one telling me what to do.
Who is the AKNVAS dresser?
For the AKNVAS girl, [I ask myself] what would a girl in New York City look cool wearing right now in a given situation? For example, if I’m at a restaurant that I think is fabulous, then I imagine, OK, the girl is walking through the restaurant. What’s she wearing? How can she look relevant, cool, and sexy?
What elements and experiences from your previous roles did you bring over to AKNVAS?
You’ll see a lot of draping [in the Spring/Summer 2023 collection], and it’s very obvious that a lot of the pieces don’t come from a sketch. They come from me physically cutting up fabrics, draping them together, and making couture vibe dresses, but with the AKNVAS twist. I work with Japanese fabrics, too, [an experience I brought over to my label] from Raf Simons, who loved working with this material. In terms of femininity and the drama [in AKNVAS clothing], I learned that from John Galliano; as for making something cool and edgy in unexpected materials, I learned that from Raf [Simons].
Can you share a memorable moment since starting your own label?
One of the first dresses I made was crafted from Japanese cotton, which had puff sleeves and was in my very first AKNVAS collection. The first celebrity to wear it was Kate Bosworth and the look went viral. It was amazing. I was so happy.
Where do you get your inspirations from for your designs?
I think in fashion, what’s important for me for AKNVAS is to be relevant to the time I live in. When I first started the brand, I was very focused on what is a girl wearing during the day when she sits in an office, or if she works in a space, but her lifestyle doesn’t give her the opportunity to get home and shower and get ready before dinner. She kind of puts on her heels, mascara, and runs straight to the restaurant. That was very much what things were like when I first launched the brand.
Then COVID hit and that really inspired me to do lots of things in poplins and cotton. I started making oversized shirts and shirt dresses, cotton dresses, and pants. Afterwards, there was a period where we were allowed to go out again and suddenly I felt inspired to do more party dresses. I also started missing a little bit of the drama that I used to make in Paris. So I was like, ‘Why don't I marry these two things: the need to wear more dramatic pieces [coupled] with the time we live in.’ I want [my collections] to reflect what’s going on in the world and to represent the time we live in. We’re living in a period now where we are embracing color, embracing loud dressing, so I enjoy following this.
Are there common design/styling themes that you gravitate towards for AKNVAS?
I always like that everything in the last season [from AKNVAS] can be styled with the new season. We live in a world where sustainability is important, so to be able to wear pieces again is important. You basically have to create a wardrobe for a girl rather than just a pop-in here and pop-in there element. Personally, I always love incorporating brown hues into my collections, too, since the color looks amazing on everyone.
In the past, you said AKNVAS is a gender-fluid label, can you explain how?
I try to look at the female shape and the male shape [when designing my collections]. How can you fit both sides? For example, I put elastic around the waist of my pants so that they can fit both men and women. It’s easy for a boy to be ‘skinny’ and wear a woman’s pants, but technically [if the garment is too fitted, this won’t work] so I try to design some pieces that physically fits both boys and girls.
How do you feel ahead of your first AKNVAS runway show at NYFW?
There is a huge difference in being charge of your own show versus working on a show for NYFW. [In my previous roles], it was just ‘make it beautiful! Get Christian to drape the dresses and show the girls how to walk!’ Now I’m counting the dollars and trying to figure out how to get my collection from the studio to the actual venue; who to cast for the runway show, who’s doing the nails and hair, are the models wearing open-toed shoes. There’s a lot to keep in mind and it is stressful when you’re in charge [of every little detail], but I do have great people helping me.
What can fans expect from AKNVAS’ Spring/Summer 2023 collection?
For this season, I really tried to think a lot on what boys and girls will look really cool wearing right now in NYC. We have a young clientele so I think, ‘What would you look fabulous in right now, if you go out to a restaurant or the nightclub?’