Finns have a charming trait where they get excited when they are mentioned in international media. After ten years here I have also picked up the habit. So I got excited when I saw Marimekko mentioned in Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. Marimekko is Finland’s most famous fashion brand, known for its Unikko poppy print and once favoured by Jackie Kennedy.
The novel wasn’t flattering. It has been a long time since Jackie Kennedy wore a Marimekko dress on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In The Goldfinch people who wore Marimekko were objects of pity, old widows, hopelessly out of touch and still living in the 1970s.
I heard a similar narrative from one of my friends. She is in her early twenties, has multi-coloured hair, is covered with tattoos, and is an amateur designer. She is the one I go to when I need to talk to someone hip. Once she dismissively told me that her old teachers wore Marimekko and it was not a brand she would wear.
This isn’t the image Marimekko is cultivating. Their advertisements are filled with young avant-garde models in exciting urban environments. You don’t see the ‘gravel-voiced’ old ladies from The Goldfinch. There is a dichotomy between how Marimekko wants to be seen and how it is seen.
The fashion house has had a bit of trouble in recent years – including some serious plagiarism allegations – but as a company Marimekko isn’t doing too badly. They managed a small profit during 2014 and had turnover increase during the first three months of 2015. It is prudent to wonder, though, how many of their customers were widows buying 1964 Unikko poppy prints. Where is the next generation of customers?
In many ways Marimekko is a microcosm of Finland. Finland is a bit too eager to borrow other people’s ideas and continues to cruise on old national assets which, while still profitable, are deteriorating. We want to be seen as high-tech problem solvers, but this is becoming more difficult when the big successes of the past are fading out of relevance into nostalgia.
It is difficult to exploit old assets and images while trying to build new ones, yet this is exactly what needs to be done. If Marimekko wants multicultural urban young people to wear their clothes they need to make clothes for them. If Finland wants to be seen as a problem solver it needs to solve some problems, not ignore them.
Finland has serious structural issues in the labour market and pension system, for example, but these are considered untouchable, non-negotiable, never-changing elements of Finnish society. These have become anchors dragging us down, not sails propelling us forward, but we still cling to them in their present form and adamantly refuse any suggestion of reform.
This urgently needs to change. Finland’s old structures and systems still work, but they were designed for a different era. If we don’t look to the future instead of how things used to be we will be left behind, old and out-of-touch, with gravelly voices and investments which have halved in value. Just like the old Marimekko-wearing ladies in The Goldfinch.