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”I would like to find a way to be as sustainable as possible, and being a part of this industry is constantly making me uneasy”

Aalto University is the only university in Northern Europe attracting international press and industry personalities to their graduation shows, with this year’s edition taking place tonight. Many of their students have won prizes worldwide and gets internships and jobs at international fashion houses. We speak to students Juha Vehmaanperä and Ines Kalliala and head of the bachelor programme of fashion, Tuomas Laitinen, about their key to success.

Edited by Robin Douglas Westling
Words Ella Johansen
Art Direction Jacob Landahl
Photography Sofia Okkonen

Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture is situated in Finnish Helsingfors and Espoo, and is named after the Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto. Aalto was a former
alumnus of the Helsinki University of Technology, one of three schools that in 2010 merged to
become Aalto University.

Helsinki, Finland

Juha Vehmaanperä is a Finnish fourth-year fashion student at Aalto University. Vehmaanperä started studying graphic design, having worked digitally throughout his life, but after a few years his curiosity for clothing and making garments convinced him to switch to Aalto.

Do you feel your time at the school has met your expectations?

— Yes. Being a very textile-orientated designer I feel that Aalto has given me a great platform to work on developing my ideas further, as the textile knowledge here is top-notch. I work a lot with hand-made knitwear, which isn’t very typical for the fast paced industry. I’ve gotten good tips on how I can mix my passion with elements that are more in sync with that pace. My expectations were to learn how to make garments, but I’ve also come to realize how garments define us in a larger context.

Vehmaanperä’s goal as a designer is to bring more visibility to the queer youth. They think there are strong bonds within the Finnish queer movement; people work together to create safe spaces and support each other. The basic education is lacking queer perspective, and growing up in a society where one has to tick all the right boxes to be seen as equal isn’t a healthy environment for anyone.

What should the future of fashion look like?

— The future of fashion education should challenge students to be more thoughtful on topics such as sustainability and diversity. Diversity shouldn’t be treated like a profitable fashion trend. It is something to make the world more inclusive and to give a platform to people who are not heard or seen.

Ines Kalliala studies fashion collection and textile design at Aalto University, finishing her masters’ degree after seven years at the school. She had wanted to study something in the creative field and applied to different schools for various disciplines, from cinema to graphic design and industrial design. She found the preliminary tasks for the fashion programme to be really fun and while taking the entry exam she felt the school suited her, so was very excited to be subsequently accepted.

What is your favourite part about designing?

— Coming up with concepts and channeling abstract things into something tangible. I love making things, and much of the design and thinking process comes through that. One of my favourite parts is how something you make turns into something real when it’s actually worn, it’s out of your hands and becomes something more through the person who wears it. It is a three-dimensional non-verbal communication.

What are some of your goals as a designer?

—I would like to work with interesting people and projects that challenge me and push me to develop further. One goal would be to find ways of working, or a methodology, that doesn’t compromise my values and actually makes sense.

Tell us more about your values.

— I would like to find a way for my work to be as sustainable as possible. Being a part of this
industry, these issues are constantly making me feel uneasy. In a way, it’s important to be a part of something that you know needs change, even though it’s not always pleasant, but it’s a complex and structural issue that I have no answers to. Another thing I guess I’m looking for is a sort of sincerity. It’s a bit difficult to verbalise, but it’s something that I want to embed into my ways of working and want my pieces to resonate.

Ines is somewhat fascinated by press, PR, and buyers, but the role that bloggers and influencers play feel strange.

Do you think that the concept of influencers will live on?

— My feelings are a bit divided. In a way I like the idea of a ”normal person” overstepping established systems and creating new platforms, but then the reality seems to be more about product placement. Maybe I would find it more interesting if the approach was more about questioning and challenging the way fashion is consumed and communicated. I’m not so familiar with this blogger/influencer phenomenon but to me it’s unrelatable and seems to highlight the toxic aspects of fashion. I’m not sure if the title ”influencer”, which sounds quite powerful,
is enough balanced with social responsibility.

Tuomas Laitinen is head of the bachelor programme of fashion at Aalto University, and his path to the position has been very organic. Raised in the countryside near the Russian border,
he found his escapism in 90s indie music and fashion magazines. Aalto was a markedly different place during Laitnen’s time as a fashion student than it is today. It was out of touch
with the real world and in Laitinen’s opinion the students weren’t receiving enough criticism, resulting in them graduating with a false sense of hope and reality. After his BA, Laitinen interned in Paris — a reality-check he thinks was of great importance in terms of later surviving London’s Central Saint Martins led by course director Louise Wilson, who really shaped
him with her tough love.

What made you return to fashion education, in the position of teaching?

— I never wanted to teach. I think many course leaders at universities like CSM, RCA and Royal Academy of Antwerp are like me; we somehow just drifted to our jobs. It’s been over 12 years now, but somehow I still don’t see myself as an educator even though I obviously am. How we work at Aalto is closer to a fashion house than an academic institution, which I guess I learned from Louise Wilson. It’s very difficult to make fashion fit the academic measures and ”boxes” of the university system as there often is no room for spontaneity and experimentation. In most universities, the fashion departments tend to be the ones fighting the norms. After CSM I returned to Paris and went from one obscure job to another and also started styling. My sister Anna and I won one of the main prizes at Festival Hyeres in 2006, which was a kick-start to our label, Laitinen, that we designed for eight years. I was approached by Aalto first to teach
as a guest teacher, which allowed me to concentrate on our company. Gradually I took more responsibility, became a full-time lecturer and eventually the Head of BA Fashion.

As mentioned, Aalto is the only northern university that attracts international press and industry personalities to graduation shows, and many of your students have won prizes worldwide and gets internships and jobs at international fashion houses; why do you think Aalto is so successful internationally? How do you get international exposure?

— There’s never been a strategy or a plan. When we started renovating the fashion studies over 10 years ago we weren’t afraid of letting go, we jumped into the unknown really. There’s something fresh and new about the school and its approach, which is a bit difficult to pinpoint. We don’t have a commercial fashion industry as you or the Danish have, so we had to think outside the Finnish box and aim at the international markets. All those competitions exposed us to the international press and talent scouts and things just started rolling and obviously working with [fashion school platform] 1Granary in London for the past year has pushed the
visibility even further. I work actively in the industry and lot of those relations come organically through that. My personal work sometimes grants access to people that would be difficult to reach as an educator.

What qualities are required for a successful fashion design career?

— The only ace a young designer has in their sleeve is being a raw talent, a rough diamond who can come with tons of ideas. This naivety and drive is what the houses are often looking for, there are already people in those companies who can make those rough ideas commercially viable. There are certain things like production, the commercial and marketing sides a school cannot prepare you for. You need to able to take in criticism, scrap your ideas if necessary and start from a clean slate. In order to succeed in the industry you need to be able to adapt to different situations fast. A school is only the beginning of a designer’s education, no matter how talented they are.

Juha Vehmaanperä.
Ines Kalliala.
Tuomas Laitinen.
Juha Vehmaanperä.
Ines Kalliala.
Aalto University in Finland.