Kristel Kuslapuu: Bold & Free


Ali Jeffery profiles designer Kristel Kuslapuu who recently showed her latest collection at the Mercedes-Benz Kiev Fashion Days. 

Photos by Tony Ottosson
Photos by Tony Ottosson

Estonian designer Kristel Kuslapuu has a bold design aesthetic. Unabashed, the young designer has honed her craft in both knitwear and tailoring, bringing a signature style to each collection. Showing at the 2017 Mercedes Benz Kiev Fashion Days, Kristel continues to evolve her eponymous line. We caught up with Kristel to talk about her experiences in the industry, where she finds inspiration and delve deeper into her unique designs.

At 25 years old, Kristel speaks with wisdom you might not expect from an emerging design talent. She acknowledges her designs as art and finds that her personal experiences most often inform her work. ‘Looking through my work, you can almost read me like a book. Every collection I have ever made is a perfect reflection of what is going on in my life in that particular time. As I get older my collections grow, they get bolder and more free.’ Quoting the late Carrie Fisher, “take your broken heart and turn it into art”, Kristel explains the therapeutic nature of her design process. ‘My collections tend to be very personal. I have realised that being selfish is not a bad thing after all because in the end, a lot of people find your art easier to relate to.’

Drawing inspiration from cliches and irony, Kristel describes her design aesthetic as loud, trashy and queer. Flirting with sculptural forms, bold colours and unique patterns, she is a self-confessed maximalist. Unafraid of pushing boundaries, sharing provocative messages and transcending traditional gender conformity, Kristel gets a thrill from eliciting a reaction. ‘In my book there is no need to identify with any gender to feel free. Putting a gender to a garment feels like a waste of energy that could be put to better use. Seeing little girls in pink and boys in blue makes me laugh at first and then feel kind of sad in the end. I believe you’re allowed to wear anything you like.’

When asked her favourite designer, Kristel is quick to answer. ‘Henrik Vibskov. He has had a great influence on my design aesthetic and I feel we have a lot in common. I guess he will always be one of my favourite designers.’

For her latest collection, titled Samsara, Kristel explores notions of depravities and bad habits. A Sanskrit word, the term samsara is associated with the cyclic nature of life. She explains her understanding of the idea, saying, ‘the collection symbolises the first step in breaking a vicious cycle, which is difficult but not impossible to break free from. It can be taken as a truly ironic art.’

Reflecting on her childhood in Tallinn, Kristel recalls finding joy in having the freedom to explore. ‘Just behind my house there was a forest where I spent most of my free time discovering the world and playing in nature with my two older sisters and our dog. In the nineties you had no Angry Birds on iPads, just the regular ones you could hear from the trees.’ She took an interest in her mother’s handmade souvenir business and began to play, knitting and crocheting toys for fun. Having adopted this love of art and crafts at a young age, Kristel had a clear idea of where it might take her. ‘I remember if someone were to ask who I wanted to be I would answer from a really early age that I would like to be a textile artist. In that sense I believe unknowingly I already was into fashion as a child,’ she tells.

Passionate about slow fashion and creating minimal impact, Kristal prefers to work with natural yarns, sourcing wool from alpaca, sheep and goat for her designs. ‘I try to be as respectful as possible because it is taken from an animal and it is a great honour for me to use. I try and use every last piece of it.’ She explains that she finds hand knitting to be a meditative process and thinks the best part of craft is the personal nature of it. ‘With embroidery, crochet or knitting you first get the idea in your head it travels through your heart until the hands take over and finish the job’, she muses.  

Spending a year living and working in Stockholm, Kristel took a semester at Konstfack University as well as taking an internship at Swedish label BACK where she gained invaluable industry experience. Studying at Konstfack, she was mentored by Patrik Söderstam. ‘He really liked my aesthetics and gave me hope to definitely pursue my masters degree’, she tells. During her internship at BACK, Kristel also grew more confident in her abilities and career direction. ‘I really admired Ann-Sofie Back even before the internship but after working there I saw what a great artist she is first hand. I believe that people should be a master in the things they do and she has mastered fashion design in my opinion. This made me understand that I would like to work for someone like her in the future or even do something like this on my own.’ One of her favourite memories of the office was a visit from Swedish rapper, Yung Lean. ‘All of a sudden he [Yung Lean] walked in and asked where our coffee machine was. I had to google search to be sure it was him because it seemed too surreal to be true. Later I heard it really was him. He had a special day for selling Sad Boys merchandise in the BACK sales room.’

Choosing to pursue her own label, Kristal continues to evolve as a designer and push the boundaries of her aesthetic. ‘Knitting and crafts are my first love but recently I have put my tailoring school background to use and started to experiment with sewn garments and integrating sewn garments with knit design’. With a playful spirit, she acknowledges her unique approach to design. ‘I see other designers around me get more serious, refined and conservative with time. What is interesting with me is that I get the other way around.’

About Ali Jeffery
London based contributor Ali Jeffery calls Australia home but made the move to London to study postgraduate journalism at the London College of Fashion and is now working at MATCHESFASHION.COMAli loves gin, decorating her flat in East London and of course, discovering emerging designers.