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Behind the scenes at Helsinki Fashion Week SS16

Finland has just celebrated its first ever Helsinki Fashion Week. Joanna McGinn talks to some of the industry’s new and influential names about the country’s growing scene

Feature

by Joanna McGinn

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A happy accident
‘We created Helsinki Fashion Week without realising it – by accident!’ says Evelyn Mora, the event’s entrepreneurial founder. It started as a brainstorming session at Mora’s model agency and production company Eneas Corporation. ‘We were thinking of ways to promote our models and came up with the idea of a huge fashion show.’ Yet the final event was much more than a promotional stunt, featuring the national opera house as venue, a mix of Finnish and international designers, 1,000 visitors (double the initial estimates) and a social-media frenzy – and all this despite it taking place out of season, in November.

Making the impossible possible
Mora wanted to bring a fresh new international perspective on what had been a ‘closed circle’ of long-standing industry players. However, at first many people didn’t understand the concept of Fashion Week, and the City of Helsinki was sceptical. ‘They had received many proposals for a fashion week and no one had succeeded in doing it, so they didn’t believe that we would actually make it happen,’ explains Mora. Even the designers didn’t believe buyers would show up. But Mora and her creative team did make it happen, funding the whole event and finding high-profile partners, notably Finnish textile specialist Finlayson. ‘It was a success – nearly all the designers made sales and we made a profit. International showrooms selected designers to take to stores in Russia, France and Sweden.’

The names to know
Taking place between 29 November and 1 December last year, the event combined fashion shows, performances and art installations, showcasing spring/summer 2016 collections from established Finnish names such as Andiata, alongside new talent such as Aito Studios and Vilmava. International names included last season’s Premium Young Designer Award winner Steinrohner from Germany, and Ksenia Schnaider, the celebrated Ukrainian design duo. Part of the project saw two young Finnish designers, Riina Salmi and Kristiina Yrjänäinen, show at St Petersburg Fashion Week, while Russia’s Arny Praht came to Helsinki. This cross-cultural exchange underpins Mora’s vision for the event, which is about bringing international fashion to Finnish people as much as it is about exporting Finnish fashion.

The rise of Finnish fashion
The event’s success reflects a new energy in the country’s fashion scene. Finland has long played second fiddle to its super-stylish neighbours: think Scandi fashion and you think Sweden or Denmark. Yet Finland has its own strong sense of style. The reduced, pared-back Nordic look underpins the aesthetic, but it has a darker edge, showing influences from the harsh weather and Finnish folklore, while always keeping quality and function in mind.

Eco-friendly focus
‘The eco aspect is also very strong here’, says Mora. Aito Studios is one of the brands that make sustainability integral to its menswear collection, taking army-surplus materials such as heavy-duty wool and recycling them to create hand-printed outerwear with an urban feel. As with many Finnish brands, production is on a minute, handmade scale and quality is paramount. ‘The prints and silhouettes reflect coldness and Nordic minimalism,’ explains designer Eetu Räisänen. ‘We used a picture of our national hero Mannerheim and the image of the Finnish mythological figure Lalli, so the prints represent the Finnish mentality.’

Vilma Riitijoki, a former winner of the Finnish Fair Corporation’s Young Designer of the Year award and founder of Vilmava, also uses recycled material as a basis for her handmade pieces. ‘I like to combine very different kinds of materials, such as bones, silk and plastic,’ she says. At Fashion Week, she made a showpiece collection out of toilet paper. ‘The theme was Finnish nature. The collection included three cocktail dresses inspired by meadows, beaches and rocks, forest roots and branches.’

The future of Helsinki Fashion Week
Both designers note that there is a new buzz to Finnish fashion. ‘Finnish people are more and more into creativity and fashion – it’s reaching a bigger audience’, says Räisänen. ‘There is a new energy,’ adds Riitijoki. ‘I notice nowadays designers are braver. They think outside the box and play more with the garments.’

Minna Särelä, executive director of Design District Helsinki, agrees. ‘Finnish fashion is becoming bolder, richer and more versatile. A scene that was previously dominated by few nationally well-known brands is now undergoing big changes. The new generation of Finnish fashion designers has a wild imagination and big dreams.’

So what next for Helsinki Fashion Week? Buoyed by her surprise success, Mora has grand plans for next season’s event, to be held in July on Suomenlinna, a Unesco-listed site a short ferry ride from Helsinki’s mainland. ‘We are creating our own “fashion country”, bringing global designers in from South Africa, Dubai, Turkey, Mexico and Korea,’ she explains. ‘It’s going to be a very cultural experience with a festival vibe – shows in boats, music, exhibitions, pop-up stores … Our story has just begun, yet truly seeks to change the face of fashion in Finland. The aim is to establish a Nordic fashion hub that can act as a fashion gateway between the north and the rest of the planet.’

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