Somehow, since moving to Copenhagen last year, I have become a welcomed member, of what I have coined, the “Icelandic mafia.” These crazy people are everywhere, doing loads of creative things, yet still finding time to party, laugh and enjoy life to the fullest. I would describe Icelanders as being workaholics, a bit egocentric, and out to conquer the world. I say this with love and also with a strange obsession for these wonderful and beautiful people.
Luckily for me, through word-of-mouth, I was tipped off on yet another Icelander establishing herself within the Danish creative community. Meet Birna Einarsdottir, a fantastic fashion designer and a really cool chic behind the independent label, Birna. I had a chance to sit down with Birna and ask her some questions regarding her label and the inspiration behind her upcoming collection.
Tell us about what it was like growing up in Iceland? Do you have any favourite childhood memories?
I come from Reykjavik, which wasn’t much of a city when I was growing up and to be honest, still really isn’t. As a child, I would sneak into my mother’s closet and dress up in her red angora dress, fox fur and channel pumps. These were her favourite things and totally off limits for me. Adorning her red lipstick, I would stuff a pillow under my dress, as to look pregnant. I would then hop on the bus headed to downtown Reykjavik. I remember walking around for hours, all the while being stared at by onlookers. I loved checking peoples’ reaction to this ungodly sight of a pregnant teenage girl wearing all of this elaborate attire. Because Reykjavik is so small, everyone knows everyone. After one of my little escapades, one of my mother’s friends called her in shock at the sight of her daughter walking around Reykjavik looking like a pregnant whore. It took a lot of explaining on my mother’s part to calm her friend down and assure her that her daughter was not, in fact, pregnant.
Tell us something no one knows about you?
I have two dirty little secrets. For starters, I have many words that I have made up on my own. They are a mixture of Icelandic, Danish and sometimes English. I use these words all of the time, like normal people using normal words. People have no idea what I am talking about when I start spouting off these crazy mixtures of sound, but I know exactly what I am conveying. It is sort of my own inside joke. When I start speaking, people get highly confused with this dumbfounded look on their face and all I can do is laugh.
Secondly, when I was younger I was really bold. For a few years I had long, pink dreadlocks that I wore in a ponytail. With every step I took, you would hear music reverberating from my head because I liked to wear bells in my dreads. I also had many piercings in my face and head. People would constantly stare at me. I couldn’t travel anywhere without being accosted at customs. I just remember getting so pissed at these gawkers and authoritative types that would only judge me based on appearance.
How did you get involved within the fashion industry?
I got involved in fashion by accident. I actually always wanted to become an actress and I was quite obsessed with it. Due to my complete emersion in acting, I never even considered designing. However, after three surgeries on my vocal cords, the last resulting in the removal of my vocal strings, I really held no chance within the industry, especially since I could no longer hit high tones. After this horrific news, I had to reconsider my career.
As a child, my grandmother always made my clothes. We would always purchase second hand clothing and I would get her to fix or change certain aspects of the garment to suit my needs and wants. I was 20 years old when I moved to Copenhagen for the first time and I soon realized that I no longer had my grandmother to reinvent my clothing. I had to learn how to do it myself. I purchased a used sewing machine from the 60’s that must have weighed 20 kilos. I started making my own clothes from this 150 KR machine. People would always ask me about what I was wearing and there was a lot of interest in purchasing what I made. The owner of Goggle on Elmegade wanted to sell my clothing in his shop, so I started by selling some clothes in his shop as well as selling at some small shops in Iceland. Everything was made from second-hand fabrics and it was really successful. I made a lot of money doing this. However, I knew I needed more experience and thought it was necessary to learn proper sewing techniques but I didn’t want to study for a long time. I needed something quick. Therefore, I enrolled at the Copenhagen School of Fashion and Design. I was accepted and received my degree in 2 years.
What is your biggest strength/weakness?
I will not take no for an answer. This is both my biggest strength and biggest weakness.
Where do you get ideas for your collections?
I get ideas by just being alive and observing others, places and things. There are so many different things I am inspired by and my ideas come from all over. I love looking, or better yet; staring at people. I love observing how their clothes fit, how they look wearing them and the quality of how the garment is made. I usually undress them and change their outfit in my mind, adding or taking away certain details and changing the composition and colour or shape of the garment.
Have you seen a huge change in fashion from when you started?
Everything is the same. What goes around comes around. Fashion is very cyclical and repeats itself throughout the years.
What are some major hurdles that you have encountered in running your own small business?
The main challenge that I struggle with is the ability to deliver 100% of the product that I have promised to the consumer. There are so many small pieces of the puzzle that have to fit together to make the product complete. Suppliers and agents don’t always do exactly what you want or tell them to do and it can have a tremendous effect on the outcome of the product.
Another major obstacle is getting paid by the shops you sell to. It is very difficult for designers when they are at the disposal of shop owners because many shops pay late or, unfortunately, don’t pay at all. A very clever British gentleman named Winston Churchill once said, “If you are going through hell, keep on going.” This is my every day motto. I am quite certain that many independent designers would agree with me on this.
Have you learned any important lessons from running your own business?
Oh my God, yes! If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. If I had one wish, I would clone myself. That way, I would know that things were being done correctly. People are barbarians except for you and your family (he he, that’s a joke of course)!
Do you think the fashion industry embraces independent designers? How do the struggles of a small label differ from that of large corporations?
To answer your first question, yes, I do think that the fashion industry embraces independent designers. However, I do not always think that they embrace the right ones. It is such a struggle for many small labels to survive. When you are small it usually means that you do not have very much funding. The small labels usually get suffocated by the larger ones to the point of losing visibility. When you lose visibility you often disappear, as if you never even existed in the first place. It is really sad because there are so many small labels with much better concepts than the large, corporate labels, yet because there are so many imperative factors surrounding finance and visibility, they usually get lost in the crowd.
How is it then, that an independent label can survive in this cut-throat industry called fashion?
Total commitment and hard work is the key. Personally, I have been working like a maniac for the past 8 years. I am quite certain that I hold the world record in working hours per week. I have been successful through a lot of hard work combined with Birna’s high quality standards and impeccable fit. Every day presents a new, unexpected challenge but I am still here, so I must be doing something right.
What can we expect from Birna for the SS/12 collection?
We will have many new, really cool styles. 50% of the styles will be new, experimental designs. These are the kinds of things I would wear; while the other 50% will be commercial designs, designs our customers love but I myself would not wear. I find the commercial designs a bit boring but you have to make what sells and these particular products sell so they are quite necessary. The color palette will consist of differing shades of blue, peach, light grey, curry, white and bright green. Additionally, I always have a signature print in each collection. For SS/12 my boyfriend has drawn a huge Hitchcock bird. These prints will be sold in cobalt blue, beige and curry.
What is your ultimate goal within your company?
I want to be able to design and produce high quality collections that fit many different body types in many different shapes at a price range that fits under the “normal” category so that women can actually afford to purchase my products. I want women to be their own judge when purchasing my clothes; reflecting rather than following the masses. Of course I hope all of this leads to decent money. I do not have any urge to sell my clothing worldwide or build some huge brand. I just want to earn enough money to have the ability to travel. Snowboarding in the Alps makes me feel alive and if that were taken away from me I think I would get quite bored and complacent. Denmark is a bit boring you know!
What advice would you give a young person starting out in the industry?
I have only worked for myself within my own company. If you are considering opening your own business I would recommend making a plan, which I didn’t do. I had to learn everything the hard way. I would also suggest not doing this alone. Acquire a partner that will take care of the financial site and have the money to do so. There are so many talented, creative people that only think with the right side of their brain. If your left side is not functioning, you better find someone’s that is. You need both sides working at a high level for this business.
Here is a selection of the cool styles you can get on www.isascloset.com