Birna Karen Einarsdóttir is a 37 year old Icelandic fashion designer, based in Copenhagen. After only 2 years in design school, she started her own company, followed by concept stores.
When I walked into the concept store BIRNA on Istedgade in Copenhagen and asked for the designer, I was told that she was of course busy in her workshop, just a few blocks away. The sales assistant called her on the phone and five minutes later, I was in Birna’s workshop. That’s the official Icelandic way of doing things.
We sat down and started chit-chatting about her life and what she has been up to over the past few years. Before she went to school, Birna bought old garbs from YMCA and the Salvation Army, made sweaters and dresses out of them and sold them to a few shops in Copenhagen. She graduated from Københavns Mode- og Designskole with a diploma in fashion design. As soon as she graduated, she opened her workshop and sold to retailers. People kept walking into the workshop, asking if it was a store. Five years ago, Birna decided to open her own store in her workshop, followed by concept stores on Istedgade and Kultorvet in Copenhagen and in Reykjavík, Iceland.
How was it to start your own business, not just thinking about technicalities and book accounting, but also trying to get inspiration and designing new clothes?
It’s really difficult and there is almost no time for designing. We are 8 people, so it is a really small company. That means that all of my time goes into taking care of things that need to be put in order, for example regarding production to keep the company running. So I recommend no one to start their own business without having accountants and other staff, like in customer service. I just went to school and said to myself that I am just going to start my own label. I never wanted to work for another designer, I just wanted to run my own label. Today, seven years later, working for 24 hours a day, I would never have done it alone in the beginning. Ever.
What would you recommend to people who are new in the fashion business?
It depends on what school young people are graduating from. If you are graduating from a school that mainly focuses on design, which for me is just playing around, then it has almost nothing to do with the things that you design to sell. Unfortunately, only a very low percentage of them manage to sell their clothes on the market. You have to know how to design clothes that sell and how to market them. You have to know many things that don’t concern your creativity and your style as a designer. So there are many young designers who have great ideas and are really creative, but who go bankrupt because they basically drown in work. So I would recommend to get some experience, which can be really hard today because of world economy, and if at one point you are interested in opening a company, you should look for a partner to work together with, who is not a designer but takes care of the practical side of the company.
What is your experience in working with other people in this business, e.g. photographers, makeup artists and producers? What is most enjoyable and what is the hardest part of it?
In the fashion business altogether, the photo shoots are the most amusing part; the clothes are ready, everything is set and you can allow yourself to be a little creative. Even though you don’t have much time for this because the clothes usually arrive the day before the shooting. But to see the collection as a whole is amazing. For the most part, this business is not goofing around at all; it really is extremely hard work. Seven years ago, it was amazingly fun, but today, even though I am able to decide a little more about my own working hours, it is not all about the entertainment and it is still work, work and more work. There are just so many things that can happen from the moment I draw a line on a piece of paper until we produce the product; the cut has to fit, the fabric has to be correct, control check number three has to be correct, the product has to arrive at the right time and so does the payment from the customer and so on. So there are many things that have to go as planned, which again have nothing to do with designing whatsoever.
When do you have the time to sit down and design – and where do you get your inspiration?
Being alive, basically. It is limited how much inspiration I can get when I am always at work, but being alive and working with all the influence I get from watching movies, taking a walk, watching people in the street, the weather forecast or even a small photo in a magazine where someone is wearing a funny hat. I gather all those things that inspire me in my head, and the final outcome are my collections.
What about Iceland? Many Icelandic designers tend to find their inspiration in the Icelandic nature. Has Iceland, per se, inspired you in any way?
Not my collections directly, no. But the way I was raised, the environment around me and the way things are done in Iceland have affected me of course. In Iceland, we tend not to overthink things – we just do them. And that’s still what I do. I do not think a lot about the pink belt that is in fashion and that I have to do exactly the same, I do what I want to do. But I don’t find inspiration for my collection in lava stones all the time, just when it fits.
Compared to the four fashion capitals of the world; New York, Milan, Paris and London, how do you look at Copenhagen as a fashion city in Scandinavia?
I think that many designers are doing great things, but when I think of fashion cities I think it is quite natural that they are called fashion cities because of their size and population and the fact that there are many different people doing very different things. Of course it would be bigger here if there where more people in Copenhagen – and if you would put 5 million people on Iceland, there would be more things happening up there, but it still wouldn’t be a fashion capital. But I think Denmark will never be where those big cities are; we don’t have enough people to make it any bigger than it already is. Concerning creativity, I think most of the well known Danish designers are doing pretty much the same. Of course there is always someone who is designing unique clothes, like Henrik Vibskov, but you also see that in other cities, and more of it, actually.
When asked about the financial crisis she explains the difference between having her own store, and selling out to resale. She decided, when she saw how good her concept stores were going, to market her products in a slightly different way than many other designers – which has been a success. Instead of relying on retailers, who often buy in small quantities due to the size of her brand, she has three concept stores located in Copenhagen and in Reykjavík. In addition to that, she has kept good contact with bigger retailers in Germany, Ireland and Norway. By doing that, she doesn’t have to struggle to convince retailers around the world to sell her products, which can be hard in these economic circumstances.
Now, Birna is slowly changing her concept store on Istedgade in Copenhagen into a mix of Outlet, consisting of re-designs, old and new collections from her and other designers. She thinks that a collection that was launched five years ago can still be great looking, and does not really believe in the season-mania that has been disturbing many designers. The Outlet is not full of clothes in wholesale boxes, but a cool shop with quality garments.
If FÆBRIC readers are interested in participating in this Outlet, they can contact Birna via birna.net