Hot trends coming in from the cold

By Marjo Laukkanen / Translation: Richard Foley / Photos: Arto Liiti

What does "northernness" mean in the world of fashion? Does the North have a design language all its own? How can a young fashion designer propel her brand from Lapland onto the national and international fashion markets? These are some of the questions running through the minds of past and prospective graduates alike in the field of textiles and clothing.

When Kirsi Päiväniemi was thinking of a topic for her master’s thesis, little did she know that the outcome of her efforts would be a business whose products would be sold throughout Finland as well as abroad. Päiväniemi, a Rovaniemi native, began her studies in textile design at the University of Lapland in 1998. When it came time to think of a thesis topic in spring 2002, the trademark and her company Cho Cho were born. A traineeship at Marimekko the previous autumn gave Päiväniemi the spark to tackle design on a larger scale.

"I wanted to create and work on a product from start to finish, to design an entire concept."

It was soon after this that Päiväniemi decided to focus her efforts on bags. During this creative period, she was living in Helsinki part of the time, and a shop called Limbo near her home there caught her eye – not least because some of the products it carried were made by students. Päiväniemi called the shop, told them about her plans and got an opportunity to present her creations.

"In rather short order, they picked a print bag although I tried to push other alternatives as well," Päiväniemi recalls.

The first version of the butterfly pattern was one Päiväniemi designed while at Marimekko, and it was this that Limbo took an interest in.  Her company ultimately got its name from the butterfly "cho cho" in Japanese. As her plans began to progress, Päiväniemi got in touch with Tampu, a shop located in Rovaniemi at the time. She thought she could look into how the product could be marketed and sold in cities and in the northern and southern parts of the country. Later, the motif would change, but a retail sales network had begun to take shape.

Initially, Päiväniemi’s plans called for producing a run of forty or fifty bags that would be sold for a single summer only. She sent the bags to Limbo in May. In June, they told her the bags had sold out and they would be very happy to have more – and quickly.

The next year Päiväniemi showed her products at the Federation of Finnish Textiles and Clothing Industries Fair. This yielded a couple of new retail agents, and Limbo showed the butterfly bags at international fairs, resulting in a large order from Japan. Päiväniemi saw that the demand was so high that she would have to outsource the stitching work. Moreover, in order to take part in the fair, she had to set up her own business.

"I had never thought of going into business. Once things got started, they just took on a momentum of their own."

A modern, fresh approach

With the surprising success of her business, Päiväniemi was almost too distracted to complete her degree. But in 2004 she decided to focus on finishing her thesis and graduate. The thesis title said it all: Creating a new designer product in the textile and clothing business.

When she graduated, Päiväniemi had two options: find space to work in or close down her business, which simply could not operate the way it had so far. Until then she had printed cloth wherever and whenever, for example, on the table in her small flat. When she found premises to work in, the work that had started as a sideline when she was doing her thesis became a full-time job. It was not the business that prompted her to move to Helsinki, and in fact she firmly believes Cho Cho can make a go of it just as well operating out of Rovaniemi.

"With people buying more and more products online, the location of the company is not all that important."

More important than location is the entrepreneur’s own initiative in approaching retailers. Päiväniemi stresses the importance of local and Finnish materials. For example, stitching was done first in Rovaniemi and later, after her move to Helsinki, near Tampere.

"I want production to stay in Finland even if it takes everything I’ve got," Päiväniemi says with a laugh.

But how is northernness reflected in Päiväniemi’s designs? It’s a tough question. The designer has always been proud of her roots in Rovaniemi and is quick to mention her hometown when marketing her business. Yet, in her designs she does not try to consciously exploit the northern or Lappish influences in her work.

"I don’t know if it has to do with northernness or what, but I strive for a clear design language and a certain timelessness. Many of the themes I use also come from nature."

According to Päiväniemi, there is demand on the market for a northernness where natural materials are refined in a modern way, or for an ethnicity that succeeds in avoiding clichés. As examples of the modern uses of northernness, she mentions the companies Kotilo and Mieland, whose products have not only a clear design language, but also powerful, fresh colors.

A new take on national costumes

Teija Arola, completing her master’s in the field of clothing, is interested in folk and national costumes. Her thesis deals with costumes from three northern Finnish provinces, which form the basis for the costumes she designs for the folk ensemble Rimpparemmi.

As a rule, folk costumes are practical, everyday clothing worn by farming families, whereas national costumes are festive garments used primarily on special occasions. The cold climate has traditionally had a strong influence on clothing in the North, as can be seen in how well clothes protect the people from the elements and keep them warm.

"For example, women’s slips were made from lambskin with the fleece turned inward," Arola explains.

In designing costumes for Rimpparemmi, Arola engages in a modern interpretation of folk and national costumes. Although Arola, a native of Joensuu in eastern Finland, feels that the mystical and ethnic dimension of Lapland could be used more extensively in costume design, she sees northernness primarily as being Finnish and Nordic.

"The place as such is not all that important. After all, clothing design is now a global activity and influences come from all over," Arola says.

Potential in Lappish wool

Lecturer Päivi Rautajoki, who teaches form design for clothing, is planning to do her postgraduate thesis on a natural material very familiar to all Finns – wool. Rautajoki was previously a researcher in the Healing Wool project, which studied the wholesome properties of Lappish raw wool and developed felt products with curative potential.

"Lappish wool has a very special status of its own. Spinning mills in the south have noticed that the wool from the North is of exceptionally high quality, which at least to some extent can be attributed to the cooler climate."

In Lapland, wool is a by-product of meat production, unlike in Australia and New Zealand, which produce half of the world’s wool. The Healing Wool project exploited the purity of the fiber in Lappish wool and developed a gentle way of processing it that leaves in as much of the wool’s natural fat as possible.

In her master’s thesis, completed two years ago, Rautajoki worked with end-users and foot therapists and studied how to turn felted wool into commercial products such as shoe inserts and foot warmers. Her research indicates that northern wool is definitely worth investing effort in, as people found the use of woolen products pleasant, even therapeutic.

Products made from Lappish wool can be marketed by appealing to style and ecology, for example. Woolen products might also interest users for their potential use in self-care and their appeal as a return to one’s roots – the genuine article. Indeed, textile department is currently planning a new project dealing with wool.

Rautajoki,  a native of Tervola – a town just down the road from Rovaniemi - views the University of Lapland’s northern location as an opportunity that allows us the luxury of observing the dress and clothing business from a bit farther away than others do.

"This perspective makes it possible for us to maintain a certain open mindedness and to go against rather than with the flow if we wish."

One example Rautajoki cites is Mieland, with whom she has worked in her course on productizing.

"Mieland does not hesitate to make a statement and represents a different, new step for clothing businesses in Lapland," Rautajoki observes.

Urban Lappish design

Mieland can trace its origins to the Faculty of Art and Design, beginning with a group of students who thought about creating a brand in the textile and clothing business in the North. The group that emerged after the initial excitement was Ilkka Väyrynen, Marjo Remes, Erja Tuhkala and Katariina Imporanta – all partners in Mieland today.

The group ultimately gelled when it decided to take part in the "Arctic Pearls" product design contest organized in 2006 by the Lapland Regional Council. The theme of the contest was design. In putting together their entry, Mieland clarified their philosophy, leading to the creation of the popular "Kemijärvi Night Train" line. The group was awarded honorable mention in the contest and achieved extensive media visibility, buffeted by their night train long underwear. 

The company’s work was based squarely on its northern origins and motifs. Its brand has been developed systematically and thoughtfully from the outset.

"We very much intend to stay here and have our products manufactured here if possible," says Marjo Remes.

The designer, now living in Rovaniemi, hails originally from Kiuruvesi in eastern Finland. Lapland as seen through her eyes and the eyes of the other members of the Mieland team is an urban and fun place that leaves no one unmoved. The group does not shrink away from difficult motifs but their designs tend to stress playfulness, joy and feeling good. Their aims include improving Lapland’s collective self-esteem and conveying a richer-textured image of the region. For example, the "Fall in Love with Lapland" line urges people to look behind the clichéd picture of Lapland offered by the tourist industry. The description of the line points out that the landscape of the soul can be found just as easily in a bus station coffee shop as on a swamp. In contrast, the Salla products, while referring to emigration and darkening homes, also nurture visions of people returning to their hometowns.

"Although we deal with serious social issues, we present them in a cheery manner. The tone may be on the light side, but the underlying message is not lost," Remes claims.

The group collaborate intensively in creating their lines and products. A design may get its start in an ordinary everyday observation or a story that the group wants to tell.

"The long and short of it is that we have a collective unconscious," Remes notes.

She describes the design process as proceeding from a discussion to "horsing around" to the design of the visual expression and the products. But only a fraction of the designs survive the process to find their way to marketplace.

According to Remes, it is not enough to make a good product; you have to arouse interest and distinguish yourself from the crowd. Building up a retail sales network requires constant effort and contacts. Mieland has its own online store as well as retail outlets throughout Finland and even several abroad. The extensive interest which the products have generated shows that there is clear demand for fresh designs from Lapland.