Text: Niall Underwood
Images: Paolo Zerbini
The final week of May saw international fashion giants such as LVHM, Vogue, and i-D amongst others, look to Finland for the next generation of fashion designers. The largest of its kind in any Nordic country, the Aalto University Graduate show has helped to put Helsinki on the fashion map. The School of Arts, Design, and Architecture was established in 1871 as a humble craft school, growing to be one of the most influential and respected schools in its field. Its highly lauded fashion shows have been staged for thirty years, and graduates have flown the Aalto nest to take up job offers at Alexander McQueen, Lanvin, Saint Laurent, Alexander Wang, and Balenciaga among others. England has Central Saint Martins, America has Parsons – Finland has Aalto.
The man responsible for the show, which has been unanimously applauded by the international fashion press, is senior lecturer Tuomas Laitinen. Himself an Aalto graduate, Laitinen balances his pivotal role at the University with his work as a freelance stylist and as Fashion Director of SSAW. I caught up with Laitinen following the show to discuss his multi-faceted career, Aalto’s collaboration with KENZO, and the significance of the Graduate show.
When did Aalto begin staging fashion shows, and how do you feel they have progressed since then?
The school has had shows since the 1980s. They had them when I was a BA student there in the late 1990s, back then they were small presentations held at the school in such a tiny space that there had to be three shows per day, the press show was at 3pm and nobody would bother to turn up. There was no editing before the show, no production – the students were left to their own devices with varying results. Hopefully nobody will unearth my BA show!
Now it’s completely different story. It’s something equivalent to a CSM MA show but in Northern Europe – a professional fashion week show with an audience of 2,000 people, out of which 200 are international industry professionals. We work closely with Tomorrow is Another Day and Nisch Management; I certainly didn’t have the Gucci and Prada boys modelling in my show, I had to bribe my friends with beer to do it. Where at CSM not everybody shows as the show is heavily edited, at Aalto the students who do not show have a chance to work further with their collections and often end up showing the following year, and in that way we are more flexible than the UK schools.
What do you feel is the importance of showing students’ work in this way?
The show has to be seen as walking portfolios. It’s a showcase of ideas and talent, not sellable fashion week collections. Though here people often judge it with the same criteria as they would judge PFW shows, which is both irritating and funny at the same time. A fashion show is still, in my opinion, the only proper way to show a high fashion collection: the clothes move, they have life. As it’s a group show the downside is that we cannot have individual hair, makeup or music for each collection, so the students all have to compromise on that. After the show some of them choose to organise more intimate installations or presentations, which we encourage them to do, but of course the audience for these are more limited.
You’re fashion director of SSAW, freelance as a stylist and lecture at Aalto – as an educator, how do you feel that working in the industry benefits your role within the school?
No matter what creative industry you are in, I think the professors and teachers should be actively working. It keeps your finger on the pulse and brings in a lot of contacts.
As a stylist and fashion director, do you think it’s important to pass on your industry knowledge to the next generation?
Of course, I wouldn’t teach if I didn’t. However, it’s not that my knowledge or experiences are the final word: I try to encourage the students to find their own paths and routes into the industry, and to be true to themselves while acknowledging the realities of this world.
If you were to attend a party this evening wearing one full look from the Aalto show, which would it be?
The black velvet coat and trousers with appliquéd dried flowers by Anton Vartiainen and Hanne Jurmu – the winners of the Chloé Award at this spring’s Festival Hyéres.
The Aalto casting was superb, I spotted faces from shows such as Gucci and Raf Simons. Who was responsible for casting the show? And what, in your opinion, is the most important thing to look for in a model?
The casting was by the SSAW Managing Editor, Anna Pesonen, with some added street casting by the students. When casting we look for individuality, that’s all really. The street cast models incidentally have now been signed by the same agencies as the Gucci and Raf Simons boys. As the show was by young people, I felt it was important to reflect that, so I like that the casting also has a feeling of youth and sub-cultures.
What are your thoughts on the upcoming KENZO x H&M collaboration?
Well that should be a match made in heaven, no? All the kids will want a piece of it.
What can you tell us about the KENZO x Aalto collaboration?
We collaborated on a series of one-of-a-kind sweatshirts and the KENZO design team were tutoring the BA students graduating this year. It was a real privilege. But we can’t really say yet what is happening next.
What do you think Nordic designers have to offer that the fashion houses of London, Paris and Milan may not?
I can only speak for Finland. Sweden and Denmark both have massive fashion industries (not high fashion, but high street and mid-market companies) which influence their fashion education. In Finland, apart from the contribution design house Marimekko made to fashion in the 1960s, we have very little in the way of fashion history and tradition. However, sometimes this lack of tradition frees you and makes you more resourceful and creative. We’re not encouraging our students to start up their own collections before they have proper industry experience and connections, we’re educating them for the fashion houses of London, Paris, Milan, and New York where perhaps they will bring in less prejudiced and preconceived ideas of what fashion is or can be.
Each season, smaller fashion weeks such as Copenhagen and Berlin present an alternative set of collections that wouldn’t necessarily be seen on the more competitive schedules. Do you think it’s easier, or even more difficult, to start out as a designer in one of these cities?
I see Copenhagen and Berlin more as trade shows with catwalk shows to spice things up a bit, not really as Fashion Weeks. London has its own creative engine because of the kids graduating from RCA and CSM, but even they outgrow it and move on to Paris, Milan, or New York. You can be based where ever you want nowadays, but in terms of real commercial or press exposure it’s really those three cities still – if you do high fashion, that is.
Which collection are you most excited to see next season and why?
Balenciaga by Demna Gvasalia (especially the mens) as we’re very close to the people behind Balenciaga and Vetements. Out of the young ones I follow closely would be Craig Green, Martine Rose, and Molly Goddard. And then of course Raf Simons for my personal wardrobe. Basically, I’m excited to see anyone with a true identity and something personal to say, it doesn’t necessarily need to be something I like.