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Alpa embraces soft sustainability

Alpa’s focus is on natural materials and high quality. In the future, other materials might join in.

Petri Vähäjylkkä

Finnish fashion brand Alpa believes in its products so much that it promises to buy them back if needed – and then manages to sell them again.

For Heikki Timlin, alpaca wool seemed like magic. Whilst backpacking in Peru in the early 2010s, he bought a locally produced sweater made of the material he had never stumbled across before and was blown away by its comfort and silkiness.

“He has said it was pretty much the only thing he wore at the time,” tells Lauri Hilliaho, the marketing and communications director of Alpa.

As the son of a family of entrepreneurs, Timlin had been dreaming of setting up a company, if only he could come up with a good enough idea. Alpaca wool fashion definitely seemed like one – but he was just 21 years old and had neither prior education nor experience in the fashion or manufacturing industry.

Fortunately, he has a sister, who happens to be a textile designer. According to Hilliaho, it took Timlin a fair bit of effort and negotiating skills to convince her to join him in this new endeavour, but he succeeded.

For a few years, Alpa’s story was written in the shadow of other fulltime jobs, with occasional failures, trials and errors. In 2016, the production capacity, as well as the products themselves, was in a state where growth seemed possible. As an e-commerce expert, Hilliaho joined the gang to take the lead of the online store.

“I must admit I was pretty suspicious at first,” Hilliaho says. “I got to know the company at a stage where Heikki was living in a caravan to keep the costs down.”

A unique material from soft-hoofed animals

Gone are the days of camping in caravans, now that Alpa’s story and philosophy have caught on. Although Timlin was the first member of the team to fall in love with alpaca wool, Hilliaho is a self-proclaimed material geek and now just as enthusiastic about it.

“It really is a unique material,” he notes. “It breathes, is really warm without making you sweat and is durable.”

Lauri Hilliaho joined Alpa a few years ago, and the growth has been rapid ever since. Image: Petri Vähäjylkkä

On top of this, alpacas aren’t industrially farmed. Hilliaho emphasises that the animals feed on natural ground cover, and their soft split hooves don’t harm the soil they roam on. Alpa has also visited its Peruvian partners on several occasions to get to know the sources of their materials and the working conditions.

Alpa’s yarn and scarves come from Peru, beanies are made in Finland and all other knitwear is manufactured in Lithuania, the closest place Alpa could find that suited its criteria. Initially, the idea was to support local production and order the end products from Peru, but, as Hilliaho puts it, the quality wasn’t consistent enough for Alpa’s needs.

Accessible quality and second-hand initiatives

All the products are designed in Finland. As lovely as the cheerful designs in Peru are, Hilliaho believes they wouldn’t be as big of a hit among simplicity-loving Finns. And the idea is to make the clothes so classic and timeless that they can be combined with all sorts of things and worn for all sorts of occasions.

“We want to be a quality brand that’s still accessible to everyone,” Hilliaho describes.

Hilliaho wishes to see people buy less but better quality, and this is the market Alpa targets. When the design never goes out of fashion and the material, if well looked after, lasts for ages, it’s possible for people to pay more for properly made products.

In this context, properly made means the material won’t wear out and the shape won’t distort. A proof of Alpa’s commitment to this is that they promise to buy back used Alpa products and sell them again as second-hand items. Hilliaho says that although the second-hand finds are by no means very cheap, the storage space empties very quickly after the products have been posted online.

“That’s our way to challenge other brands,” he points out. “We want to be able to promise that our products last by showing we’re willing to take them back. If it wasn’t good stuff, of course we wouldn’t do it, but we honestly believe it is.”

Currently, Alpa’s main markets are Finland and Sweden, but there are plans to spread across Europe. Image: Petri Vähäjylkkä
By: Anne Salomäki