Fourteen months on she has her own label — Hyun Mi Nielsen — with a show on the haute couture catwalk Thursday, the very pinnacle of the fashion tree.
The creator, who was born in Korea and adopted by a Danish couple, said her first solo Paris collection wasn't just about climbing the career ladder, it was also deeply “personal”.
“It was a way to find myself after I was dismissed from my job,” she told AFP. “For someone like me who puts so much effort into my work which I love so much, it was so painful.”
“This is about finding my own voice to get over the grief,” said the 40-year-old, who had led the Givenchy studio and Alexander McQueen womenswear before being sacked from Balenciaga last October after the arrival of Vetements wunderkind Demna Gvasalia.
All her models wore army-surplus boots — punk princesses off to a ball — with the collection kicked off by a spectacular figure-hugging white dress with intricate frills of organza on tulle.
She also put a ruff of starched frills on an eye-catching three-piece leather biker outfit — and cut a long back leather dress as if it had been frilly tulle.
The contrasts of hard and soft, darkness and light, frivolous and serious clearly a metaphor of what Nielsen has been through. One model even had a thunderously blacked-up face.
Nielsen was helped to set up on her own in Paris by a “subtle and sophisticated” female investor, she said, but did not name her.
Haute couture is a purely Parisian institution limited to 15 labels, and the designer said she was thrilled to have been invited as a guest member into its elite ranks.
All clothes have to be made to measure by hand, meaning couture can usually only be afforded by the richest women.
“My love of fashion is not just the (visual) image but also the technique and the craft,” Nielsen said.
“So it's especially exciting for me to start my own company in France — this is the home of (fashion) savoir faire (know-how).”
The Dane began her rise at Max Mara in Italy before returning to London, where she studied at the Royal College of Art, to join Burberry before she moved on to McQueen, whose edgy poetry she has clearly inherited.
The Dutch-Vietnamese designer Xuan-Thu Nguyen also made her Paris couture debut Thursday as nearly two weeks of menswear and couture shows drew to a close.
Her Xuan label, which she founded 12 years ago, is best known for its “surprise and fragility” and her spring summer collection had avalanches of frills on otherwise plain and pure pale pastel mousseline and tulle outfits.
By AFP's Anna Pelegri and Fiachra Gibbons