June 16, 2016

Finnish fashion fought its way to the stars

Finnish fashion designer Rolf Ekroth’s collection was selected to the final of the renowned Hyères Fashion Festival in France.
Finnish fashion designer Rolf Ekroth’s collection was selected to the final of the renowned Hyères Fashion Festival in France.
Catwalk Pictures

Why does the international fashion world recognise more and more Finnish names? According to some in the field it is not about Finland previously lacking in good designers – of course there were plenty. The world did not find Finnish designers, but Finnish designers found the world.

Many fashion world VIPs wear clothes designed by Hyères Fashion Festival 2013 winner Satu Maaranen.

Many fashion world VIPs wear clothes designed by Hyères Fashion Festival 2013 winner Satu Maaranen.

Satu Maaranen

Hyères Fashion Festival gave a big push in fashion designer Satu Maaranen’s career. Now, three years after winning the renowned French festival with her collection for her degree at Aalto University in 2013, her designs have been seen in international fashion brands such as Petit Bateau and on fashion world VIPs.

For a recent graduate Hyères was a huge step forward and Maaranen sees many of her achievements, such as the collaborations with French and Chinese fashion brands, as a result of the festival.

“The award came with plenty of media attention and a big network of international contacts,” Maaranen ponders. “Sure, things could have gone forward without Hyères, but I think it would have been a lot slower and more difficult.”

Maaranen is co-founder and creative director at Pre Helsinki, which helps Finnish fashion go international through support like marketing and export projects. In her opinion, the recent successes are based on the ability to hit the global markets on a different level.

She gives special credit to Aalto University’s Pirjo Hirvonen, a professor in fashion design, and Tuomas Laitinen, lecturer in the same field, for how they encourage and even push students abroad. She also deems the university’s facilities exceptional. Whilst doing her internships abroad Maaranen came to notice how Finnish students knew everything from computer programmes to planning and running a shop.

“I wonder if there are facilities anywhere that could compare to Aalto’s design studios.”

Professional and “super inspiring” education

Rolf Ekroth, this year’s Hyères attendee, sees the internationalisation of Finnish fashion as a fruit of the joint effort of the university, Hirvonen, and Laitinen.

“You do not see other Finnish institutions win international awards,” Ekroth says. “Aalto’s teachers are the ones that make students give their best.”

Ekroth describes the style of teaching professional and ”superinspiring”. For him Hyères was a chance to showcase the skills he had gathered after touching a sewing machine for the first time when he was 29 years old.

The festival was a turning point in his career. The plan to do a Master’s degree at a university in London was buried under other ideas and opportunities.

“I met all the most important headhunters, and now I have business cards for plenty of big companies in my pocket,” Ekroth says. “It is a humbling experience to have people from big fashion houses walk up to you and tell you they are your fans and love your collection.”

Time to aim higher

Students of Finnish Aalto University praise Pirjo Hirvonen, the professor in fashion design.

Students of Finnish Aalto University praise Pirjo Hirvonen, the professor in fashion design.

Aalto University

Hirvonen, the teacher praised by both Maaranen and Ekroth, is the one who encouraged Aalto students to send their work to Hyères in 2012. Maaranen’s prize gave a boost of energy to the whole student community.

“Making it to the final and winning made people understand that despite the high level of the competition, it is worth a shot,” Hirvonen says.

She admits that the success did not come easily. A lot of work has been done, but finally the ingredients are all there. Networking and developing education further into an international direction have taken a decade.

“Finland has always had talented designers, but times have taken an international turn,” Hirvonen continues. “Previously there maybe was not enough motivation to keep pushing forward, but now there are no other options. Current generations are more willing and faster to fully embrace opportunities than their predecessors.”

Talents to bring good to the whole country

Hirvonen points out that existing talent should be used to benefit the Finnish society and its competitiveness in general. She deems the pace too slow.

“Success always takes courage and risk-taking, but this is especially the case in fashion design as it is a very competitive field. Now we should start taking our very best out to the world to see and get other parties involved, too.”

In addition to state support, Hirvonen thinks companies should have a crystal clear focus. The world cannot be taken over without something disruptive or surprising.

Maaranen would love to see a flagship store of Finnish design in Helsinki, a city which a lot of Asians pass through due to flight connections. If brands can get out for people to see, the word will start spreading. What is also needed is, of course, money.

“To make this success last and reach new levels, fashion needs continuous support from the state,” Maaranen says.

Ekroth mentions that Finland is a difficult country to start from, as there simply is not enough money in the domestic market. He says that as building a business in fashion is a long-term project where patience is essential.

Satu Maaranen's designs to Hyères fashion festival in 2014.

Satu Maaranen’s designs to Hyères fashion festival in 2014.

Satu Maaranen

Text: Anne Salomäki

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