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Birger Queen

In four years the By Malene Birger brand has grown from nothing into an £8m operation. And designer Malene Birger is hungry for more

A bunch of white flowers as wide as an outsize dinner plate is delivered to the cavernous former Tuborg brewery building in a northern Copenhagen suburb. As the door slides open, letting a blast of bone-chilling air into the already morgue-like warehouse, a tiny white Scottie dog can be seen running around the huge open space.

Delhi, Danish designer Malene Birger's dog, goes along to work with her everyday and is something of a company mascot. Cocooned in an Astrakhan-style coat, hat, sturdy ankle boots, scarf and gloves to fend off the cold, Birger is putting final touches to her autumn 07 catwalk presentation taking place at the brewery that night.

When she left fellow Danish label Day Birger et Mikkelsen after four years in June 2002 the phone was red hot with job offers. She eventually chose to work with one of Denmark's largest fashion businesses. IC Companys, the parent group of InWear and Matinique, was prepared to offer her a 49% stake in a new brand - the first time it had embarked on a joint venture.

The brand was By Malene Birger, and since its birth four years ago it has grown from scratch into an £8 million turnover business with more than 600 points of sale in 32 markets.

Birger says: "It's now the fastest growing label in IC Companys' portfolio and we have put 10% on the bottom line in the past three years. The ideal thing for me was that we could start the business without worrying about production, because it already had that expertise in-house; 95% of our collection is made in China. We have four board meetings a year and that's it - otherwise it's up to me and the team to come up with a strategy that will build the business. That's what I think about day in and day out - how I can make it better."

Birger says she has grown up fast since leaving Day Birger et Mikkelsen. "I was very much the creative and Keld (Mikkelsen) was the money man. I learnt a lot from my split with the brand, not least to have a watertight contract. I have also toughened up and now pay attention to the figures in a way I never did before. I'm not afraid to say no now when something matters to me."

And everything matters to Malene Birger - like most designers she is a perfectionist. The UK is now bigger than the Danish market for the brand, accounting for 16% to 17% of all sales. In all, exports beyond Scandinavia made up 51% of sales for spring 07.

"We've been very lucky that the international agents we work with have been fans of the collection and have come to us," she says. "We have never had to sell it to an agent. That's the hard way to do it and the avenue where you are least likely to get good results."

The brand's newly appointed international wholesale and retail director Niels Dam takes over the role from Birger's sister, who is taking a break from business. Formerly at Sand, he brings vital retail experience to the brand and is close to signing a distribution deal for Japan, adding to its five other distributors in Russia, Australia, Spain, Canada and the US.

By Malene Birger is now planning two more international stores to add to its Copenhagen flagship, one this year and one next year in Stockholm and London respectively. "We need people who understand retail and love it, because it's a huge challenge. It's our face to the world and that's why it's so important to us."

Birger says she is aware of the financial pressures that international flagships can have on a brand the size of By Malene Birger, but she is adamant that standalone stores are vital to raise the business's profile with consumers. In addition to wholly-owned stores the brand has two shop-in-shops, one in department store Printemps in Paris and Illum in Copenhagen. A further three are scheduled to open in Baugur-owned Scandinavian department store group Magasin this year.

Birger says: "The plan is one big store a year with two to three shop-in-shops. Our Copenhagen store gave us a two-year payback, breaking even in the first year. If necessary I am prepared to wait longer for stores to do this overseas."

Aside from retail the brand is set to grow new product lines. It is launching a footwear collection this season after dabbling with footwear in spring 07 with a 15-pair range. The 35-pair footwear collection will be launched at Micam in Milan next month, along with bags.

Everything you see at a By Malene Birger fashion show is in-house product and for sale. The designer does not believe in making show pieces. "What's the point in showing it if no one can buy it?" she says.

The ready-to-wear range consists of 180 to 200 pieces in autumn and spring with an 80-piece collection complementing it for high summer and Christmas. There is also an accessories collection ofabout 125 pieces, including sunglasses, scarves and hats, as well as 40 bags for autumn 07. Birger oversees the entire design process with the help of four design assistants. "I've never had so much help, yet I have never been so busy," she smiles, adding that she recently worked out that she travels 121 days a year. As sales rise Birger says the brand would probably look to license out areas such as sunglasses to lighten her load, but that would be further down the line.

In addition to the ready-to-wear collection there is Salon, a stunning handcrafted red-carpet couture collection designed by Birger and put together with the help of two tailors, plus a constructionist and a production specialist. It is her passion - she jokingly describes Salon as something for her - but you sense a genuine commitment to this part of the business. She says: "When we started up we set aside a budget for it. It was part of the deal and we agreed that 'this is the money we will lose for doing this work'. We are intent on making Salon work. It adds a luxe element to the house.

"It's not there yet in terms of recognition, but we are crossing our fingers that we will get someone wearing a piece in Hollywood this season. But I'm not the sort of person to chase celebrities. I want them to come to me because they love the design. Then it makes it easier to work with them."

Salon is not wholesaled and is available only in the brand's retail outlets. Birger says she is surprised at how many customers from Dubai and nations such as Belgium are picking up on it.

But it is ready-to-wear that is bringing home the bacon for this Danish brand, and Birger is constantly looking for new ways to make it easier to sell. This season she has marked out 40 key pieces which have been swing ticketed as Malene Birger's Darling, "They are just a guide to what I would buy - the design classics from that season. There is no difference in price but for me they are the important pieces that speak for the whole collection and pull it together."

Let's hope they also turn out to be darlings in terms of sales.

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