Marimekko's Path to Success During the 1950s and 60s
Hanna-Liisa Ylipoti, Spring 2008 (US)
A FAST-FIN-1 (TRENAK1) Finnish Institutions Research Paper
FAST Area Studies Program
Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere
The Marimekko textile and clothing design company is without a doubt a
Finnish institution, an integral part of Finnish national identity. One
sees the popular Marimekko patterns everywhere one turns: on clothes,
rubber boots, cell phone covers and even Visa Electron cards. Marimekko
patterns have also been seen on less conventional items, such as Nordic
walking poles. In short, Marimekko patterns are found on practically
anything that can have a pattern. The Finnish people’s love for the
familiar Marimekko patterns shows; it would be difficult to find a Finnish
home with no Marimekko products.
The Marimekko products, including clothes and furniture, are popular
with both ordinary Finns and celebrities. This appeal to the whole nation
is one of the things that makes Marimekko unique.
This paper reviews the phenomenal success of the Marimekko Corporation
especially during its first two decades, the 1950s and 60s. These decades
are especially important, as Marimekko was founded in 1951, and in the
1960s it was at the height of its success. What made Marimekko and its
products so popular? How did they differ from their contemporary
competition? What was behind the company’s creation of the “Mari girl”? Is
there a special Finnishness to the products of Marimekko?
How the Company Was Born
The modern Marimekko Corporation started, almost accidentally, as a
publicity campaign for the oilcloth company Printex Oy. Viljo Ratia, the
husband of Armi Ratia, the first CEO of the Marimekko Corporation, bought
Printex in 1949. The original Marimekko-project, a fashion show aiming
for publicity, was created for the purpose of boosting the sales of
Printex. At that time many companies were struggling financially, and
Printex was not an exception. Sales were low and there was little capital
(Ainamo, Various 173-175). The whole economic climate in Finland was
depressed, as Finland’s economy had suffered greatly from the Second World
War. In addition Finland had to pay heavy war reparations1 to the Soviet Union, as had been agreed in the
peace treaty of 1944. These reparations put a great strain on the economy
of a small country which was attempting to recover from a long and
traumatic war (Sotakorvaukset).
Armi Ratia had studied textile design at the Institute of Industrial
Arts in Helsinki. Eventually Viljo asked if she could help Printex by
designing some floral patterns on cotton fabric, similar to the ones of
more successful competitors. Armi was willing to help, but wanted to
create something unique and original rather than the traditional floral
patterns (Ainamo, Various 173-175). Traditionally textile design in
Finland had been very conventional, and floral printed fabrics were also
imported from England (Aav 33). Armi Ratia appointed herself the
chief art and design director of Printex and hired the young textile
designer Maija Isola to work for her (Ainamo, Various 173-175). Ratia and
Isola first began to print new, colorful, abstract fabrics, and then
eventually clothes to show people what could be made from their new fabric
designs which stood out from what everyone else was doing (Ilmiömäisiä).
In 1951 Armi Ratia and her associates decided to work together with a
mutual acquaintance, Riitta Immonen, to put together a fashion show to
help promote the Printex fabrics. Immonen had her own independent fashion
studio. Ratia and Immonen decided they would make dresses out of the
Printex fabrics in the hope that the fashion show would gather media
attention for the fabrics out of which the dresses were made. Then
possibly a larger number of women would buy Printex fabrics to make
clothes for themselves. Armi Ratia called this publicity campaign the
Marimekko-project [Marimekko Projekti]. “Mari” is a woman’s name that is
formed from the same letters as “Armi” and “mekko” means a girl’s dress
(Ainamo, Various 175).
However, during the fashion show it was not the fabrics but the fashion
designs that stirred interest (Ainamo, Ratia). Therefore Ratia decided to
form her own company, and later in 1951 registered Marimekko Oy as an
independent legal entity and a companion firm to Printex (Ainamo, Various
175). The reason she did this was that she wanted to protect her project
from the everyday pressures of Printex’s business activities (Ainamo,
Ratia). The first Marimekko fashion show was held in May at the popular
Kalastajatorppa restaurant in Helsinki, and it was a success (Ainamo,
It is important to remember that there was almost no fashion industry
in Finland in the early 1950s. During the 1950s the Marimekko Corporation
created its “fashion philosophy” and later secured a permanent position in
the international fashion market in the 1960s (Anttikoski 86). Thus
Marimekko was a pioneer in its field, establishing a uniquely Finnish
fashion concept. According to the Finnish trade registry, the aim of the
Marimekko Corporation was to “manufacture all kinds of costumes and
accessories, including commissioned work and the wholesale and retail sale
of those materials, and their production and export” (Anttikoski 87).
The Marimekko Ideology
From the beginning, Marimekko’s identity was strongly tied to
Armi Ratia’s personality (Almay 56). Armi Ratia was a natural at making
and maintaining connections (Ilmiömäisiä). Viljo Ratia described Armi as a
fantastic public relations person. Newspapers and magazines were
interested in what she had to say about things. The company didn’t have to
contact the media; the media came to them. Generally people thought Armi
Ratia and Marimekko were one and the same. This was not surprising,
considering that the charismatic Ratia represented the company to the
public (Ratia 24). Over the years Armi Ratia befriended the fashion
editors of Vogue, Women’s Wear Daily, and the New York Times
(Wiikeri 35); this also helped Marimekko’s climb to success. In the
fashion business, it’s all about knowing the right people, those who can
help you succeed.
Armi Ratia, the first CEO of Marimekko, played a big part in the huge
success of the company.
Armi Ratia saw Marimekko not just as a company, but also as a
philosophy. In her own words, the company “looked for solutions to
people’s problems [and] represented the endless struggle of an
individual’s soul and spirit” (Nikula 120). Especially important in
Marimekko’s philosophy was the idea of the “Mari girl” and its view of
independent, intelligent women as Marimekko’s clients (Sarje 54-56). As
Armi told the magazine American Fabrics in 1963, she didn’t sell
clothes, but a way of living; her products were designs, not fashions (in
Armi Ratia understood that, to be successful, Marimekko had to be
different from its competitors. At the time Marimekko was founded,
international fashion favored tight clothes that emphasized the female
figure. Marimekko provided an alternative, “anti-fashion.” The company
started making loose-fitting clothing that had the bare minimum of
cuttings (Wiikeri 34). The clothes could also be worn by larger-sized
women, average customers who did not have the perfect figures of fashion
models (Wiikeri 34). Also, these simply-cut dresses were less costly to
produce than the complicated designs of international fashion. Marimekko
made it a point to steer clear of Parisian fashion whims, although the
company did pay close attention to international fashion trends, picking
out elements that suited the Marimekko look (Wiikeri 34). Armi Ratia said
that she hated unnecessary tucks, pleats and buttons on clothes (Nikula
119), which also explains the simple designs.
An important aspect of Finnishness is also equality and respect for the
ordinary person; this in a way has been achieved by giving all women the
possibility to wear Marimekko dresses. The rebellious Ratia liked to give
an unsophisticated image of herself; she frequently called herself “the
worst dressed woman in Helsinki.” This was not true, of course, as she was
very aware of international fashion movements and was a trendsetter
herself (Aav 37). The reason behind this odd statement might have
been the desire to portray herself as an ordinary person, making clothes
for ordinary people, not just the most fashionable and beautiful
Who Was the Mari Girl?
There was also the important concept of the “Mari girl,” or Marityttö.
Although Marimekko made clothes for both genders and for all ages, it
primarily targeted girls, and especially Ratia’s concept of the “Mari
girl.” A Mari girl was described as being modern and liberal. She had a
sense of humor and was intellectual and artistic. She was also spontaneous
and interested in different cultural phenomena. She was an independent
woman, but family life and the home also played an important part in her
life. She usually wanted to create a career for herself outside the home.
She was urban, but had a strong connection with nature (Sarje 54-56).
A press show in 1968.
Image Source: Wiikeri 38.
The models at the first show looked like ordinary
people, rather than fashion models.
Anna, the Finnish women’s magazine, described the mari girl in
its April 1965 issue as a sophisticated young woman who was sexy,
confident, and had an interesting face. She was not actually beautiful,
but a well-groomed, ageless woman, who enjoyed life and who was surrounded
by an aura of vitality; a woman who would not allow herself to be bored
(56). In many ways, the characteristics used to describe the Mari girl are
also ideal characteristics of the post-war Finnish woman, to whom
independence had always been essential.
Armi Ratia had an ambitious goal; she wanted to reach out to the young
intelligentsia. Her ideas were portrayed in the models she used for
Marimekko’s clothes. Professional models were seldom used; most of the
models were Marimekko staff or Armi’s personal friends. In fashion
photographs, these models did not have fashionable hairdos or makeup, and
they had little jewellery. The purpose of this was to come across as being
unique and intelligent. These were also the qualities Marimekko wanted to
see in its clientele (Wiikeri 32-40). Probably the idea of these kinds of
fashion shows being “unique” and “intelligent” came from the fact that in
traditional fashion, someone else is always establishing the standards of
dress. The Marimekko Corporation stood out by turning this idea inside out
and empowering Finnish women by doing so.
Marimekko Fabrics, Designs and Designers
Marimekko started out in 1951, during the bare and gray post-war
period. At that time new, cheerfully-colored clothes were welcomed (Almay
54). This seems understandable, as one had not been able to focus on one's
appearance and flattering clothes during the war years and the following
years of the 1940s. However, the rationing of materials for the Finnish
retail clothing trade ended in the late 1940s (Anttikoski 86), which
naturally improved the situation of textile companies.
In Marimekko’s products, exciting colors were combined with simple and
artistic print designs. These were printed on ordinary cotton fabric,
using a lot of dots and stripes. They were new, fun clothes that differed
from the conventional clothes of the previous generations (Tarschys 101).
The 1964 Unikko design was a protest by Maija Isola; Armi
Ratia had decided that Marimekko would have no flower patterns.
Unikko is still popular today.
Image Source: Marimekko
In Armi Ratia’s opinion, emotion and intelligence are combined in a
good designer (Ilmiömäisiä). Marimekko had both full-time designers and
freelance-designers. The most important of the freelance designers was
Maija Isola (Aav 37), who created the Unikko (“poppy”) design, which
is one of the most successful Marimekko pattern designs. Interestingly, it
is likely that Maija Isola designed Unikko as a provocative response to
Armi Ratia’s announcement of how she hated floral patterns. However, it is
also true that Isola’s Unikko is far from a traditional floral pattern
The relationship between Isola and Ratia was sometimes stormy, as can
happen with two strong-minded artists. However, Isola had a desire to
surprise Ratia with her designs and to win her approval, and Ratia trusted
Isola and placed enormous faith in her. Isola was solitary and very
independent, and she valued personal freedom above everything else
Among the other important full-time designers were Vuokko Nurmesniemi
and Annika Rimala (Aav 37). Vuokko Nurmesniemi later went on to
found her own clothing company, Vuokko Oy, in 1964. Vuokko Oy manufactured
clothes for men and women, and also accessories to go with them. Vuokko Oy
and its clothes were also highly esteemed abroad, but unfortunately the
company went bankrupt in 1988, during a time when many Finnish clothing
companies had financial difficulties (Almay 58-59), likely due to the
emerging economic pressure of globalization, in particular competition
from lower-cost foreign economies.
At a time when other manufacturers were favoring new materials,
including artificial fibers such as nylon, polyester, and Dacron,
Marimekko used mainly cotton and wool as fabrics for its designs, since
they were simple and easy to wear (Anttikoski 91). Vuokko Nurmesniemi also
thought cotton was a good material, because it is a natural fiber that has
no extra “shine” to it, as some other materials may have. She expressed
the thought that materials such as silk and satin, as fabrics, may not be
as free and brisk, and easy to take care of as cotton (Nurmesniemi).
Cotton was also inexpensive, which was an important factor especially in
the early 1950s, when the Finnish economy was still recovering from the
Second World War (Aav 25). There was a clear trend of using natural
materials to be seen in the production of Marimekko, as in Finnish design
altogether. This in itself might portray a certain Finnishness, as nature
played such an important role for Finns especially still in the 1950s,
when the lifestyle of the average Finn was more rural than today.
Marimekko keeps creating new, popular designs, but that doesn’t mean
that the old, classic designs have been forgotten. Some timeless Marimekko
classics from the 50s and 60s continue to be popular still in the early
21st century. Vuokko Nurmesniemi designed the classic unisex
Jokapoika-shirt in 1956. The fabric design used for the shirt, Piccolo,
was designed in 1953. The “Tasaraita” (even stripe) design was created by
Annika Rimala in 1968. Maija Isola designed the Unikko pattern in 1964.
All of these designs can still be found in Marimekko stores today and are
also very popular with the public.
Nowadays the company's fashion photographs differ a lot from those of
the early years of Marimekko. The clothes are still worn by all ages and
both genders, but it appears that at least the publicity photos have
changed quite a lot. Below are some photographs from the spring/summer
2008 collection of Marimekko, portraying very typical tall and slender
models. Mika Piirainen and Samu-Jussi Koski are two of the current
'Classic' Marimekko from the 1950s vs 'Modern' Marimekko from 2008
(L) One of the early classic designs by Vuokko Nurmesniemi
is the 'Jokapoika' shirt. Jokapoika means
'everyboy': it was designed for 'everybody,' and is still a best-seller.
(LC) Another classic is the 1968 Tasaraita design, for all ages and both
genders, by Annika Rimala.
(RC) A modern design from the spring 2008 collection by Mika
Piirainen. Compare the two modern designs on the right with the classic
designs to the left.
(R) Samu-Jussi Koski's design from the spring 2008
collection also differs from the striped classics.
(Photo sources: Marimekko
Marimekko has created a wide range of different kinds of products, even
if the company Marimekko is probably best known for its fabrics and
dresses. In 1967, Armi Ratia herself mentioned that Marimekko made
“shirts, candles, glasses, trays, bags, slippers, blankets, toys, hats and
goodness knows what else” in addition to the best-known fabrics and
clothes. Today in the 21st century the range of Marimekko products has
broadened even more; it is safe to say Marimekko products can be found
in nearly every Finnish household. Ratia also stressed that all the
products should represent a uniquely Finnish line. She felt that
Marimekko should always create 'new' things that had not been seen
before (Nikula 120-121).
Marimekko headed out to the international market in the mid-1950s
(Hedqvist 150). Armi Ratia had said that in the early 1950s she didn’t see
prospects for her products abroad. She didn’t think women in other
countries would want Marimekko’s “country dresses”, which were fairly
simple in design and far from the fashionable haute couture of the time.
Ratia knew this. However, she was a person who enjoyed challenging and
difficult things, and that is how she found the courage to try to make
Marimekko and its products known also outside Finland (Ilmiömäisiä).
Marimekko became more widely known internationally in 1958, when the
company’s fabrics and fashions were on display in the Finnish Pavilion of
the Brussels World Fair (Marimekko). Following the Brussels World Fair the
interest in Marimekko grew, and in 1959 the turnover of the company grew
to over 100 million Finnish marks (Landström).
By the 1960s Marimekko was a booming success and a world leader in the
creation and production of printed textiles (Hedqvist 150). Marimekko had
become an international trendsetter, and had had an enthusiastic reception
especially in the United States (Hedqvist 150-155). Marimekko received
immense publicity in the United States in 1960, when first lady and style
icon Jacqueline Kennedy was featured on the cover of Sports
Illustrated wearing a Marimekko dress. She had also bought seven other
dresses and later became a frequent visitor at the Design Research shop in
Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Marimekko products were first being
retailed to the American market (Hedqvist 162). 300 magazines reported on
Jacqueline Kennedy buying the seven dresses, and in an instant Marimekko
became a concept in the U.S. (Almay 55).
By the 1980s, however, Marimekko products were no longer seen as
progressive and unique. Armi Ratia had died in 1979, and this
affected the success of the company negatively. Marimekko was no longer as
successful as before in creating products which were critically acclaimed
and also sold well (Ainamo, Various 188).
However, new owner Kirsti Paakkanen – another strong and charismatic
woman – saved the company from bankruptcy after buying it in 1991
(Suuret). In the beginning of the 21st century, Marimekko has been
attempting a comeback also abroad. The company has been trying to regain
its 1960s popularity especially in the United States. Successful Marimekko
exhibitions have been held in the United States, and the response from the
mass and the critics has been positive (Parikka). In 2001, the New York
Times observed: “As unfaded as songs from the 1960s and 70s the vivid
Marimekko pop bloom and squiggles (and electric blues, magentas, scarlets,
and yellows) are bursting into the fashion and home furnishing scene
again.” The article also mentioned that well-known international fashion
designers such as Anna Sui had been buying vintage Marimekko yardage
(Hedqvist 169). As Anna Sui is a noted American fashion designer, her
interest in Marimekko’s fabrics might well boost the image of the company,
making it more fashionable than ever.
Marimekko as a Finnish Institution
The Marimekko Corporation had a humble beginning; in the years
following the Second World War there was a shortage of materials yet a
longing for beauty (Aav 25). This also, to some extent, explains the
simple Marimekko designs, as there simply was not that much to make
clothes from. Also, this explains the pride which Finns felt when
Marimekko became successful also abroad; after suffering together, now
they were succeeding together, as a nation.
The themes of many Marimekko designs are also very Finnish, portraying
Finnish nature. For example, Maija Isola created her Luonto (nature)
design using actual plant specimens (Jackson 54).
Maija Isola’s Mänty pattern and detail from the Luonto series.
The influence of Finnish nature can be clearly seen.
Image Source: Aav et al. 213.
Contrasts are also very important in Marimekko, one of the most
important contrastive pairings being tradition and innovation. Other
important pairings have included proximity to nature and urbanism and
Finnishness and internationalism (Aav 22). There is a clear contrast
between modern and traditional as well as between Finnish and
international. The fabric patterns were modern and abstract, but they were
printed on everyday cotton, and the dresses had simple lines.
All of these pairings are “Finnish” in a way – the Finnish people are
urban, but still value the peace and quiet of nature; Finns like to be
thought of as international and modern but also value their heritage and
traditions. The simplicity of the patterns and designs can also be seen as
Finnish, as Finland had typically been an agricultural country, where
people led simple lives that were very different from those of people in
sophisticated metropolitan Europe.
The “Mari girl” concept is also very close to the post-war Finnish
woman, who was conceived as independent and strong. The long history of
the independent Finnish woman can also be seen in the fact that Finnish
women were the first in Europe to receive the right to vote, in 1906
The Success of Marimekko is Due to Several Reasons
There were clearly several reasons that contributed to the huge success
of Marimekko in the 1950s and 1960s. Armi Ratia, the first CEO of
Marimekko was an interesting and creative person; she clearly played a
large role in the company’s success. Also, Marimekko was different, and a
visionary; the company did things its own way according to its own views
and philosophy. Neither its designs nor its materials were the standards
of the time. Different and original concepts always have had a tendency to
fascinate people. Marimekko took a bold step away from the mild flower
prints of its contemporaries.
Marimekko can be seen as a particularly Finnish corporation because it
has taken into consideration its Finnish clientele by making clothes
suitable for everyone, portraying the Finnish people’s strong sense of
equality in so doing. Also, Marimekko has portrayed Finnish nature in its
designs. The great success of the Marimekko Corporation was also something
that strengthened the sense of pride of the Finnish nation, especially in
the early years of the 1950s as the nation was slowly recovering from the
influences of the Second World War and attempting to establish its
identity as a progressive western market economy. The “Mari girl” concept
is also very Finnish, because it portrays features of the post-war Finnish
woman, such as independence and strength of character. Due to all these
factors, one can not think of Finland and Finnish history without
also thinking of the Marimekko Corporation.
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