Designer Talks: Helena Thulin on Creating Wearable Floral Fantasia
With her intricate beadwork, Paris-based Helena Thulin dreams up a garden of fantastical blooms. Here’s how she uses storytelling, research, and a little bit of imagination to create exquisitely crafted jewelry pieces.
As soon as I pull the magnetic catch, and lift the flip top, a garden unfurls. In a bed of grass, beads sparkle like dew drops in the early morning light. Then, I see them: Two flower-shaped earrings. Tar-black with a splash of green. Their wispy, cascading tips curl in every direction as though caught mid-sway underwater. In case you’re wondering, the species is called “Hibiscus Pestilen” – a rare aquatic plant that grows near mythical lakes. And as the story goes, it possesses magical powers that only reveal themselves to the wearer.
If this sounds like something from out of an old Danish fairy tale, that’s because it is. “The collection was inspired by Andersen’s tale, The Little Mermaid,” Helena Thulin tells me in an email interview. When coming up with the idea, she cast her mind back to Hans Christian Andersen’s beloved fairy tale as well as another vivid moment from her childhood: the 1999 shipwreck of the Erika.
The Erika, a 25-year-old Maltese oil tanker, broke into two when it ran into a severe storm, releasing thousands of tons of oil into the sea and effectively obliterating any marine life in its wake. When the incident occurred, just two kilometers from the coast of Brittany, France, Helena was eight years old. “[It was] the day I realized the negative impact we can have as humans on biodiversity,” she writes. “I’ve designed a collection of pieces that I would have imagined as an aquatic flora that would have grown from this oil spill and morph into disturbing shapes and colors.”
Dubbed “Below Sea Level,” the autumn-winter 2023 collection perfectly encapsulates what Helena does so well: storytelling with purpose. It’s this mix of lore and fantasy – and attention to nature – that is integral to every Helena Thulin piece. Botany, in particular, informs all of her work. Flowers figure in some of her earliest memories of time spent in her great-grandfather’s rose garden, studying their every stem and petal.
So, it made sense then that when Helena finally decided to start her eponymous brand – after a few stints at Chloé, Sonia Rykiel, and Simone Rocha – she turned to flowers. With great intricacy, she began building crystals and glass beads into fantastical, wearable flora. Her collections now include gardens of showy blooms, each a riot of turns and twists, and an explosion of color. Here, Helena shares how she got her start in the industry and how she makes ephemeral beauty permanent through her craft.
This interview has been edited for style and clarity.
Tell me a little bit about how you got your start in fashion. Was it a childhood dream or a passion that came on later in life?
I went to study Fashion when I was already 21 after studying publishing and getting a bachelor’s in the marketing of luxury. It took me a few years to dare pursue a more creative path, but from as far as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to work in the fashion industry. It all started with an obsession with 18th century dresses. My parents would take me to visit Versailles, and I would watch a lot of movies and animated films (do you know the Japanese animated film, The Rose of Versailles?) about that century that would really mold my vision.
I also had a friend when I was five who was coming from Hong Kong, and she would always come back from her holidays there with great ruffled flower dresses that I was super drawn to. I still have a vivid memory of her very doll-like style that still inspires me today.
You’ve worked with so many big names in the industry – Chloé, Sonia Rykiel, Simone Rocha – what was that like? What do you remember fondly about those experiences?
I learned a lot about the process and on professionalizing a passion when working for such iconic companies. It was interesting to see each and every different development and way of working. I first started at Chloé where everything was very settled and organized. We had a lot of possibilities in terms of creation, and it really taught me a way of working with factories and as a team. I then worked for Sonia Rykiel and came at a time where everything was changing for the brand. It taught me how to work on a budget and how to navigate through creativity and strict strategies which was really interesting to see as a different perspective business-wise.
I then moved to London where I started working for Simone Rocha. It was a completely different company too. Back then, it was very small, and being a family business, it had a very different approach, too. I’d say that my experience in London really taught me a new way of elaborating a collection. I learned a lot about crafts and handmade techniques, which I was less used to when working for bigger companies. Overall, I’d say that those experiences really developed my taste for entrepreneurship and pushed me to develop my own ideas.
What made you decide to start your own brand? Was it something you’ve always wanted to do, or was it an “aha” moment?
After my experience at Simone Rocha, I realized that I felt the need to lead my own ideas. I primarily wanted to develop my own identity as a brand, and it felt very natural to me to start with jewellery. It was something I kind of knew my whole life, as I used to bead a lot when [I was] younger. I thought it would be also clever to start with a small business in terms of products and budget. Being able to do everything on my own was a very comfortable idea, and I was able to express more and set the pace that I wanted to go with.
Tell me more about your passion for botanical study. What inspired you to base your brand around the idea of flowers?
From as far as I can remember, I’ve always been very drawn to flowers. My great grandfather was a botanist and I remember him teaching me about all the rose species he grew in his garden. I’ve always been very attracted to flowers as a motif or details. I see it as kind of a universal language, which I wanted to explore for my brand.
Also, coming from a double heritage between France and Sweden, nature and botany are very present in those two cultures – in design and fashion but also in terms of preservation and action. I’m very anxious about climate change, and I always try to dig into the subject when designing collections. I work with two collections a year with two different approaches: The permanent collection is always a tribute to species of flowers or a famous garden/gardener around the globe, and the seasonal collection is more of an experimental one. Depending on the mood, it is either a utopia or a dystopia based on human impact on the environment. I like to imagine the future of biodiversity in those collections.
What are some of the techniques you use to create your pieces? What is your process like?
The process always starts with a story and a very clear color palette. For the permanent collection, I focus on existing species that I try to translate into beads. It’s about doing a lot of research with flower pictures or drawings from different angles and colors. Then, I usually bead straightaway to see if the proportion and the color combination work.
When it comes to the seasonal collection, I’m creating a complete story, so it is a lot of research from everything that can feed and inspire it. It can be movies, songs, artwork. Then, I would draw a lot and create some color boards and sometimes would do some collages. I like this dynamic with those two different approaches; it really helps me find a good balance when developing collections.
What materials do you use?
I’m only working with crystals and beads for the moment. What I would like to build with the brand is also a highlight on craft and handwork. I love how versatile those materials are and the perception we have of them. Crystal and beads have been seen for decades as cheap materials, but when embroided, it’s a whole new level of perception, which is what I love. I’m trying to bring awareness to handwork and make the customers understand that luxury and quality is not only the materials used but also the handwork behind.
What is your ultimate dream? Where do you see your brand in five or 10 years from now?
The ultimate dream for the brand would be to also develop clothes with a focus on embroidery work. I’d like to bring a modern twist on beadwork and collaborate also with other designers.
Do you have any exciting new collections or projects underway? Tell us more!
I do, I’m very happy to announce the brand’s first collaboration with the Antwerp-based designer Florentina Leitner on their new SS24 collection. We developed a whole jewellery collection in crystal and beads of cherries and tulips. [This will be available] in stores and online on both Florentina Leitner’s and Helena Thulin’s platforms in January. We’re also presenting our new SS24 collection during Paris Fashion week with a collective of other jewellery designers: Jade Venturi, Julia Bartsch, Anicet Bijoux, Lani Lees, and others.
Writer’s disclosure: The Hibiscus Pestilen earrings were sent to me by Helena Thulin. I wrote the article based on my own research, honest observations, and interview with Helena.