FAST-FIN-1 Finnish Institutions Research Papers

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, Various 175).

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.
Image Source: Biografiakeskus

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 Anttikoski 90).

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 individuals.

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 (Hedqvist 151).

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 (Jackson 52-53).

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 Marimekko designers.

     


'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 Abroad

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 (Naisten).

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.


Note

  1. The amount of the war reparations to the Soviet Union was 300 million US dollars initially to have been paid in full within only six years.

Works Cited

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  • Fabrics - Unikko. Viewed on 26.11.2007.

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