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Future of fashion starts here

Since 2012, students from Aalto University in Helsinki have swept through the international fashion industry. The young creatives, led by lecturer Tuomas Laitinen, have dominated international competitions and secured positions at fashion houses like Maison Margiela, Givenchy and Saint Laurent. How did Finland become the Nordic region’s most forward thinking fashion nation?

Words Mattias Dellert
Photography Chris Vidal Tenomaa

Helsinki, Finland

For over 30 years the old Arabia ceramics factory, located just outside of Helsinki, has been home to the Aalto University School of Arts, Design, and Architecture. The worn beige brick building with its massive chimney stack is a fading symbol of the industrial age and lecturer Tuomas Laitinen thinks it’s is a perfect place for his students. He affectionately calls them ’the kids’. An executive decision has recently taken place that means that all arts education will be moved to another location, in a more upmarket district of Helsinki.

— I’m not entirely happy. I mean, I would like to keep the art school mentality and in the new environment, it’s going to be a bit difficult. I’ve seen the premises and the place looks like a five star design hotel, he says.

Laitinen looks more like a regular at the Berlin techno temple Berghain than your average teacher. He’s wearing Balenciaga motorcycle boots and an oversized knitted llama sweater when he gives me the grand tour. Like most old factories, the building is oblong, and massive. From the exhibition area, where the students’ collections are shown, we walk through halls filled with sewing machines, traditional looms, workshops and high tech equipment for both making and printing textiles. It’s early morning, but a handful of the kids are already there. Laitinen tells me that many of these machines weren’t being used when he started teaching here 10 years ago.

— I could see the possibilities. They had all this equipment. You could do incredible things with it, but nobody was using it. Or if they were using it, it was for making tablecloths.

Or, maybe for printing Marimekko style cottons.

Laitinen was trained at Central Saint Martins in London and says that when he studied there in the early aughts, students worked with literally nothing, except for some sewing machines that Burberry had used in the 1940s. He was taught to rely on ingenuity and discipline, and got used to being critiqued daily. In his view, Aalto University needed a bit of the London mentality.

When Laitinen arrived the fashion education offered by the school was still primarily about providing a workforce for the fashion industry that Finland used to have, an industry that had seen its heydays in the early 1980s.

One of the first changes made by Laitinen and Professor Pirjo Hirvonen was to combine the work ethic of Paris and London, with Scandinavian humanity. Added to the mix was the luxury of having a well-equipped school. Nowadays Aalto University students are trained in almost every technique there is, and are thus prepared to work at any global fashion house.

— If you’re a fashion student you’re supposed to eat and breathe and sleep fashion, and nothing else. It’s like a way of life. Before, students came here at ten o’clock to do some pretty drawings, to then leave again at four. They thought they would become designers, but its just nothing like that. I was kind of shocked when I started teaching here.

The teachers have their offices down a long corridor with glass walls, grid roofs, hospital lights and minimal decor. Laitinen’s office owes its colour scheme to the piles of magazines, books and racks with designer clothes that line the space. He tells me that, for as long as he can remember, fashion has been his only path. His mother’s passion for Belgian and Japanese fashion was the match that ignited the flame within him.

— One of my first memories is from when I was a kid, you know two, three, perhaps four years old. I’m in Paris with my mom, who is buying dresses from Comme des Garçons. So that’s my background, it is my personal thing.

He grew up in the village of Juva, a little place not far from the Russian border. His father was a judge. Even though his parents encouraged their children to do artistic work at home, the village was the wrong setting for Laitinen as a teenager.

— It’s a Twin Peaks place, with a medieval church that’s still in use.

Like all young creatives in the 1990s, he was hooked on MTV, and magazines like The Face and ID served as inspiration. Laitinen dreamt of something bigger, and his weapon of choice was fashion. He started to make clothes and had just turned 16 when he got the chance to leave his hometown. After attending what he calls ’an arty-farty hippy high school’, his journey led him to Aalto University, and in 2001 he graduated.

Three years later he received his Master of Arts in Fashion at Central Saint Martins. Around that time he and his sister Anna won the special mention of the Jury Prize at the Hyères Fashion Festival. The prestigious competition that has had jury members such as Karl Lagerfeld and Jean-Paul Gaultier, and the same prize that several of his students have won in more recent years.

He started the brand Laitinen with his sister and he worked for several brands in Paris. It’s thanks to those years that Laitinen now has a contact book filled with all the names that count in the industry.

Today, besides lecturing, Laitinen is one of the brains behind SSAW Magazine. He is also an in-demand consultant within high fashion.

— It’s kind of dangerous if you’re a teacher and you’re not in the industry anymore. You become an ivory tower, out of touch with reality.

After a couple of years, the educational philosophy that drives Laitinen became fruitful. In 2012 the Aalto design students Siiri Raasakka, Tiia Siren, and Elina Laitinen won the Jury Grand Prix at the Hyères Fashion Festival, held on the French Riviera.

— We really had our breakthrough in 2012, when we won consecutively at the Hyères Festival. Yohji Yamamoto was head of the jury.

Since then, more Aalto University students have reached the final at Hyères Fashion Festival than students from any other school. Laitinen’s ’kids’ have also won several other prizes, like the German Apolda European Design Award, and the LVMH Graduate Prize, that grants an opportunity to work at an LVMH brand. Last year both The Times Higher Education and The Business of Fashion ranked Aalto University as the 5th best school in world for fashion design undergraduates, and top 15 for graduates. These achievements have attracted headhunters, talent scouts and recruiters from all over the world.

When did you realise, apart from the prizes, that the Aalto University formula was working?

— Recruiting teams from huge companies like LVMH first started interviewing our students around 2012, and we could see that our young ones started working everywhere. The LVMH recruiting teams cater for all the brands they own, like Dior and Céline.

Former Aalto students are now working at fashion houses like Martin Margiela, Lanvin and Alexander McQueen; much of this has to do with Laitinen’s talent when it comes to matchmaking. He has an eye for finding the right employer for his students.

— Laitinen is undeniably an essential ingredient in Aalto University’s success, visibly pushing his students to be thorough when researching their ideas and exhaustive when creating their collections. The fact that Aalto fashion graduates have their place in the global fashion industry has been confirmed by the prestigious houses many of them have joined after graduation, says Mariasole Pastori, who works for Floriane de Saint Pierre, one of fashions most influential headhunters.

In January this year, Finland was the guest nation at the highly influential menswear exhibition Pitti Uomo in Florence, Italy. Laitinen was the one of the curators and several Aalto University talents showed their collections. Among them were Rolf Ekroth and Maria Korkeila, who describes her own style as ’punk in a way that’s relevant today’. Bright colours, often infused with yellow, mixed with challenging images like 70s porn pictures create a futuristic DIY style. Korkeila has won international prizes and also had internships at firms such as Rick Owens, and she thinks one reason of her success, apart from the Laitinen contact book, is that Aalto University is on the periphery of the industry and doesn’t have the weight of tradition on it’s shoulders.

— If I compare the Finnish scene, with what I have experienced elsewhere, there is a certain sincerity and authenticity to how people work and how they talk about their work, and maybe even how they, just, are… Also, even though we are being more and more integrated into the industry and the scene at large, we are still miles away from Parisian ’champagne bubbly’ chic or London craziness or Scandinavian minimalism, both aesthetically and culturally speaking.

Even if there is a unique quality to what is happening in Helsinki there is still a problem for these young professionals who want to make it. There aren’t that many fashion jobs to get. Student Ines Kalliala has also done an internship abroad, at Yves Saint Laurent, and she’s not too hopeful when it comes to finding fashion work at home.

— In Finland, it’s a bit depressing, because there is no work here, basically. It’s like one company and that’s it. So you have to leave unless you want to create your own brand, but then you can’t only target Finnish people because there aren’t enough of us.

It’s not a long shot to compare the Finland of today with what happened in the 80s and 90s in Belgium. Around those years designers such as Raf Simons, Martin Margiela, and Dries Van Noten slowly became superstars. Although there are many similarities; Finnish designers also win competitions and work at the big fashion houses, one thing is still missing. There aren’t any Finnish superstars, or new influential brands coming from Finland, yet.

— It seems to me, half of the Parisian fashion houses have Finns working there. Nonetheless, what we haven’t seen, yet, in comparison to Belgium back in the day, is the rise of a local fashion scene and an industry with many independent labels. The majority of the talent coming from Finland go to work in houses elsewhere, says Maria Korkeila.

After the interview, Laitinen grabs his black, shiny down jacket, and we leave through the deserted parts of Aalto University.

He buys me lunch at a local place — Dylan, a bistro named after the Nobel Prize-winning folk rocker. We talk some more about the comparison with Belgium. Laitinen tells me that the wonder years of Belgian fashion happened at a time when things moved slower; designers had the luxury of being able to make mistakes and the benefit of rich investors. Now everything is faster, and even young brands have to race against companies like Prada. But he hopes that his Aalto University kids will get the experience they need at the big houses and that some of them might launch something new of their own.

— In ten years these people might come back. Ten years with a big company can start eating your brain. If you’re at Louis Vuitton for ten years you might want do something else, and then you have the contacts to back it all up.

A new wave of successful Finnish fashion brands might need a push from people with power. Few brands are global. In 2014 the Finnish fashion import was four times bigger than export. It’s not a wild guess to suppose that politicians and investors will need to fuel the local fashion industry with both business know-how and money, for something big to ever happen here. But it’s too early to predict the future, and at least now the press seems more interested in what comes next, says Tuomas Laitinen.

— It doesn’t take much to be famous here, with only five million people. But it took longer for the Finnish press to pay attention to us than any A-level international press, because the press here doesn’t take fashion seriously, but it’s changing.

The matchmaker. For over ten years Tuomas Laitinen has helped his students to find the right employer.
Lecturer Tuomas Laitinen.
After 30 years in the old ceramics factory the Aalto University is moving.
There's a lot of freedom, but the work is hard.
A hidden symbol of Finland.
Students Antti Peltoniemi and Ines Kalliala in the back Maria Korkeila and Sini-Pilvi Kiilunen in the front.
Inspiration in the office of Mr Laitinen.