The creative director of premium Danish womenswear label By Malene Birger on her love of suits, Seoul and vintage shopping LA style.
In 2003 Christina Exsteen joined fledgling premium Danish womenswear brand By Malene Birger as a design assistant aged 28. Working in a team of 10 people, she progressed up the ladder as the label grew, becoming creative director two years ago following the departure of the brand’s eponymous founder. Boasting standalone stores in eight countries worldwide, By Malene Birger’s UK flagship on London’s Marylebone High Street is complemented by 60 UK stockists including Net-a-Porter, Very Exclusive, Fenwick of Bond Street and premium independent chain Cruise. Wholesale prices range from £25 to £1,525.
How do you describe the By Malene Birger style?
Great fabrics, quality worksmanship and attention to detail. I’ve always liked the idea that you can turn our clothes inside out and they’re still beautiful. I like the feeling that when you look at our clothes you can see that they’ve been through human hands.
What are the key pieces for autumn 15?
I love the checked double-breasted suit, inspired by men’s tailoring. We also have a great cape in double-faced wool. The seams are split and hand-stitched to give the piece a sculptural quality. We incorporate lots of art and prints, which is not typical of Scandinavian fashion. When I became creative director two years ago, I really wanted to upgrade our jewellery and create a link in terms of quality between our garments and accessories. It’s easy to personalise your outfit with great jewellery.
What do you think is the difference between UK and Danish style?
Danish style is all about layering, whereas I think British style is more bold and colourful. British designers aren’t afraid of strong colour and print. We’re pretty colourful for a Scandinavian brand, but not as colourful as London fashion. UK style is definitely edgier.
You opened your redesigned Marylebone store in September. Are any more UK stores on the cards?
We’re looking at opening another store in London, although we have no date confirmed. We definitely need to increase our visibility in the UK market.
Where are your favourite places to shop?
I always buy with my heart and it’s just whatever catches my eye. I admire different designers for different reasons. For example, I love what Phoebe Philo has done for Céline. I think it’s fabulous. Clare Waight Keller at Chloé has kept the spirit of the brand but moved it on. I also think it’s interesting what Hedi Slimane has done, rebranding Yves Saint Laurent to Saint Laurent. Do I like it? I don’t know, but it’s bold and consistent, and it’s very clear what he wants to achieve, which I admire.
How would you describe your personal style?
I love good-quality material and mixing vintage pieces with something brand new. My style is also approachable and it’s not about putting myself into character. I wear my clothes, but I don’t let them wear me.
What is your favourite item of clothing?
For winter, it’s always a coat and I love leather; I always wear something that’s leather. I always have a great menswear-inspired, classic tailored suit cut in the season’s silhouette. If you have good basics then you can add the twist of the season and you’re good to go. I think jewellery is a very interesting way to embellish yourself. Combine a necklace and earrings with a plain dress and it’s a really easy to personalise your outfit. Being individual is the only way to be truly stylish.
If you could only wear one outfit for the rest of your life, what would it be?
It would be a suit. I love big pleats at the top of the trousers, narrowing at the ankle in classic tweed or pinstripe. I love the craftsmanship behind a piece like that.
What’s the most stylish city you’ve been to?
LA is cool and laidback, and I love its vintage shops. It’s amazing what they’ve collected over the years. I always find small pieces with peculiar details that can be translated into modern-day living.
Do you get to travel often?
I can’t do my job if I don’t travel to find inspiration. I travel to big cities like LA and London, but I always combine it with cultural places like Marrakesh because you can source real artisan craftsmanship you can’t find in larger cities.
Then I go home and think about the direction for the season. I present my ideas to the six-strong design team in Copenhagen, after which they travel on their inspiration trips and then we come together to discuss our ideas.
I visited Seoul in March, which I found so interesting. I expected it to be similar to Japan, but I found the people much more approachable. They have a European lifestyle, staying out late on the street, drinking a glass of wine. They have a really big university quarter called Hongdae full of cool local shops. The population of Seoul is very fashionable and individual, and they’re a bit more relaxed than the people in Tokyo.
What do you do in your spare time?
I like relaxing with good food, good wine, friends and family. I live in the centre of Copenhagen and I’m currently redesigning my house, which is good as I like interior design. In the summer I love to eat smoked herring on rye bread with a cold white wine, whereas in winter it has to be beef béarnaise with a glass of red.