Whether there is a buzz for Finnish fashion today – in the same spirit Belgium did in the 80’s with the likes of Margiela or Van Noten –Finnish fashion designer Tuomas Laitinen is arguably leading the change for a fresh new mindset. He is not going to work on a new collection for a while, at the moment he is busy enough between his fashion editorial project, SSAW, and running the Fashion Program at Aalto University in Helsinki
Since he took over the program, it has become equal to, or even more important than –within the international scoop – the Finnish heritage in architecture, industrial and furniture design. Tuomas educates people for the international arena. Major brands like Saint Laurent, Balenciaga or Levine fill their houses with talented new graduates from his program. Although Laitinen himself encourages his students strongly to not start-off their own brand at least until getting to know more about the industry in real life, he carries on the torch of this revolution.
You graduated at Central Saint Martins in London.
Yeah, I did my BA there in 2004. The master is 2 years. I did my Bachelor in Arts in Finland and then I went there.
Why did you decide to go there in the first place?
Well, Helsinki is a very different place now than it was back then. It has changed so much. I was actually studying in the same school where I’m teaching now. You can’t really even compare the difference between then and now. It used to be the only option if you wanted to work in a certain level of fashion, if you pretended to go more into high fashion – and I wanted to do menswear. It has the best reputation and I had lots of friends there. It is an extremely tough place, kind of crazy place, which I like.
Right, there’re many designers that come from there…
Well, most of them.
How do you remember that period?
Saint Martins is the best and worst time of my life. It is so much fun but it is an insane amount of work – I suppose now it is like with my students here. Louise Wilson, the course director in Saint Matins' MA, who is kind of the most loved and scared woman in the whole fashion industry, a very tough cookie – she will brake your back and remold you. She is very direct. It is a bit like a fashion boot camp, you ought to make it or you break it. You have to learn how to swim or you will drown, those are the only two options.
Once you were done in London did you go back to Helsinki?
No, I lived one a half years in Paris, working. I was actually living in Paris before I went to Saint Martins. After graduation, I got a job there in a consulting company doing research, especially American brands.
So when did you actually start to work on your first collection?
Anna (Tuomas' sister and creative partner) and me we moved back to Helsinki in 2006. We participated in the festival Hyères in the south of France. Our first collection was a year after, so our first commercial collection was in 2007.
For those who never heard, what did you do at Hyères?
It is the international festival of fashion and photography. It is the most important competition in photography in the world for young designers. Anna and me won for two years consecutively. It was Yohji Yamamoto when I took my students from Aalto for the first time. Also Viktor & Rolf or Henrik Vibskov, they all come from that festival. All the headhunters, everybody is following that one competition. It is recognized in fashion as one of the toughest one.
Was it menswear only?
We first did a mix, for almost 2 years. We then did a small collection, not unisex but kind of the same idea, very androgynous, the idea of femininity into masculinity. We started growing but at one point, you have to make a choice; when you are a small company you can’t do this sort of small things, you have to invest everything you got into one thing because customers want to buy more of that and we chose to do menswear. So far we have done men – despite what we did for Mango last year in Spain which is the only women collection we have.
Did you commercialize womenswear at the beginning?
We have commercialized women for two years; so all together we’ve been for seven years. So first two years we had both women and men, then we chose to do men to a bigger capacity to focus on that.
Where are your biggest markets?
Japan, Korea and Hong Kong in China; that's Asia. We have a lot in Europe and U.S but if you talk about money, quantity-wise then of course Asia. It is very different a small store even they have big and young labels selections you don’t survive with that (laughs), you have to go department stores.
Have you showed only in Paris?
No. We showed in Paris when we started, then two seasons in Milan and then back to Paris, always did sales there. There is no point really in showing in other places just for a couple of shops. If you work in a certain level in fashion, you can’t even do it Sweden, Scandinavia is a big market but it's not big enough, you don’t have enough shops selling high fashion. Perhaps if you are Henrik Vibskov you can do it more local but us we had no choice; we went to Paris.
You never really got into the game of the so-called Scandinavian-driven fashion design, right?
We never wanted to be related to that game. I like Henrik and many of the designers but they are very different sort of markets. We sell to stores which mainly buy Rick Owens, Comme des Garçons and this kind of designers who are not so much into funny, young and colorful atmospheres. Besides, our product price is higher and the clientele is different too.
You haven’t done a collection for this season. So all this stream and international prestige, where is it leading you?
I can’t talk about my future yet. I can only say it's something related to Hollywood. We decided not to do the new collection and we are focused in our new editorial project SSAW.
Oh, I love L.A, so fair enough. I do understand your main focus at the moment is the school as well as your new magazine?
Right, we started SSAW about two years ago because of Helsinki Capital of Design 2012. Basically, they wanted to do a fashion publication and we approached them to curate it. That’s how it started to then evolve into something more complete. In the beginning it was supposed to be a one-off thing, promoting a very tightly curated bunch of fashion Finish designers. So they financed this project for us to do. We thought “if we are going to do a one-off magazine, let’s do an amazing one-off magazine”. We had lots of contacts abroad, so we asked international photographers to shoot for us like Julia and Hannes Hetta from Sweden or Gosha Rubchinskiy from Russia, and a lot of other people in order to create a good international level magazine. We also approached Comme des Garçons from the beginning, and also featured international designers. It had a great distribution so it was natural to continue. So, at present, it has nothing to do with finish design anymore.
So the governmental support from the cultural side doesn’t exist anymore?
No, that was just the first issue. We are totally self-financed now. That was the start-off and since then we’ve been on our own.
How frequently is it published?
Biannual. The fourth issue came out last October and the fifth will be ready soon this Spring. It depends on the issue but normally it's 70% editorial and 30% interview, with high level of international contributors, David Armstrong, Anuschka Blommer, etc. It is almost an academic approach in fashion.
Do you shoot anything in Helsinki?
Very little.
And when it does happen, is it worth it for you to bring garments here instead of shooting in Paris, London or New York?
Everything is flown from Paris normally. Sometimes it happens because either Chris or me have to go there, or the brands pay for the UPS, well it depends on the brand (laughs). But for instance, when Raf Simons was here we did a huge editorial, and the same thing happened with Dries Van Noten. They like the idea of shooting here, for them it is much more exciting to show the collection in Helsinki than in Paris.
So, I understand you don’t shoot in a studio?
Yeah, it’s mainly locations. Even though it's a very high fashion magazine we try to be untied loss, it's very little photoshop and tries to be very 90’s, The Face, no hair and make up (laughs).
So how do you combine the fashion program at Aalto with your duties in SSAW?
I am a course director so I have to be there five days a week. I can plan my schedule and of course it can happen I might not be there, but most of the time I am.
For those who never heard, please tell me what the Aalto Institution is in fashion terms.
It is one of the most prestigious design schools in northern Europe. Before I moved to Helsinki it was mainly known for interior, architecture and furniture, very typically Finnish things.
Right, that’s due to the heritage of Alvar Aalto I presume?
Right, it’s about Aalto and all of those things, a time when fashion wasn’t that much in the radar. But especially in the past 3-4 years everything has changed, and it is very much a fashion school and quite a famous one now. We have students working in some of the most prestigious competitions for young designers. The fashion program has been there since the 50’s. I myself studied there, but it's different now, more like a fashion boot camp (Laughs). I bet it is a tough course.
As a governmental institution, is there no subscription or is the course as expensive as other well-known fashion schools in Europe?
Since this is Scandinavia, it is free for everybody but it is very difficult to get in. For BA we have around 300-400 applications every year. We invite 60-70 for a weeklong test and we then check in ten final students. BA is three years and MA is two, so people can do it in five years. It is very one-to-one.
That sounds like a very luxurious course if you can make it in. I guess not even Saint Martins in London is like that?
No, in BA they might take in around 250. MA is similar to here, including mens and womenswear it is around 40 students. Basically, we have more money for less people. In many schools, fashion and textile are very much separated and ours is something in between so they can also make their own fabrics. We have all the latest equipment to rebound fabrics, we can print both digitally and manually, we have industrial knitting machines, so if you want to have let’s say buttons made out of glass, we can ask somebody in the glass studio to do it. The BA is in Finnish but the MA is in English, so we get all sorts of internationalities.
Is it only you that is running this?
I’m running BA and doing the collections for MA together with the head of MA, who makes my job possible and takes care of finances and administration. When it comes to the collection, then it's me. It’s been a slow process but we currently have students working for Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Levine and so forth.
So, do you feel like some sort of new Finnish scene is emerging?
My job is to make sure my kids have jobs. My heart goes to my throat when they say the will start their own line because they shouldn’t. What we are trying to do is push them into an international market for jobs and so far we are succeeding quite well and that is what I wanted to do. Unless you are a rich unexceptional talent. Besides, it's good to get production contacts which will eventually make things way easier. They look at my career but they don’t understand I first had a few years working in Paris and I was lucky enough to get a network of contacts.
Is there no impetus to really strengthen the fashion industry in Finland?
Having 10 young designers, even if they all do OK stuff, it doesn't make it into fashion industry. The bigger label here is Marimekko, and that’s more like a lifestyle label; you then have mid-market labels like Ivana Helsinki that is more like a Danish label, it's not really fashionable, it's more into the business market rather than fashion style. In a way we so boost the Finnish fashion, but it is more about talents who can work worldwide, maybe one person goes to Balenciaga, another to Nike or another to H&M and they are all valuable as individuals. It is a very rewarding thing for us to see it is really taking off.
One more question, tell me a Finnish fashion designer that you like.
I love Vuokko Nurmesniemi, she was the first head designer of Marimekko. They did crazy shit in the 50’s and 60’s, quite dope up stuff, big prints. She is amazing; she is in her eighties now, very Avant-Garde forward, similar to Sybilla in Spain.