Thoughts from Pre Helsinki

June 2013

Finnish fashion industry is finally starting to bloom: there’s originality, attitude and creativity – as the recent Pre Helsinki fair proved. But something is still missing.

If you were asked to name one Finnish fashion label, what would it be?

The question is often met with silence, and I’m not surprised. Finns have produced some amazing architecture, furniture design and even cinema, but fashion has always been the tricky one.

When our Swedish neighbours create global success stories one after another, our young designers can’t quite seem to break through. Why is this?

The education is definitely not the one to blame; in Finland textile education is being provided by a whopping 46 schools and there’s a long tradition of bringing up great designers. The crucial question is what happens after school: How to start and run a profitable fashion label?

The most recent initiative to highlight Finland’s emerging fashion talent was the Pre Helsinki event, which took place in the capital at the end of May. Pre Helsinki focussed on promoting the internationalization and networking of designers and fashion brands, and aimed to spread the word that Finnish fashion today stands up to international comparison.

I completely agree with the message. I have been following the sector closely and am proud to say that things in Finland are finally changing: there is a group of young designers that stands out with their own, remarkably strong design identity. And most importantly, this lot is showing interest to take over the world.

2013 was a second year in a row when a Finnish designer won the prestigious Hyères awards. Satu Maaranen charmed the jury with a collection that took inspiration from the Finnish landscape. By combining digital print with raw natural materials such as sawdust, sand and grass she demonstrated innovation and stood out immediately.

Heikki Salonen launched his label with Fashion East in London few years back, becoming the first Finnish designer to be awarded with the British Fashion Council’s NEWGEN sponsorship. With his signature androgynous tomboyish looks that are rough around the edges but beautifully constructed he has showed us what the contemporary Scandinavian look is all about.

Laitinen, a brother and a sister designer duo, is already an established menswear label known for its minimalistic and sharply tailored designs. They showcase in Paris but are firmly based in Helsinki, and also all their clothes are made in Finland.

Other designers in the well-curated Pre Helsinki event included Sasu Kauppi, Siloa&Mook, R/H, Ensaemble and Saara Lepokorpi.

The programme of the four-day event was filled with fashion shows, presentations, studio visits and presentations of our lovely – and occasionally obscure – culture to the international press.

Afterwards the topic made headlines and the state of Finnish fashion design was debated, discussed and analysed. How can we help our fashion designers to become globally recognised superstars?

There’s no denying the facts. Finland has only five million citizens, so when launching a new label, the local markets quickly become too small. This means that the designers have to find a way to take their designs to new audiences pretty much right away, but they also need to understand the markets and the industry.

Where does one start? Do you go to Copenhagen, Paris or New York, and then which fair, showroom or agent is right for you? It’s going to cost money and you need to keep doing it season after season. Operating as a designer as well as a business, marketing and sales manager is a lot to ask from anyone, let alone from someone with a creative background. Where is the support for this? There is no such thing as Finnish Fashion Council.

However, from my experience in managing young designers in London, I can say their challenges are the same; London-based designers, too, have to expand their business abroad, and to market their products as vigorously and shamelessly as anyone else, and figure out the resources and strategy for the process. Londoners might have the advantage of being based in a city which hosts a proper fashion week and global press, but when it comes to sales figures, even London is not big enough to sustain one’s business, if operating in the high-end sector.

Seeing the designers during Pre Helsinki presenting their collections and mingling with the international visitors made me realise that these guys know all this already. They know exactly what they are up against, and they are ready for the challenge.

What I also saw was some seriously good design. The small and tucked-away country with its long dark winters and midnight sun might be aslightly bonkers, but instead of feeling sorry for being a Finn, these designers are showing us that the journey starts from embracing their roots and creating something that has depth, thought and a story.

When Finland figures out the right export strategy and support for its fashion designers, they are already one step ahead.