Marimekko fashion makes bold new again

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

She encountered her first piece of the exuberantly patterned cotton here in the early '60s. Jane Thompson was besotted. At the furnishings store owned by an architect, whom she would later marry, the design journalist bought classic Marimekko shift dresses in bold, saturated colors – long at first, and later short as hemlines shrank with the times.

Three decades later, the Finnish textile company's products seemed to have all but disappeared from the US. Then, in late September, the country's first major Marimekko store to open in 15 years came to this city.

Though the company languished in the '80s and '90s, Marimekko never really disappeared. If foot traffic through the new store is any indicator, neither did its devotees.

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As Marimekko quietly expands its presence in the US (a second new store will celebrate its grand opening in Miami next Thursday), women who came of age in the '60s and '70s are becoming reacquainted with the label, and delighting in the chance to introduce it to a younger generation.

On Huron Avenue, a quaint street lined with elegant boutiques, modern furniture shops, and a child-friendly bistro, the new store is just up the road from the former site of Design Research, the Harvard Square home store where Mrs. Thompson's late husband, Benjamin, first introduced the brand to American shoppers in 1959.

Thompson's response to the opening? She brought in her daughter and granddaughter. Within 20 minutes the youngest looked as if she belonged on the streets of Helsinki. "She was a fashion plate in blue and black stripes," says Thompson.

For women of a certain age, Marimekko's iconic red Unikko flower is as evocative as a madeleine. People walk into the store and are immediately transported back to that first floral bedspread or A-line cotton sundress (like the ones Jacqueline Kennedy wore). "They take four steps inside," says Jonathan deMont, who owns the store with his mother, Judy Miles deMont, "and go [here, Mr. deMont puts his hand to his mouth], 'I'm 19 again.' "

"It's a cult," says Suzanne Larsen, who became the Marimekko buyer at Design Research in 1967 and now helps her nephew and sister-in-law at the store. "It was a cult then; it's a cult now."

Founded as a Finnish textile printing firm in 1951 by Armi Ratia and her husband, Marimekko came to stand for freedom from convention and conformity. Mrs. Ratia, the face and heart of the company, set a tone of idiosyncratic independence, which guided its early success.

In the beginning, Marimekko designers were all women. Ratia didn't hire a full-time male designer until 1966. In 1991 another woman, Kirsti Paakkanen, who made her fortune as the founder of an all-female advertising agency, essentially rescued Marimekko – a "national treasure" – when she bought it from the conglomerate Amer Group Ltd.

Today, the fashion line has been revived with a renewed commitment to innovative design, balanced by the return of perennial favorites such as the pencil striped Jokapoika dress shirt. A unisex phenomenon initially designed for men, it was practically a uniform at Mr. Thompson's Cambridge architecture firm.

"The new designers are different," say Ms. Larsen. "It's a marriage of the new and the old."

So forward-thinking in its views of women and in redefining their fashion, Marimekko was also a precursor to the "lifestyle" brand. "I really don't sell clothes, I sell a way of living," Ratia once said.

Moving further in that direction, Marimekko now offers more home products – towels, place mats, candles, oven mitts – and has created a collection of curtain and upholstery fabrics, according to Export Director Päivi Lonka.

The store here is airy, with crisp white walls and shelves that serve as a foil to the boundless color of the merchandise: Unikko rain boots in red and black, a rainbow of striped children's tights, a double bed covered in the trademark red and pink poppies. On lit glass shelves, as if to honor their role as Marimekko's cornerstone, rest bolts and bolts of printed cotton.

It's a space you imagine a visitor would instantly love – or hate. The color combinations and patterns are almost childlike in their fearlessness. In fact, walking into the store feels a little like encountering the frenetic, joyful energy of a playground; kids seem to love it.

Excusing herself for a moment, Ms. Miles deMont greets a multigenerational group that's just stepped into the store. Grandmother, daughter, and grandson have stopped by to show off the little boy's Christmas gift. He stands in front of the poppy-draped bed, beaming, and tugs proudly at his blue-and-black striped jersey shirt.

"The next generation," says deMont.

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