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Fall Fashion Issue | Metropolis

Thoroughly Modernist

A Mid-Century Trendsetter Still Makes Waves

August 15, 2004|EMILY YOUNG

When it comes to design archetypes, Marimekko's boldly graphic mid-century patterns are every bit as recognizable as a crisp Burberry plaid or a swirling Pucci print. But Marimekko--that's just bed sheets and bath towels, right? Not exactly.

"Marimekko: Fabrics, Fashion, Architecture," an exhibit opening Sept. 10 downtown at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, traces the Finnish design house's roots back to an apparel revolution. Organized by the Bard Graduate Center in New York and the Design Museum, Finland, the show should go a long way toward restoring Marimekko to its proper place in the fashion firmament.

The items on display illustrate the company's transition from tiny Scandinavian textile printer to international lifestyle empire. Yards of traffic-stopping cotton prints, A-line minidresses and unisex T-shirts share space with dishes, linens, toys and more. "What Andy Warhol did for modern art, Marimekko did for fashion and design," says New York-based fashion designer Anna Sui, whose work has been inspired by the Finnish innovator.

In 1951, textile designer Armi Ratia took charge of the Helsinki oilcloth factory where she and her husband screen-printed cotton with large-scale, Pop Art-like abstract motifs. Ratia and her team of women designers created loose, body-skimming clothes as an alternative to the era's wasp-waisted couture, and Marimekko, literally "Mary dress," was born.

"The idea was simple garments to emphasize the patterns of the fabric," says Design Museum director Marianne Aav. "They were clothes for professional women who came from academic circles and weren't interested in fashion that went in and out of style each season. In that sense, it was almost anti-fashion."

Success led to menswear, home accessories, even an abortive attempt at Finnish housing. In 1960, Jacqueline Kennedy was pictured in a pink Marimekko frock on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and the company became a cultural phenomenon in the U.S.

Ratia died in the late '70s, leaving Marimekko adrift. Crate and Barrel and a few other retailers kept the brand name alive in America, selling mostly interior design products. But the recent revival of mid-century modernism has triggered a whole new Finnish fetish. Now run by Kirsti Paakkanen, a rejuvenated Marimekko has reissued classic designs and introduced new ones to another generation.

Sui's 1999 fall collection featured Marimekko-esque smock dresses and ponchos in oversized pink-and-orange, turquoise-and-green and black-and-white geometric prints. "It's very happy, very optimistic," Sui says. "Those prints make everything seem possible. At the end of World War II, when Finland was very, very poor, the company used traditional crafts to build a whole new industry. It made places like IKEA and Conran possible."

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"Marimekko: Fabrics, Fashion, Architecture," Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, 919 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 624-1200; Sept. 10 through Oct. 30.

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