Happy prints

Happy prints
BRIGHT AND COLOURFUL: Marimekko’s new store at Capitol Piazza in Singapore which opens on Tuesday.

When former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visited Marimekko in 2012, she would never have thought that an off-the-cuff remark she made, "Breathe happiness", would become a slogan for the iconic fashion and lifestyle company. In just two words, she summed up what founder Armi Ratia set out to do, which was "to bring joy and positivity to the everyday lives of people through the bold prints and colours of printmaking", explains Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko, president of the Finnish brand.

Like Pharrell Williams' hit song Happy, it seems that that's what you need to build a company. Over the decades, Marimekko's bright, colourful and simple loud prints have done the trick - whether on its women's ready-to-wear and accessories, a variety of home products, and textiles. It's easy to identify Marimekko fans - they're wearing the clothes, eating out of their plates, sleeping on their sheets and decorating their homes with framed colourful pictures.

As Marimekko tries to sell the sunny side of life to the world, its own evolution from a cloth factory to a global brand with diversified lifestyle products has been shaped by a series of mostly happy coincidences.

As Ms Alahuhta-Kasko tells it, Marimekko - or "Mari's dress" in Finnish - got its start when "Armi gathered a group of young designers and asked them to create avant-garde bold prints for fabrics. Before long, people were drawn to the designs but didn't know what to do with them. In 1951, they held a fashion show just to show how the fabrics could be used. People fell in love with what they saw and the orders started coming in."

While the newly born fashion house was doing well domestically, it took a chance encounter with no less than Jacqueline Kennedy in 1960 to catapult it into the global spotlight. At the height of the US presidential campaign then, word had got out that Mrs Kennedy had bought seven Marimekko dresses. When she was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing one of them, Marimekko's international status was sealed.

The 1960s also saw the birth of one of the most iconic prints from Marimekko, the highly stylised and brilliantly cheerful poppy motif called Unikko. Still in print to this day, this much-loved design has been given an assortment of treatments in terms of colour combinations, sizes and layouts on different products.

The founder's death in 1979 marked a dark era for the company which saw it being sold to the conglomerate Amer and on the brink of bankruptcy within five years, says Ms Alahuhta-Kasko.

In stepped Kirsti Paakkanen, former advertising agency owner and well-known female business leader in Finland. After buying over the troubled company, she set about reviving the brand, putting it on its present path of exponential growth.

Says Ms Alahuhta-Kasko: "She brought in a lot of new young designers continuing the same ideology that had been there from the start but making it relevant to the times. She reintroduced many classics, which was a huge success thanks to the retro revival of the early 2000s. It took her only half a year to turn the company around."

In her 16-year tenure, Ms Paakkanen took the company public - today, it boasts an annual turnover of nearly 95 million euros (S$144 million).

Even as Ms Paakkanen guided its rebirth, it is the current chairman and CEO Mika Ihamuotila who is helming its international push.

The former banker who took over in 2008 has overseen its growth to 140 Marimekko shops in the world, points out Ms Alahuhta-Kasko.

At just 34 years old, Ms Alahuhta-Kasko could well be the youngest president of a company. Practically a veteran who joined in 2005, she started as international PR manager, before leapfrogging to chief marketing officer, chief operating officer and finally president in April. She is presently one of two female heads of a public-listed company in Finland.

The Asia-Pacific region is currently Marimekko's fastest-growing market, according to her, and is where the main thrust in their expansion plans will be.

"Today, there are nearly 50 Marimekko shops in the Asia-Pacific region, and we are looking to open another 10 to 20 stores and shop-in-shops. This is our second-biggest market in terms of net sales."

Marimekko's 2,500 sq ft store opens on the second floor of Capitol Piazza on Tuesday

This article was first published on June 13, 2015.
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