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”Not everyone knows Finnish fashion design, but everyone knows Finnish design.”

Philip Warkander reports from this Pitti Uomo edition, where Finland was the special guest country, with eight emerging fashion designers in a curated exhibition. It is of particular interest, he states, to show the nation’s “soft power”, when one’s neighbour happens to be Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Text Philip Warkander

The headline words belong to Janne Taalas, Finland’s ambassador in Italy, and were part of his inauguration speech at the exhibition of Finnish fashion at Pitti Uomo, Florence, where Finland participated as this year’s Guest Nation. What Taalas alluded to was the fact that Finnish fashion, with the possible exception of internationally renowned Marimekko, for a long time has been operating under the radar, especially in comparison to the remarkable success of Finnish design – including architecture, interior design, technology and product design – in general. Names such as Alvar and Aino Aalto, Kurt Ekholm, Ristomatti Ratio, Timo Sarpaneva and Tapio Wirkkala are household names in design-literate circles, but fewer people have (thus far) heard of Rolf Ekholm, Mannisto or Nomen Nescio, who were among the eight fashion brands in Florence.

It is far from a coincidence that Finland is showcasing its fashion design at Pitti Uomo in January 2018, as the year before had marked the centennial celebration of the nation’s independency. To be participating as special guest in one of the fashion world’s most important international arenas is to communicate a strong belief in a future of continued independence. In a way, it is therefore also a display of the nation’s “soft power”, increasingly important in times of political turmoil, especially when one’s neighbour happens to be Putin’s Russia. The interconnection between the country’s often painful history and its strong focus on design is therefore interesting to examine more closely.

The thus far most ambitious and complete exhibition of Finnish design was titled “Finnish Modern Design 1930-2000” and was exhibited in both Berlin and New York. It was supported by the publication Finnish Modern Design: Utopian Ideals and Everyday Realities, in which a series of writers approached the question of why Finnish design remains so popular. A few years ago, Swedish design critic Andreas Kittel summarized the different theories on the matter:

“One of the reasons that Finland has become such a unique and important design nation appears to be the hardships of the people – Finland’s bloody history is long and the independence only 82 years old. The clean, modernist and often simplified design language is a manifestation of the nation’s desperate attempts to rid itself of its history.”

Kittel wrote this in 1999. Almost twenty years later, the fashion design presented at Pitti Uomo, represented by eight emerging fashion brands, is not always coherent with the modernist, sleek lines that Finnish design historically has been associated with. Instead, with the encouragement and support of the design department at Aalto University, under supervision of Tuomas Laitinen, Finnish fashion seems to be moving in a decidedly more experimental direction, turning towards bolder and more maximalist forms of expression. It remains to be seen if its fashion can become as successful as its other design branches, but the exhibition at Pitti Uomo hopefully marks the beginning of a new era for Finnish fashion designers.

Philip Warkander is a freelance writer and Sweden’s first PhD in fashion studies

Related: Read our previous stories on three of the eight Finnish designers showing at Pitti Uomo Rolf Ekroth Ikla Wright Mannisto