Malene Birger: the Danish designer who's making a Killing
Cult TV series aside, Malene Birger is one of Denmark's greatest exports, and last month she celebrated ten years in business
At the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen, the designer Malene Birger is preparing for her 10th anniversary show – and a full house. “There isn't one seat left,” she says, standing in the stalls as her team dress the stage, and gesturing at the scarlet and gilt balcony and wings. “I haven't lived here for five and a half years. There are so many expectations, we know everybody here. The nerves don't go away.”
This, despite having been named by the Danish Crown Princess as the country's best designer, and having been immortalised on a postage stamp in a country that holds increasing sway in the global fashion industry and has something of a stranglehold on the British consciousness right now. Only a few months ago, The New Yorker likened the current obsession with all things Nordic – and Danish in particular – to the French Japonisme of the 19th century.
“I think English people and Danish have the same [sense of] humour,” says Birger, who is herself moving to London this month having lived for eight years in Majorca. Her second husband – 'V' according to an italic-script tattoo on the inside of her left wrist – is from Cumbria. “We're aligned, in sync.”
Several icons of that culture-crush are fans of the brand – Sofie Grabol of The Killing, as well as Sidse Babett Knudsen and Birgitte Hjort Sorensen from Borgen, who attended the show and after-party – but Birger's popularity both at home and overseas pre-dates this zeitgeist by some time.
She began her career at the Swedish clothing brand Marc O'Polo in the early Nineties and in 1997 co-founded the label Day Birger et Mikkelsen with business partner Keld Mikkelsen, which became one of the first mainstream brands from the region to enter a wider slipstream of trends.
Six years later, she set off on her own to launch By Malene Birger, a more honed vision of modern femininity, with signatures that include slouchy tailoring, eclectic print and pattern, bold use of colour but also an emphasis on monochrome to ground and give perspective.
“It's the same values,” she says of the label in its 10th year. “I stick to my gut feeling and I don't compromise, I don't like that. I want to do new things but I also know we are able to reach 42 countries. What is amazing is that the collections have always spoken to so many different cultures.”
Ahead of her autumn 2013 show, Birger cites her references as “black and white, Arabian architecture and the universe” and the audience in the theatre can read those in a focus on men's tailoring, symmetry and photo prints on ties and scarves, with models carrying the trademark embossed boxes that the brand has become known for.
“By Malene Birger is synonymous with femininity, quality and time-enduring classics,” explains Carmen Borgonovo, fashion director at the site My-wardrobe.com, which currently stocks several exclusive pieces from the 10th anniversary capsule Birger has created for spring 2013. “Every piece has something unique about it, and a wearability that transcends seasons.”
That capsule includes eclectic paisley and scarf prints on silk trousers, T-shirts and dresses, enlivened with embroidery and panels of vibrant, neon orange and hot pink against a white background. The campaign which supports it was, as they all are, conceived and shot by Birger herself, who remains a fixed presence at the company that bears her name. She is responsible for the books of photography that have been published by the brand, and has also developed the homeware side of the business herself.
“My whole life, it seems like the answers have come to me,” she smiles. “I don't like to push things on people if they don't like it. I think it's so important that human culture is really good and has a high quality. I like to be honest – my catchphrase is 'cut the crap'.”
It's a motto that seems to have worked: after a decade, the label is stronger than ever. Since it launched on My-wardrobe in 2006, it has been a consistent bestseller among the brands available on the site.
After the autumn show at the theatre, By Malene Birger hosts a party round the corner at which le tout Copenhagen appear to be, all dancing to Seventies disco. There are branded sweets and chocolate on offer, an entire trestle table of cheeses and at the back, Birger herself DJing, where she remains for most of the evening, moving to her own rhythm – just as she has done for most of her career.
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