More than just a fabric company, Marimekko has grown from humble beginnings into an extensive lifestyle brand known internationally for its bright patterned fabric and colourful bold designs. The Finnish company’s story is a lesson in the cyclical nature of fashion and how the path to success is never straight. It is also the story of relying on gut instinct and the visionary leadership of feisty women.
In 1949, Viljo Ratia bought the oilcloth company Printex, hoping to turn around his family’s fortunes. When the venture failed, a despondent Ratia turned to his wife, Armi, for ideas. Rather than giving up, she rolled up her sleeves and set about converting the failed oilcloth factory into a clothing fabric manufacturer.
Artist friends provided designs, and Armi used her naturally creative eye to choose the right designs at the right time. When the company incorporated in 1951, Armi named it Marimekko: Mari is a girl’s name, and mekko is Finnish for dress. Customers loved the fabric, but, in post-war Finland, they had no idea what to do with it. Armi decided to sew some samples, which turned into a clothing line. It was a turning point for the company.
Finland was struggling to recover from WWII. As in France, where Dior's New Look captured the spirit of the time, Marimekko’s bright, bold prints and simple shapes captured the imagination of Finnish women. The mass production of clothing was refreshingly egalitarian. The prints evoked happiness, and were quickly adopted by the newly emancipated female population.
At the dawn of the swinging 60s, Marimekko perfectly captured the mood. The economy was picking up, and working women started expressing themselves through fashion. The company started exporting and fought hard to gain brand recognition abroad. The work paid off when a young Jacqueline Kennedy fell for the Marimekko look, snapping up seven dresses to wear during her new husband’s 1960 US presidential campaign.
Sales exploded, and the little factory in Finland worked at full capacity to meet demand. Bags, accessories, and beachwear soon followed the main clothing line. Armi Ratia started opening stores abroad, and in 1968 signed the company’s first licensing agreement. More factories were built in Finland and further international expansion followed, alongside more licensing agreements and more stores. The Helsinki flagship store opened at 31 Pohjoiseplanadi in 1974; it recently moved to 33 Pohjoiseplanadi and is now known as Marimekko Marikulma.
Disaster struck in 1979 when Armi, the driving force behind the brand, died. Although the company was still doing well financially, upheaval followed. It was a difficult time for those people working behind the scenes, many of whom had been with the company for decades. The late Maija Isola was the company’s first full-time designer, and her daughter Kristina – the two often shared design credit – is still an active Marimekko designer. Armi Ratia’s children took over the business, and eventually sold to Amer Group in 1985. Success eluded the business and the group sold the brand to Kirsti Paakkanen for a nominal fee in 1991.
Paakkanen, a pioneering advertising executive who founded Womena, an all-female advertising firm in 1969, came out of retirement and added a dose of much-needed charisma. Concept stores started to pop up. New designers were hired to revive old classics and add carefully edited new items to the collections. Today, Marimekko is once again an industry power, with stockists as far afield as Sydney and Moscow.
Helsinki has 11 official stockists, including five Marimekko concept stores that feature all collections: clothing, interior decoration, accessories, tableware and, of course, the happy fabrics that started the round-the-world journey and brought Marimekko back to its Finnish roots.