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Marimekko show at Bendigo Art Gallery celebrates the brand that rescued women - Paapaya

Marimekko show at Bendigo Art Gallery celebrates the brand that rescued women

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It was famously described as “a uniform for intellectuals”, a boldly coloured and loose-fitting clothing revolution that turned its back on the restrictive ’50s and captured the mood of the free-flowing ’60s. In an era of growing female emancipation, the Marimekko brand replaced pinched waistlines and figure-hugging bodices with A-line dresses and oversized shirts with practical pockets.

In 1963, then-editor of The New York Herald Tribune, Eugenia Sheppard, declared: “Marimekko is for women whose way of wearing clothes is to forget what they have on”.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, artist Georgia O’Keeffe and activist Jane Jacobs were among those who embraced this new era of comfort and practicality.

Even behind the scenes, female empowerment was central to the business. The Marimekko story began in 1950, when Viljo Ratia, then a partner in oilcloth manufacturing company Printex, asked his wife Armi to  help develop printed patterns for textiles. Armi had a background in textile design, having graduated from Helsinki’s Central School of Industrial Art, and recruited her friend and fellow student Maija Isola to help create the first patterned collection for Printex. The oilcloth business would later go bust, but Isola’s patterns were so popular that in 1951, the spin-off fashion label Marimekko – Finnish for “Mary dress” – was born.

Armi would go on to become a pioneering businesswoman, nurturing relationships with influential fashion writers and business people all over the world. On the factory floor, company job advertisements in the 1950s and ’60s called for “tall women under 40” with the arm span and physical strength needed to carry out the screen printing by hand.

In March, an exhibition celebrating the brand and developed by Helsinki’s Design Museum will make its exclusive Australian appearance at Bendigo Art Gallery. More than 60 outfits, plus homewares, fabric swatches, sketches and other archival material will be showcased, telling the story of how a little Finnish fashion label developed into a global powerhouse.

In the company’s homeland, the brand is as intrinsic to Finnish culture as Vegemite is to Australians. The country’s largest airline, Finnair, serves its in-flight meals on Marimekko tableware and even decorates some of its planes with super-sized Marimekko graphics – perhaps the iconic “Unikko” poppies or the “Kivet” design of hand-cut circles.

To this day, a large part of the design and fabrication of Marimekko products still takes place in Helsinki, in premises on the outskirts of the city centre that combine the head office with a factory, cafe and outlet store.

It’s here that around a million metres of printed textiles are produced each year, much of it turned into the free-fitting garments that define the Marimekko look.

“Armi definitely wanted to empower women,” says company spokeswoman Maarit Heikkila. “They wanted to design dresses that women could actually work in.” The use of bright colours was especially refreshing to the Finns, providing a playful contrast to the country’s cold, dark climes and expressing a kind of non-verbal confidence.

Today, the philosophy is the same as it has always been – to make simple, quality goods that, to use a term coined by Japanese decluttering guru Marie Kondo, “spark joy” daily.

“For us it’s very much everyday design, it’s not just that you put the pattern on a nice cup and you don’t use it; it’s in our daily use,” says Heikkila.

Petri Juslin, head of print design development, has been with the company for more than 30 years and says Marimekko is key to a particularly brave style of dressing among Finns.

“If I think of how Finns have used bright colours and strong patterns, it’s very different from what I see in other countries,” he says. “Finns are quite shy but the way they dress is very brave, especially the women, and I think we have Marimekko to thank for that.”

It was a look that was also welcomed on the other side of the world, as Australian women in the ’60s and ’70s embraced the “mekko” style of frock – the Finnish name for a peasant woman’s simple dress. Marimekko’s prints were far from peasant-like, of course, and this basic but revolutionary garment is the most striking feature of the exhibition, according to Bendigo Art Gallery director Karen Quinlan.

“It defies all the fashion rules of the day,” she says, noting the break away from the corsetry and hourglass shapes popularised by the likes of Dior. “The Mary dress symbolised that whole period and sense of freedom that fashion would offer.”

For Quinlan, like many other children of the ’60s and ’70s, Marimekko was a part of her household growing up. “Everybody had a bit of this bright colour – if it wasn’t those kitchen curtains or a bit of wallpaper somewhere, everybody was doing it, and it’s so embedded in my memory as a child,” she says. “If it wasn’t Marimekko it was other people ripping Marimekko off, the burnt oranges and the bright reds.”

The timelessness of the designs appeals more broadly, she says. “Anyone who’s interested in fabric design in particular I think will find this fascinating.”

The first Marimekko exhibition was held in a restaurant in Helsinki in 1951. Six years later, Printex and Marimekko were invited to exhibit at the Milan Triennale  but fashion was excluded from the main event at the last minute, with the clothing relegated to a window display at nearby department store Rinascente (dressed by a young Giorgio Armani). Later that  year, New York fashion consultant Charlotte Osgood made a trip to Finland and met with Armi Ratia at Marimekko headquarters. It is thought that through Osgood, Armi was able to contact influential US Vogue journalist Kay Hays, with whom she became friends.

In the ’60s in particular, Armi and Viljo would host  guests including American architect Buckminster Fuller and members of British rock band The Who at their estate in Porvoo, about 50 kilometres east of Helsinki, where meetings were often held in the sauna. While Marimekko’s designs were making a statement in their own right, Armi’s prowess as a hostess went some way to ensuring that the clothes were splashed across the pages of international magazines. She was a colourful personality prone to bold statements and thinking outside the box, according to Juslin.

“In 1970, in a press conference regarding new collections, she said, ‘We are not selling designs, we are selling visions’,” he says. “It’s really well put, actually, because we have individual pieces in the collection but we can show how to put these things together and sell the vision – a lifestyle vision.”

So forward-thinking was Armi’s vision, she conceptualised a utopian Marimekko village, where staff would work and live. Architects drew up plans for the village in the late ’60s, but the project was shelved when it was deemed too expensive. That it got as far as it did speaks to Armi’s pioneering and laterally minded approach to both design and running a business.

One of the biggest boosts to Marimekko’s profile came when Jacqueline Kennedy (then the pregnant wife of the US president) wore one of its shift dresses on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine in 1960. She ended up ordering seven more Marimekko dresses while pregnant, cementing the label’s style cred for women of substance, a reputation furthered by the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. The brand featured prominently in the exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern at the Brooklyn Museum last year focusing on the artist’s clothing.

Following Armi’s death in 1979, Marimekko’s profits took a dive in the ’80s, first under the management of her son, Ristomatti, then under US sportswear company Amer Ltd. But in 1991, former advertising executive Kirsti Paakkanen took over and trebled turnover within five years, as the company’s clothing and homewares were embraced by fashionistas and feminists alike, even appearing in episodes of Sex and the City.  In October last year, Marimekko’s prints appeared in Junya Watanabe’s Comme des Garçons Spring/Summer 2018 collection at Paris Fashion Week, and just last month, the brand announced a collaboration with Japanese chain store Uniqlo.

In January 2017, to honour America’s inaugural Women’s March, Marimekko pledged to donate $10 from every purchase of their “Tasaraita” T-shirts to women’s rights organisation Equality Now. It was a gesture more meaningful than most – the evenly spaced horizontal stripes of the Tasaraita (Finnish for “equal stripe”) jerseys were launched by designer Annika Rimala in 1968 with a message of equality for all, irrespective of age or gender.

At the Helsinki factory, printers spit out reams of fabric stamped with the brand’s iconic graphics, next to tubs filled with thick, sticky paint in vivid colours. There are around 20,000 “colourways”, or combinations of colours, and 3000 different patterns in the archives. “Every season there’s a new colourway,” says Heikkila. “It’s amazing how you never get bored with it, it always shows a new side of the pattern.”

In every collection at least one old pattern is revived alongside the new prints.

“We have customers that send us letters all the time, ‘Could you please repeat this design from my childhood? My mother used to have a dress like this’,” Juslin says. “If we grab something from the archives, it is still beautiful and relevant for this era also.”

Maija Isola, the label’s first designer, remains the most influential, responsible for more than 500 Marimekko textile patterns, including the best-known Unikko and Kivet designs. These designs set the tone for the brand’s understated but powerful aesthetic, one that has changed little over the years.

It’s this unpretentious, anti-fashion approach to fashion that accounts for the brand’s enduring popularity, Juslin says. “We’re not so interested in trend forecasts and those kind of things. We trust our own way of doing things.”

Marimekko: Design Icon 1951 to 2018 is at Bendigo Art Gallery, March 3 to June 11.   bendigoartgallery.com.au