Fashion designer Cleopatra Broumand Birrenbach was a woman who made her own opportunities. Today she’s living a quiet life, but during her heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, the likes of Vogue and The New York Times often reported on Birrenbach’s successful womenswear line. Alongside the likes of Ray Aghayan and Shirin Guild, Birrenbach was one of the first Persian fashion designers to find success in Western fashion.
Birrenbach was born into a wealthy family in Iran. At 15, she left the country for Indiana to join her brothers. After graduating high school, the designer attended the Fashion Institute of Technology (1). She then transitioned into working for a fashion house, but quickly discovered her passion for creating her own line. “I soon realized that I had to follow my dream and told my boss that I would like to start my own business, but did not have the necessary capital to do so,” Birrenbach told Voice of America. “He had a splendid idea and responded: I will fire you so that you can start your business with the unemployment money.”
Fashion had always been a prominent feature in Birrenbach’s life. In the Voice of America interview, the designer recalled her early intention to dress the world. “Already at age eight, I asked my mother if I could attend a special school to learn how to design and make clothes. I intended to be the next Christian Dior.”
When beginning her career in the 1960s, the designer gained access to one of the largest department stores in the New York City, Bergdorf Goodman. “When they saw my designs, they placed a substantial order. In reality, Bergdorf Goodman was my first investor. From then on, all went very well…,” Birrenbach recalled. The designer’s relationship with Bergdorf Goodman was so strong that her designs were featured in the store’s windows.
As her name grew in the industry, Birrenbach developed a reputation for her “East Meets West” aesthetic. Her first design inspiration was based on her father’s 150 year old abba, but then transitioned to on-trend, opulent women’s apparel. She first embraced a 1970s bohemian aesthetic, but later moved to a broad-shouldered 1980s silhouette.
During the 1970s the designer married Thomas Birrenbach, a German steel executive. Thomas Birrenbach’s occupation led to opportunities to travel the world. While abroad, she developed a number of projects that ranged from being an advisor to the National China Textile Corporation (2) to introducing Western merchandising to the Russian Ministry of Light Industries and Textiles (3). Birrenbach developed this initiative of Western manufacturing across the world in countries like India, China, and Scotland. Scottish knitting manufacturer Peter Scott lauded Birrenbach for her efforts and stated that she “advanced their industry a decade in technology” (4).
After years of traveling the world, Birrenbach returned to the United States to relaunch her fashion design career. Her designs were sold on New York’s Seventh Avenue and branched into eveningwear, ready to wear, accessories, and even menswear. She continued her “East Meets West” aesthetic with collections inspired by crescent moons and starbursts (Fall 1983), Marcos Grigorian’s “Earth Work” (Fall 1984), and 16th century miniature illustrations of Persian writer Ferdowsi’s poetry (Fall 1985). Her clientele was some of the top figures in Western fashion, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, and Julia Child (5). The designer embraced embroidery, quilting, and pleating techniques alongside digital computer designs, which was considered a new innovation of the time (6).
Alongside her fashion design career, Birrenbach entered the food industry where she saw an opportunity in designer foods. She was one of the first to create coffee associated with a high-end name, and the products were sold in major speciality stores.
The name of Cleopatra Broumand Birrenbach is less prominent than it once was, but her presence in the industry gave a face to Persian fashion designers. Her natural ability to create her own projects, ranging from womenswear to designer coffee, gave her opportunities and an empire that may not have been available otherwise. For more on Birrenbach’s life and career, check out this Voice of America interview and these series of photographs on Flickr.
(1) “INDIANA AND CLEOPATRA” by Sheryl Fitzgerald, Newsday, New York, February 23, 1984
(2) “INDIANA AND CLEOPATRA” by Sheryl Fitzgerald, Newsday, New York, February 23, 1984
(3) Cleopatra for Moscow and New York” by Oleg Ivanov, First Editor in Chief, Sovietskaja Kultura Newspaper, Moscow, USSR (translation), August 22, 1988.
(4) “Fashion designer girdles the globe” by Gwen Salley-Schoen, The Spokesman-Review Spokane Chronicle, June 2, 1987.
(5) “Looking at the earth, stars and beyond” by Marty Primeau, The Dallas Morning News, August 26, 1984.
(6) “COMPUTER FOR A DESIGNER.” Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), 1985., F4, Biography in Context, EBSCOhost (accessed October 4, 2016).