Nils-Christian Ihlen-Hansen, designer and pattern drafter is the man solely responsible for getting the international fashion school Esmod to Oslo. Few Norwegians have left such a solid footprint in the international fashion industry, and Styletalk visited his home to hear about his fantastic journey and get a glimpse into his incredible home.
The guy is collector. His flat opens like a jewelry box hidden inside a modern flat on Oslo’s east side. Every room is filled with art, antiques and heirlooms, pictures, and objects from Nils-Christian’s many travels and years working as a couture teacher abroad. Educated at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture in Paris, he has spent much of his life traveling the world teaching French couture in China, Lebanon, Brazil, Dubai. He recently turned seventy-eight and is one of the few who has taught for so long.
“I worked in Thailand for 10 years and had my own apartment there. Later, I have returned every year for exams. In Beirut I worked for 5 years and learned, among other things, Elie Saab draping. And from 2013 to 2019 I taught in China, among my students was fashion designer Guo Pei. She has since become a good friend” says Nils-Christian and shows some of the shirts he has received and bought from her.
Above: Nils-Christian while he was teaching Guo Pei the techniques of french haute couture. Guo Pei one of China’s most reknown couturiers who dresses celebs and politicians and is the designer behind Rihanna’s trailing yellow gown at the 2015 Met Gala.
During his exceptional career, Nils-Christian has worked for Pierre Cardin, who revolutionized women’s fashion with mass production in 1959. He worked as a modeling assistant for Jean Patou, where Marc Bohan, Karl Lagerfeld, and Jean Paul Gaultier also worked. For a while he was design assistant for Guy Laroche’s men’s collections and worked as a print designer for Yves Saint Laurent. And as an independent designer, he has shared modeling with Thierry Mugler, Romeo Gigli, and Claude Montana. On top of that he is a trained furrier. His style is inclusive and gentle, he is humble yet knowledgeable and has a wicked sense of humor.
Above: Nils-Christain’s scetches – he loves fashion illustrations and to draw, and have done ever since he was a kid.
The adventure began in 1944, when he was born, an identical twin to a brother with Down syndrome. Nils-Christian was born with a hearing disability, he has since birth regained 35 percent of hearing wearing a hearing aid. Otherwise, he uses sign language and lip reading. He describes his childhood as happy, but he was clearly a different child born endowed with many gifts: a special talent for drawing and making clothes which he started out making for dolls. Later he learned to knit and dressed himself in eccentric self-made outfits. Teachers often asked what his future dreams were. “To be world famous” said Nils-Christian. And he was unstoppable. His deafness never stopped him from seeking adventures and venturing into the unknown.
“As a kid my parents made sure I participated in lots of activities: musical kindergarten, ballet, theater. And of course, I went to classes to learn ballroom dancing! They taught us style there: Never wear brown shoes after 6 PM. And never tweed jackets for evenings.“
Above: Young and ready to take on the world of fashion.
In 1966 he graduated from the School of Arts and Crafts in Oslo and moved to Paris to start at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture. He had gone to open university in Oslo to learn French, which is tough for someone with a hearing impairment. But there was ambition there and will. He had been taught early on that nothing worth having comes easy.
At the Chambre Syndicale they knew the recipe for success in fashion, and it was simple:
“Work work work. If you want to be the best, you must work” says Nils-Christian. And adds that the best advice he got from his dad, who himself had spent many years in France. He remembers the words fondly:
“Dad said: “Now you must face your customers. If there are no diamonds in their eyes, you can just forget about them. ” I followed that advice; eye contact is important.” smiles Nils-Christian.
Above: Nils-Christian with his good friend solveig Nielsen, former top model in Paris.
Today he has another guest as well, his old friend Solveig Nielsen. They have known each other since their youth, when she worked as a model and skin care professional in Paris, and Nils-Christian was a designer.
“She was real knock-out” says Nils-Christian.
“You weren’t so bad yourself” Solveig smiles.
“We were young and wild, hung out late, partied through the nights. But we were also the first to arrive at work in the morning and last to leave, even when we had been out on the town. That is why we did well” says Nils-Christian.
Solveig shows off some of the beautiful dresses Nils-Christian made just for her.
Above: Nils-Christian’s dress still fits the slender and beautiful Solveig Nielsen.
“I used the same pattern maker as Thierry Mugler, Montana, and Gigli. An Armenian, very skilled. At worst, I produced twenty collections a year, he says, laughing at Styletalk’s startled expression.
“Oui oui – vingt collections. Completely without cocaine. Just coffee and cigarettes.”
Solveig modelled on the runway for many of the French fashion houses. The salary was 750 francs a month, at Dior 800.
“It was not to live on. But the hardest part was keeping the weight. Our diets consisted of hard-boiled eggs with French mustard. And green apples. For weeks!” says Solveig, she was always hungry.
Above: Solveig remembers her modelling years as fun yet tough as she had to struggle to keep slim.
“But you became thick skinned. I remember someone pointing at me and saying, ‘We cannot use her, she is way too fat. She must lose three kilos by Monday! And – I lost the three kilos. But that was awful” Niels-Christian nods.
“When I worked for Pierre Cardin, the mannequins were told to rest their legs. They made porridge and dipped towels in it to wrap around their legs to make slimmer. And then they taped their breasts to make them look perky. It was cut-throat.”
Nils-Christian gives Styletalk a tour of the apartment, and he talks us through the history of many of his bellowed art pieces, objects, and furniture: the firm hand-woven silk curtains from Morocco, the Buddha statue from Thailand and the paintings from Mexico that he bought when he taught in Brazil.
Above: The Napoleon-painting is the focal point in the living room. “I adore Napoleon” says Nils-Christian.
“Feel the curtains, they are lined so that they fall nicely. I need circles, in everything he says and points to both the patterns in the material and the creases.
“All must have movement, large classical shapes.”
The table and chairs were a wedding gift for his grandparents from 1907.
“It is real mahogany and from my grandfather’s hometown. I have reupholstered the chairs in green Thai silk. The ceiling lamp is antique Venetian while some of the silver ornaments on the table are bought from an Armenian silversmith in Lebanon and some from Russia. The crystal bowl is from Lalique. Anything else you want to know?”
Above: The flat holdsmany memories and keepsakes, heirlooms and antiques. The blue and white vase is a Ming.
His bookcases are filled with objects as well.
“That’s a Ming vase” he says and points to a blue and white vase resting in the corner, surrounded by dog pictures.
“I have had four dogs, one I got from Brigitte Bardot as a gift. And – here’s Joe’s and my wedding picture. We met 32 years ago and got married in 2003. There has been days of sunshine and lightning and thunder, the meeting of three cultures: Thai, Chinese and Norwegian.” He smiles.
Above: Nils-Christian’s loved ones: Left: with his husband Joe. Middle: even the teddybear has a diamante collar. Right: miniature dogs.
The bedroom is dominated by a twin bed from Singapore adorned with a silver fox throw. The windows are partially covered by Indian silk curtains.
Nils-Christian shows us many of the magnificent garments he has collected over the years: pearl embroidered caftans, tuxedo jackets and a parka with golden leopards embroidery.
Above: Nils-Christian’s taste in clothes leans towards the eccentric and opulent, and he frequently has jackets and suits made.
In the hallway where several glass showcases are lined with bottles and small miniatures.
“These are my concubines. I love that word” Nils-Christian muses.
Left: The collection of concubine sculptures, to the right: antique perfume bottles and porceleain antiques.
“On the wall are my old drawings. And an old Gustav Klimt, the Austrian modernist. It is Salome with John’s head. I got it from a good friend in Paris after we had spent a night together. It arrived the next day delivered to the door, with a handwritten card: “Thank you so much for a wonderful night,”.
Left: The Klimt piece that was a gift and to the right, one of Nils-Christian’s own scetches.
The guest room has a zebra pattern theme, while the walls are decorated with Nils-Christian’s own drawings. In the corner rests his designer’s mannequin with an example of his elegant mummy draping. Next room is the study covered by more drawings and pictures.
Above: The guest room and study holds many memories from Nils-Christian’s rich carrer.
“There are my old drawings from the School of Arts and Crafts. And then there is me when I left the Chambre Syndicale in 1967. I was considered hot stuff back then” he laughs.
We ask what he thinks of today’s fashion industry? He is not undividedly impressed, claiming that French haute couture died with Yves Saint Laurent.
“In the old-world fashion was elitist and something reserved for the upper classes. Today fashion means more than clothes, it is a phenomenon that includes culture, politics, economics, and all classes. The clothes you wear speaks about who you are and what you stand for, regardless of age, gender, and skin color. It is about diversity, which is more contemporary.”
All photos Styletalk. The photos of Guo Pei are used by kind permission of Nils-Christian Ihlen-Hansen.