NEW YORK — Finn Birger Christensen, a third-generation furrier who worked with designers such as Christian Dior, Lanvin and Claude Montana, and helped give the fur industry cachet, died of cancer Sunday at his home in Copenhagen. He was 78.
Christensen dressed celebrities such as Maria Callas and Shirley MacLaine, and was a force in modernizing Copenhagen through his real estate business. In addition to the franchised Chanel and Hermès boutiques, which the Birger Christensen family business owns there, the company is the Denmark distributor for Prada, Tod’s, Fendi and Ferragamo. It has two stores in Copenhagen, and distributes fur coats and ready-to-wear under its own label in the U.K. and Japan.
In the mid-Eighties, Christensen turned 280,000 square feet of real estate he purchased in the Sixties along Copenhagen’s Pistol Street into a luxury shopping area with cafes and restaurants. The project included a supermarket he partially modeled after photographs he took of the Dean & DeLuca store in New York’s SoHo neighborhood.
“When we were done with something, he would always say, ‘Now what shall we do?’ said his son, Jens, Birger Christensen’s chief executive officer. “He was very impatient. He always wanted to go on.”
Christensen was honored for dressing the royal families of Denmark and Sweden, and a few months ago was named a Knight of the Order of Dannebrog by the Queen of Denmark. He was credited with updating fur to make it more stylish. Kenzo, Hannah Mori, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Perry Ellis and Michael Kors were also among the designer firms that tapped Birger Christensen to make their furs.
“He always believed the fur trade should be part of the fashion industry,” Jens Birger Christensen said.
When the company was close to bankruptcy in the early Nineties — as the recession settled in, the Danish real estate market took a downturn and fur companies were targeted by protesters — Finn Birger Christensen sold most of his private assets and put that money back into the business to help save it, his son said.
“In the Sixties, he took the traditional fur business, which was all there was in Denmark at that time, and turned it into fashion,’’ said Steve Gold, former publicist for Saga Furs of Scandinavia. “Furs were all made-to-measure, but he turned it into a ready-to-wear concept.”
Thomas Steifel-Kristensen, creative director of the Copenhagen Fur Center, said, “To Finn’s credit, he was one of the first retailers to take some of the stuffiness out of fur…he was a great art collector. He was a man who was open to many interests and ideas. A visionary is a good way to describe him.”
The company that would become Birger Christensen was founded in 1869 by Moses Levinsky, a relative of Christensen’s grandmother, as a workshop specializing in repairs and alterations. It produced the occasional made-to-measure garments for Copenhagen’s well-heeled residents. Christensen’s grandfather joined the business in 1893. The company changed its name to Birger Christensen in the Thirties when Finn Birger Christensen’s father, Jorgen, owned and ran the firm.
After his father died In 1955, Christensen took over the business. Until his death, Christensen served as chairman and managed the company with his son.
In 1965, he expanded into the American, European and Japanese markets. Birger Christensen was the first Western company to offer furs in Japan. About eight years ago, Birger Christensen left the U.S. market and sold the rights to use the company’s name in the U.S. to a group of New York investors. That business exists as BC International, considered the world’s largest fur retailer, and no longer involves manufacturing under the Birger Christensen label. Jens Birger Christensen said he is considering returning to the U.S. market.
Marvin Traub, the retail consultant and former Bloomingdale’s chief executive, said Christensen “was really a force in the fur industry and a retailer in his own right. He had really great taste and flair.”
In addition to his son, Christensen is survived by his wife, Lulu, and two daughters, Tina and Alexandra Christensen. Funeral services will be held today at the Hosterkob Church in Hosterkob, Denmark.
— With contributions from David Moin