Since Helsinki is the design capital 2012, I thought it would be extra fitting to shine the light on a few Finnish brands this year, and first out is one of the largest jewels in the Finnish design crown: Marimekko.
I have always loved Marimekko, and growing up in Sweden in the 60s and 70s, you saw their patterns all over the place. My Mom had a fabulous dress that sadly got lost (or, gasp!, was thrown out!) in one of our many moves, which irks me to no end!
Marimekko, today one of the most well-known Finnish brands, was founded in 1951 by Armi Ratia. Armi was born in 1912 and in her early twenties, studied textile design at what is now the University of Art and Design in Helsinki. After graduation, she started a small workshop and hired weavers to produce her designs.
By the time WW II ended, Armi was married and worked in Helsinki as a copywriter. Her husband, Viljo, who had just left the military went into business with a friend. Their company, Printex, produced oilcloth fabric, and did quite well, but at the end of the 40s, the business was struggling. Armi, who had been helping out as a consultant all along, suggested that they switch their focus from oilcloth to
modern fabrics. They hired their first designer, Maija Isola, creator of over 500 patterns, among them the famous Unikko (interestingly, Armi had dismissed all flower patterns, saying she did not like them and that they were not in line with what Marimekko was all about, but Maija designed Unikko anyway. Armi liked it, and it went on to become one of the most iconic of Marimekko’s patterns), and Printex started producing fabrics with her designs.
At first, sales were slow; it seemed the public was not interested in the bold, graphic patterns. Then Armi had what turned out to be a brilliant idea: she teamed up with designer Riitta Immonen and put on a fashion show (called “the Marimekko project”) with dresses made from the fabrics, to stir up business and showcase what people could make themselves with the Printex fabrics.
The show was a success, BUT it wasn’t the fabrics people were talking about – it was the dresses. Armi realized this was a great business opportunity and in 1951, together with Riitta Immonen, she started her own company, Marimekko Oy (Oy is the Finnish equivalent of “company”). More (young) designers were hired and given free hands to create, which resulted in many more unique, bold patterns in vivid colors. Business was picking up, and the company opened its first store (in Helsinki) in 1953.
Marimekko started gaining popularity in other parts of Europe as well, and their first store abroad opened in Stockholm in 1960. Their big international break however, came when Jacqueline Kennedy started wearing their dresses, and the 60s was the company’s heydays. Armi Ratia was a very charismatic person and became a favorite of the press, resulting in lots of free PR.
The Good Life
Things were going well, and business was booming for the next couple of decades. Armi enjoyed every minute of the success; there were rumors of wild parties, where visiting artists and designers were entertained lavishly for days on end, and everyone would come away with new ideas and inspiration (and presumably hangovers!). Her plans for Marimekko, which she described as a “cultural phenomenon guiding the quality of living” included the ambitious project “Mari village” (Marikylä), which was going to be a small village consisting of a Marimekko office building, lab and factory, as well as housing for the company’s employees. Only parts of that plan came to fruition, and the project was eventually abandoned.
By now, the company was growing at an incredible pace, but there was little control over the cash flow. In 1966, Printex merged with Marimekko to make bookkeeping a bit easier, but by the late 60s, it was clear that changes had to be made. And not only on a business level; Armi and Viljo divorced, Viljo left the company and Armi spent even more time working and developing grand plans for Marimekko.
The Difficult 80s
The successes continued in the early 70s, then, Armi became ill and after a short battle passed away in 1979. She had been the face of the brand, as well as the force behind it, and her death was a big blow for Marimekko. The 80s was not a good decade for the company, and her heirs ended up selling their shares to Amer Group. It turned out to be a bad decision, and by 1991, Marimekko was on the brink of bankruptcy.
Back On Top Again
Luckily, Kirsti Paakkanen, who after a long and successful career in PR had retired to the French Riviera, felt the urge to return to Finland and the business world. She bought Marimekko and in just a few years, turned it completely around, back to its old glory days (and better – five years after she took over, the shares were selling at record prices).
Today, they are coming out with new designs and products on a regular basis, and are constantly expanding, opening new stores all over the world (a new flagship store just opened in New York City in the fall). But aside from a few people, the company’s board is all Finnish, and all fabrics, clothing and accessories are still made in Finland. Kirsti Paakkanen thinks that that, along with the fact that good, unique design is the most important part of the company, is the key to their success.