Not since Marimekko’s cheerful prints swept Jacqueline Kennedy off her feet in the Sixties has Finnish fashion had such a moment. Now, a clutch of promising young designers is making news, driven by cutting-edge schooling and an adventurous approach to fashion.
“For a long time, it seemed that it was just a couple of designers doing their own thing in relative isolation. But now it’s beginning to be more like an actual wave of labels, magazines, photographers and stylists,” said designer Saara Lepokorpi, suggesting that the groundswell of talent in Finland echoes what happened in Antwerp in the Eighties.
The prospects are certainly promising. The last two winners of the Hyères International Festival were Finns: Trio Siiri Raasakka, Tiia Siren and Elina Laitinen scooped the prestigious Grand Prix in 2012 while they were still students at Helsinki’s Aalto University (they’ve since disbanded), while Satu Maaranen, also an Aalto grad, secured it this year.
“In the last five years, the level of education has risen impressively,” said Maaranen, who was tapped by Marimekko in 2010, while still studying, to design the brand’s women’s wear and prints. “The most important lesson we were taught: Be as experimental as possible.”
According to industry insiders, the man in charge of this Finnish movement is Tuomas Laitinen, a designer who took over the reins at Aalto’s fashion department seven years ago. Under the direction of design department head Pirjo Hirvonen, Laitinen set up studios with top-notch equipment where students weave, knit and print their own fabrics, and trimmed the curriculum down to no more than two complete collections a year. He invites his industry contacts to the graduate shows and at times has helped facilitate stints at major fashion houses. “Students work as if they were designers already,” said Laitinen, who won the honorary Hyères prize himself in 2006.
Perhaps most impressive: Out of hundreds of applicants and after a long and laborious admissions process, only 12 students are accepted into Aalto’s fashion program each year. “[This] guarantees a very personal tutoring both with design work and technical aspects [such as] pattern-cutting and sewing techniques,” Laitinen said, adding that his students are eager to forge an aesthetic different from Nordic minimalism, one that’s “still clean, but very rich in textile, color and surface.”
Although Finland has no fashion week or fashion council, a new platform called Pre-Helsinki, founded in May 2012 to promote local designers internationally, is filling the gap. The group sets up temporary showrooms during fashion weeks abroad, arranges for young designers to meet with buyers and press and handles marketing for new labels. “These designers have the courage to start their own businesses, [they] understand the international markets, have the language skills and the international contacts. This is our moment,” said Pre-Helsinki’s director, Miia Koski, who cites Asia and the U.S. as the most important and fastest-growing markets for Finnish designers.
Even financing — still the biggest challenge — is easing up. While Finnish investors are typically more interested in technology ventures, more are discovering that fashion is serious business. Pre-Helsinki hosts annual meetings to raise funds and attract so-called “business angels.” Koski said 60 such potential investors attended this year’s May meeting, versus only seven in 2012.
Indeed, the Finnish wave is spreading. Aalto’s Laitinen confirmed that many of his graduates who have not launched their own lines are now working at major companies, including Balenciaga, Lanvin, Saint Laurent, Maison Martin Margiela, Calvin Klein, Levi’s, H&M and Nike. “Before, designers had a domestic view; they catered to the Finnish market,” Laitinen said. “This generation definitely has a wider perspective.”
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