The Danish designer is the country’s best-loved fashion export (can you name another who has been immortalised on a postage stamp?) having founded a slew of successful brands in her 20 plus years in the business, including Day Birger et Mikkelsen in 1997, with business partner Keld Mikkelsen; By Malene Birger in 2003; and Birger 1962, a project-driven studio, in 2014. Leather trims, a monochrome palette with a careful injection of colour, rustic knitwear, minimal tailoring, discreet anti-It bags – all are in your wardrobe thanks to Birger.
Now, she is launching a new brand, A Journey. Conceived of as a mini wardrobe, the collection is based around the items one would take on holiday. “The main idea is this,” Birger tells me, in her quiet, measured Danish clip, as we sip coffee in her Kensington kitchen. “I pack a suitcase twice a year, and what I have a need for on that specific journey will be expressed in that suitcase. I’m thinking that its wearer could have a business meeting in Paris wearing the lightweight summer suit, then fly to the coast and wear the kaftan. It’s not about trends or being trendy. It’s me: a modern, travelling, busy woman who is also thinking practically.”
The clothes subscribe to her life-long design philosophy that “beauty and function go hand in hand”. There’s a classic blue-striped shirt that comes short for the city and long for the beach; pyjama-style trousers that could go from desk to dinner; a black cashmere sweater for cool evenings or chilly flights. The dresses are particularly useful: a roomy evening dress in a flowery print looks just what one would want to float round Capri in, as does another which depicts tiny “Persian angels”, a design inspired by the arch of an Indian palace photographed in a book she regularly leafs through. The palette is neutral: dark brown, navy, black and cream, with sharp injections of fuchsia – Birger’s favourite colour. “That’s in the collection as ‘the joker’,” she smiles.
Birger, who founded the brand with commercial director Malene Majlund, a friend and colleague from her By Malene Birger days who runs a sales agency in London, plans to design two small collections a year. They’ll deliver in May and November, just before people go on holiday. “But these are also items you can wear at home, in your own city. They’re timeless.”
It’s hard not to be seduced by Birger’s vision – especially when one is sitting in her beautifully proportioned, eclectically decorated apartment. She has lived in London for the past few years, after a long spell in Majorca, and is married to an Englishman. The British-Danish affection’s mutual, then: “The UK was always our biggest market at By Malene Birger, since the first collection and throughout the years I was there,” she muses, of the business in which she sold her shares in 2010, and left at the beginning of 2014.
Her home is everything you’d expect: a wild but considered mix. “I combined the 1970s with Arabian style,” she elaborates. “My Carlo Bugatti items are my favourite, combined with the very busy, over-the-top design from the 1970s. That’s the clash I love – and that’s how I like my collections, too.” Minimal white walls are offset with her own artwork. Piles of Moroccan Berber rugs cover all the carpets – she never had carpet before she came to London. In her bedroom, a bedspread from Kashmir made to her design brings a warm atmosphere to more white, along with Belgian art deco lamps. The surfaces throughout the apartment are covered in exotic pieces picked up on her travels to India, the Middle East and Mexico: a small pair of shoes from the Ottoman period sits alongside an Eske Kath sculpture. Ceramics she made herself are carefully arranged next to a Joe Colombo lamp and those wooden Carlo Bugatti chairs; a brown leather Flexform sofa holds court beside a pair of Arne Jacobsen swan chairs, and beneath a 1930s vintage lamp.
Birger has always used interiors as a way in to fashion design. “I always used World of Interiors as my key inspiration over fashion magazines,” she says. “My first education was actually as a decorator, so I like to place things in a certain way. I’m very into symmetry, which is to do with Arabian architecture. You always have that organisation.”
Discipline seems key to Birger – but with it comes an incredible work ethic. “All my life I have worked and worked and worked. I completely immerse myself in things, and perhaps sometimes a little too deeply,” she says. “I never really knew what it meant, to have free time. I had holidays, but they are when I find the peace to make my new collections.” She is keen to impress upon me that A Journey will be a small, controlled undertaking – she is about to begin renovations on a recently purchased villa in Lake Como, after all. “There’s a lot going on – but I hope I can express all my journeys in this little brand,” she pauses. “We have to create a good business, but a small, good business is also OK.”