Why Paris: Kirsten Ley
Photo: Cindy Yu

Photo: Cindy Yu

I walk into Small Victory Bakery in South Granville, a little out of breath as I’ve been rushing around that morning. I’m barely on time and hoping that my interview subject will be late or just arriving. This is what normally would happen, anyway.

That day? Fat chance.

Kirsten is already sitting there, coffee in hand and comfortably settled in. Waiting for me. 

An up-and-coming womenswear designer based in Paris who’s caught the attention of Louis Vuitton among other royal fashion houses - Kirsten is first and foremost extremely kind, empathetic, humble and passionate.

She’s also Canadian and hails from Vancouver.

After moving to Paris approximately 18 months ago, Kirsten feels like she’s finally where she should be. This renaissance woman has followed a number of creative paths in her life, from pianist to opera singer to electric bass player (in a bunch of bands) to songwriter to actor, that regularly shuttled her between Vancouver and Los Angeles. 

After being disillusioned with the LA scene and moving back and forth between there and Vancouver a few times, Kirsten was 25 and wanted to create more. She finally moved back to Vancouver (again) and met a guy she’d end up marrying 7 months after they met. Restless and trying to find her true path in life, her husband was instrumental in helping her focus and realize that over the course of her life, she was a designer. Kirsten had been consistently drawing and sketching clothes on the side, and had a wealth of knowledge about the fashion world and their designers. Kirsten’s mom had even pulled out drawings of full clothing collections that she had designed when she was a child. While everyone else around her realized this, Kirsten herself had yet to fully discover her true talent all along.

This led her to formal training in fashion design at Blanche MacDonald in Vancouver. She graduated as their top student not only that year, but was also declared ‘Student of the Decade’. Three months later, her collection debuted at Vancouver Fashion Week, which landed in Vogue China. Following a series of other international debuts, she finally landed New York Fashion Week but with one condition: the collection had to be created in just two weeks. She made it happen and was featured in Vogue UK.

This Fall, she makes her debut at Paris Fashion Week - the heartbeat of the fashion world. As one can imagine, the pressure and the stakes are high, but this only fuels her more. Kirsten feels like she’s only just begun. 

When I met her, I was convinced that she had to be my first Why Cities: Paris interviewee. What better way than to get the perspective of a Vancouverite now living in the City of Light and about to take the fashion world by storm? 

So of all the places on the planet, why Paris?

Kirsten Ley > I always knew I wanted to live in Paris. I knew this even when I was living in LA. In fact, there was an opportunity to move there from LA but I called it off as I didn’t have money and didn’t yet have a purpose. 

When I was at Blanche MacDonald, my plan was for me to do an internship after graduation for six months in Paris. In the end, I decided against it as this was going to be tough on my relationship with my husband, being away from each other for six months. 

I’m now glad I waited as three months after graduation, I debuted my first collection at Vancouver Fashion Week, which was then followed by Tokyo, Australia and then New York.

I had the opportunity to go to Paris, met with some influential people in Paris who all played significant roles in the industry. After New York Fashion Week in September, I moved to Paris in October. 

For me to be an haute couture designer, I have to have an atelier in Paris and source my materials from France. I need to be there in the heart of it. And I’ve been so lucky to find a real community in this industry. 

If there were three words to describe Paris, what would they be?

Kirsten Ley > Transformative. Elegant. Dichotomy.

Transformative - my personal experience and journey there; 

Elegant - the city is elegant, I don’t find it pretentious like I thought it would be; 

Dichotomy - (beautiful and the ugly).

Describe the average Parisian.

Kirsten Ley > Paris is a multicultural haven like Canada, from all walks of life. It’s the most visited city on the planet. A lot of expats live there. But a true Parisian born and raised where their family is from there - they have an elegant, effortless style. They wear scarves, especially the men. There’s an effortless chic to everyone. Even when they smoke cigarettes. 

If there was only ONE place or thing that visitors to Paris MUST see or do, what would that be and why?

Kirsten Ley > Summer in Canal St. Martin district, in the 19e. Walk from 10e to 19e, play French bocci along the canal. Get a bottle of wine with your friends, hang out, go to the little restaurants and bars there, there’s also a brewery. 

During any other seasons, go to Rue des Abbesses in Montmartre. The Saturday antique market, it’s amazing. Go find the Wall of love that’s on this little cart. Montmartre is beautiful on a spring day. Have lunch on Rue des Abbesses, there’s are great little bistros there.

Where do you go to escape Paris? Why there? What’s so special about it?

Kirsten Ley > There’s a massive park in the 12e that’s far away from where I live. But it starts in Paris and it goes all the way outside Paris. I like going there - and really anywhere where I can sit near a lake or somewhere on the water. 

Where would you go in Paris to decompress or relax? Why there?

Kirsten Ley > Down the street from my apartment, there’s a hilly, grassy mini park with trees and gazebo with rose garden in Canal St. Martin. That’s where I like to sunbathe. It’s probably the least manicured park in the city but I love it there.

If you could live anywhere in Paris where would that be and why?

Kirsten Ley > Exactly where I am now, near Canal St. Martin. I am in my dream place right now.

Favourite restaurant and why? What type of food is it? What’s your favourite dish from there?

Kirsten Ley > Le Grand Bain in the 20e. I like the scene with an up and coming chef who’s my age, doing amazing things. The whole experience, especially the wine list that’s beautifully curated. You won’t find old school labels that are super expensive. I don’t have a favourite dish there, though. Everything is great. And since I don’t eat gluten so it’s hard to find good places in Paris to eat.

Cantina is the other place. It’s Argentinian food and best of all it’s close to where I live. Great prices. Great fries (beetroot ketchup and aoili).

Favourite bar and why? Where is it located? What makes it so special?

Kirsten Ley > Candelera in Le Marais. It’s actually a secret speakeasy, looks like a hole-in-the-wall taco shop. You push this white wall on its way into the kitchen, and opens up into 4 times the size of the taco shop, where you go down stairs into this cave. It’s a really cool bar serving flights of Mezcal. I originally met the owners in Tales of the Cocktail in Mexico City - so that’s how I got to know about this place. And best of all, it’s not pretentious. 

Favourite coffee house and why?

Kirsten Ley > Coffee houses - like we’re used to in Vancouver is not something that Parisians are good at. Shakespeare et Co. is great and great view of Notre Dame… And there’s a gluten-free, vegan place called Cafe Pinson in Le Marais. 

Do you take transit or do you drive?

Kirsten Ley > Transit! I also walk a lot. Sometimes I choose not to be on the Metro, unless it’s raining. Paris is a beautiful, walkable city - en plein air, as they say, is best!