Prints Talking

Marimekko flagship store

The brightly-hued Marimekko lookbook for Autumn/Winter 2015

In the song ‘Special Shades’ from the album White Orchid by indie band French Films, the lads sing of “brighter grace”, “lemony haze”, “flowery space”, and the need for summertime. It sounds like an ideal soundtrack to a Marimekko television commercial. The song’s music video is equally trippy: back-lit, rose-tinted, and tie-dye-kaleidoscope-screened, with singer/guitarist Johannes Leppänen wearing a gaily-printed shirt. If names can sometimes be misleading, then French Films is. The quintet is not French, and its music is not particularly cinematic. Brimming with The Beach Boys’ sun-lit jollity and spiked with jangly guitars, their sound is more akin to those coming out of Manchester than their native Helsinki, yet, like Marimekko, French Films is from Finland. Similarly, Marimekko, new to Singapore, has many shoppers stumped: does a brand name that sounds Japanese and offers prints that could have come from the Polynesian islands really hail from a Nordic country?

We’re not implying a misnomer here. Far from it, Marimekko is as Finnish as, well, cloudberry, or Lapland. But it does aesthetically appear to be at odds with a country known for its dark winters, when daylight is seen for no more than 6 hours a day. Marimekko’s prints, patterns, and colours are so cheerful, they suggest a genesis bathed in sunshine, the way Ken Done’s are evocative of sunny Sydney. Its first Singapore store in Capitol Piazza—surprisingly not as showy as the floral prints—welcomes so much natural light that you’d think they’re compensating for the lack of it in native Helsinki. But, perhaps, that’s the beauty of the 240 square-metre space: it’s airy, it’s bright, and it’s cheery. You can’t approach it with a black face.

Marimekko storeThe Marimekko flagship store with its distinctive Unikko print, here rendered in blue

On a Sunday afternoon, four days after the official opening last week, shoppers have come to see the Marimekko flowers. Huge, unapologetic, and splashy, these blooms are the brand’s mascots, in particularly the Unikko—a flattened poppy that looks to be inspired by the papaver rhoeas than the papaver somniferum (from which, gasp, opium is derived) as seen in its vivid red petals, punctuated by a black dot at its base. The Unikko beckons like a smiley, and has, since 1964, gone quite viral, appearing in other colours and on surfaces other than textile.

Marimekko’s affinity for flowers is akin to the love some of us have for the other ‘blooms’ on the far side of our terrestrial ground: those brilliant buds we see in Orion and Cassiopeia. While Marimekko’s floral prints have come to characterise the brand, it is interesting to note that its founder Armi Ratia had not, in the beginning, felt for flowers. As the story Marimekko is happy to tell goes, Ms Ratia and her husband bought a textile company. To revitalise the yard goods business, she decided to create prints for her fabrics, but first with clear instructions that no floral designs were to be considered. As with many successful creative endeavours, however, a clash was in the horizon. It came as a defiant woman, Maija Isola, one of Marimekko’s freelance design contributors. She put out explosions of outsized flowers—the Unikko, one among a few. No one could say for sure why Ms Isola would go against the wishes of her paymaster, but many, who would later progressively turn Marimekko into a global business, were glad she did.

Marimekko AW 2015The autumn/winter 2015 preview at the Marimekko flagship store

At the start, however, the company did not quite know what to do with the prints (to date, reportedly 3,500 are in their archives). With no background in garment manufacture, Ms Ratia engaged a friend to turn the fabrics into uncomplicated shifts so that the prints could do the talking. Company enthusiasm informs us that, “the clothes were sold almost right off the models’ backs”. This is not quite hyperbolic since this was during the post-World War II years. Colours were understandably welcome after the drab patina of military conflict. The turning point for Marimekko came in 1957, when they were invited to show at La Rinascente in Milan, possibly Italy’s most up-scale department store that’s more than a century old, now owned by the Central Group of Thailand. And who should be the one extending the invitation? The then visual merchandising manager, Giorgio Armani.

Last year the Unikko turned 50, making the print just a year older than our nation. Some flowers in fashion, such as roses, considered a classic, simply bloom forever. The camellia—favoured by the house of Chanel—seems to be heading the same way. The poppy’s longevity, on the other hand, isn’t quite certain, and five decades may not an icon make. To improve its visibility, the Unniko has gone multimedia; appearing on cups, plates, trays, shower curtains; the insides of subway cars; on the fuselage of airplanes (Finnair, of course!); and on the envelopes of hot air balloons. Poppies do not have the romantic connotations of roses; many of us associate them with Anzac Day, or paper “remembrance poppies”, worn to commemorate those who died in war. Compounded by the poppy’s connection to narcotics and opiates, the flower may not be auspicious enough to have long-wearing appeal. Still, the reverse could hold: if the poppy has a less-dreamy standing, it may be cool enough for hipsters to transplant it from Pohjoisesplanadi to Coachella!

TasaraitaThe Tasaraita striped T-shirt, seen here against other Marimekko patterns, is one of the best-selling items at the store

Flowers, however, aren’t all there is to Marimekko. Stripes, too, have become an integral part of their collections. In fact, the Tasaraita—evenly-spaced parallel lines in contrasting colours—is one of their most popular patterns. If proof of Marimekko’s cool is requisite of its fashion standing, a visit to the agreeably outré Dover Street Market in Ginza, Tokyo, will bring one to the “special” Pitkahiha T-shirts: long and three-quarter sleeved ringer styles with contrast-colour striped pocket that are in sync with the Japanese aesthetic. In fact, it is in Tokyo that many Singaporeans who know of the brand first encountered Tasaraita and Unniko and her kindred prints. As one retail marketing consultant said of the Marimekko flagship store in Omotesandō, “It is a breath of fresh air in the part of an area that’s dominated by often chaotic Harajuku!”

While Marimekko is considered a “lifestyle” store, fashion and accessories takes centre-stage at its debut standalone in Singapore, occupying more than half of the space. Still faithful to the original silhouette of simple forms, best exemplified by the shift, the women’s wear embodies a simplicity that borders on the bare. Sure, with bold—some say loud—prints that speak with such alacrity, extra seams, insets, and appliqués et al seem superfluous. The prints communicate without distractions. Yet, the sum of dress form and fabric patterns requires something that would lift the clothes from repetitive plainness. To some, they may be cute, but to others, they lack a little playfulness that so many women, even in middle age, enjoy and appreciate. Whimsy and a definite silhouette could be brought neatly together without affecting what Marimekko calls “strong emotions”. The prints could be paired with other prints in a happy collision or they could be deconstructed. Imagine the Unikko in the same spirit as Lucas Simões’s Unportrait! To quote Richard Dawkins (who was remarking on the natural world, rather than fashion), “when we unweave a rainbow, it will not be less wonderful”.

HomewareHome ware: Marimekko’s Unniko print (foreground) works perfectly well with other patterns in their seasonal collections

Marimekko’s extroverted print designs are clearly alluring to many women, but more than a few find the sizes of the clothes large and some of their “classic” tented shapes unflattering. A PR consultant at the opening of the store said, “Even the XS is still too big for me.” Could this be due to their Euro-centric approach to design and sizing? Northern Europeans, particularly those of Nordic and Alpine stock, are known to be heavyset, and Marimekko’s avoidance of dresses skimming the body perhaps bears this out. Yet, the brand is going places, in particular the Asia-Pacific region, which accounts for one-fifth of its sales last year. If indeed Asian women are its target audience, Marimekko may have to look into the playbook of a brand from its neighbour, Sweden’s ubiquitous H&M. Sure, both are not like the other, but H&M has captured the hearts (and wallets) of the Asian shopper not just with trendy and crazily affordable clothes, but with sizes that clearly suit the Asian body and appeal to their body self-image.

Fashionable clothes may be borderless, but body types, in reality, are region-specific. There’s no negating the smaller Asian frame, or that women here do not like their clothes roomy. If Marimekko’s clothes at one glance—sack-silhouette with visibly large arm-holes—give the impression they’re for the auntie population, the younger set, cable of elevating the brand’s image, may stay away from them. Savvy marketers know the power and the peril of association. To appear young, a brand has to look young.

The Marimekko flagship store is Capitol Piazza, 13 Stamford Road, L2-17/18. Photos: Jim Sim