The story of how Marimekko's iconic red poppy print came into being has become something of a legend in itself, a tale of fashion folklore told and retold among the Finnish brand's devotees.
Founder Armi Ratia apparently banned floral prints because she believed nothing man-made could rival the beauty of flowers in nature.
One of its designers, Maija Isola, however, defiantly designed the Unikko poppy pattern (on cover) in 1964, and thus created the brand's most famous print and unofficial logo of sorts.
Founded in 1951, the Finnish brand continues to march to the beat of its own design drum, staying true to a bright, bold aesthetic that aims to make its customers happy rather than become the next trendy fashion brand.
Marimekko president Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko says as much, in an interview with Urban at the brand's headquarters in the Herttoniemi district of Helsinki.
"If I had to say what Marimekko is in three words, it would be colour, prints and joy. It's what differentiates us and it's reflected in simple, contemporary products that work for everyday life."
The brand's flowers, among its other patterns, are finally blooming on Singapore shores as its first stand-alone store here officially opens next Tuesday.
Occupying a light-filled 2,500 sq ft space on the second floor of new mall Capitol Piazza, the new Marimekko store carries ready-to-wear, accessories and homeware. Kidswear and fabrics are also on sale and prices range from $25 for a pot holder to $605 for a coat.
The Marimekko store in Singapore joins other recently launched boutiques in Bangkok and Dubai this spring, giving the brand a presence in about 40 countries with about 140 stores and shop-in-shops.
Global expansion is a big priority, says Ms Alahuhta-Kasko, with the goal being to open 10 to 20 new stores and shop-in-shops by the end of the year. Asia-Pacific, in particular, is important for growth, she adds, with the region responsible for about a fifth of the brand's sales last year.
NEW MARKETS, NEW CHALLENGES
Different markets pose different challenges, especially because of the varying levels of brand awareness, she notes. In the United States, for example, Marimekko has an underlying presence and visibility, so it is easier to engage with customers.
Late style star and former US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy bought seven Marimekko dresses in 1960 and even appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in Marimekko that year with her husband, then presidential nominee John F. Kennedy.
But consumers everywhere are interested in a compelling brand story, says Ms Alahuhta-Kasko, and she believes the sustainable, timeless Marimekko looks have an audience in the Asia-Pacific as well.
In its country of origin, Finland, owning a piece of Marimekko is practically a cultural tradition, it seems, with the brand being one of its most famous exports.
Since 2012, it has tied up with the national airline carrier Finnair, providing textiles and tableware. A special Finnair plane also features a blue and green Unikko print on its exterior.
Ms Alahuhta-Kasko says her earliest memories of the brand were as a three-year-old in her grandmother's country house where the older woman would wear a piece of Marimekko outerwear they called the "happy coat" because of its fun pattern. She had a miniature coat in the same print to match.
Her appointment in April this year as president can be taken as a sign of the brand's modern mentality. She is one of two female presidents of publicly listed Finnish companies, and at 33 years old, is the youngest. About 90 per cent of the staff is female.
Ms Alahuhta-Kasko steers the Marimekko ship with chief executive and chairman of the board, Mr Mika Ihamuotila, who has been at the company since 2007. He took over from Ms Kirsti Paakkanen, who revived the brand in the 1990s.
The chief executive, who casually sat down with reporters from Singapore at lunch in the company's cafeteria, arrived at the brand in an unusual manner.
Formerly the head of a Finnish bank, he decided to leave that world and join Marimekko after he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. His mother was a textile designer, so he has always been interested in design and culture, he explains, in between bites of meatballs on colourfully printed Marimekko plates and glasses.
With a decidedly confident but relaxed air, he says of the brand's strong identity: "Not everyone has to like Marimekko. It's like with great novels or rock bands - if you cater to all tastes, it doesn't work."
Balancing the company's history - the Unikko print celebrated its 50th birthday last year, for instance - with staying relevant and fresh today is probably one of the company's biggest challenges today.
"It's critical to be true to your original DNA. But it's also about how to reflect that in today's world," says Ms Alahuhta-Kasko. "The attitude of the Marimekko woman is the same, but the lifestyle is different. It's about re-igniting the original emotion in a relevant way."
In the shop at the lobby of Marimekko's headquarters, printed tablet covers may be an example of keeping up with modern needs and lifestyle changes.
Logistically at Marimekko, print creation - there are around 3,500 prints in the brand's archives - comes before products. A couple of hundred can be in use for different products at any one time and there are always classic prints, such as Unikko or Iso Suomu (fish scales) in new colourways as well as rotating seasonal prints.
One unique signature of the Marimekko brand is the ownership the print designers - most of whom work freelance for the brand - have of the material they create.
On the rolls of fabric sold at the store by metre, the artist's name, year and print name are stamped on the edge. The artistic copyright remains with them as well. New colourways of the Unikko print, for example, means consultation with creator Maija Isola's daughter and granddaughter.
The Marimekko headquarters also houses a printing mill in the back, where designers can see their work come to life, and adjust and correct the colours right away. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the factory in 2012, where she described the brand as "breathing happiness".
The credit the brand gives to the designers is important, the Marimekko president says. "We are a design house. Printmaking is an art in itself and we want to show our respect for the designers."
Freelance designer Mika Piirainen, who has worked for the company since 1994, agrees with the assessment.
"It's like reading a book without the writer's name on it," he says, of how it would be different without the attribution. "Also, it's good because the designer has to take responsibility and gets feedback too."
As a fashion designer for the brand, Mr Piirainen works more on deciding the prints, themes, colours, materials and silhouettes of the season.
Nature is the most common source of inspiration for prints, he explains, because of the four distinct seasons in Finland. Foods are often seasonal as well, he says.
In addition to the famously bright Marimekko patterns, there are also prints with more sombre colourways, such as branches against a black and white background evoking a darker winter scene.
He never gets bored, adds the designer, even though he deals with prints almost all the time. It can be a mix of organic versus geometric shapes, bright colour versus silent tones, playful versus practical shapes.
One consistency, when it comes to shape, is that nothing is too clingy or body conscious. He repeats an early saying of Ms Ratia's and notes "the woman is sexy, not the dress". Because of this, the Marimekko clientele covers a large age range.
"My oldest customer was 102 years old and I was very proud of that," says Mr Piirainen. "She wrote me a letter saying she loved a floral print Puketti dress and sent me a picture. It was very touching."
The company has also been forward thinking since its early days, he says, another quality that drew him to it. Since the 1950s, the brand has been turning leftover scraps of fabric into pouches, with the goal of minimising waste.
The global reach of the brand, too, is a huge appeal. He has seen his designs in places as far away as the Australian outback. "It's almost like a sign," he says, with a smile. "I like it the most when the item, say a bag, is so well loved it's almost broken."
It is clear that the brand takes a long-term view to design, with its 60-plus years of history and the goal of creating products that will last.
"We're always after timeless design. I hope people can still wear the dresses, 40, 50 years from now when I'm dead," says Mr Piirainen.
Ms Ratia's spirit looms large at the company still. The brand's name roughly translates to "Mari's dress", with Mari being a common Finnish girl's name, as well as a play on founder Armi Ratia's first name.
"She was the visionary behind the brand," says Ms Alahuhta-Kasko, reflecting on what the revered founder would think of the Marimekko of today. "I would hope she would be very proud of us, carrying her torch onwards."
This article was first published on 12 June, 2015.
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