Stepping back in time at Finland’s Marimekko

What could make me get on the metro in Helsinki for the first time? A visit to the Marimekko factory in Herttoniemi, a place I’d never been to in this growing city of more than one million.



But here’s why I headed off into the unknown: I was on a journey into the past. That’s because my first real job was as a sales clerk at a Marimekko store. I wanted to improve my Finnish, but I was successful mainly because I spoke English — and I was able to sell huge amounts of merchandise to tourists.

Even then, Marimekko was known outside Finland, particularly in the United States, where its former first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, had worn several Marimekko dresses during  her husband’s presidential campaign.

Known for their bright colours, Marimekko designs mainly feature abstract natural  designs, all printed in durable cotton.

Among my favourite designs:




marimekko-tuuli-black-white-fabric-12and Tuuli.

Marimekko was all that many people could associate with Finland, that is, besides sauna — a bit like how Inuit carvings and prints once defined Canada’s Arctic.

Marimekko started out in 1951 as a family business, owned by Armi Ratia. And when I worked for the company, Ratia still brought staff to her seaside villa outside Helsinki for parties that were memorable for their food — and drink (I’d like to say I recall more of these events, but I can’t.)

We, the sales staff, young students like me, along with some professionals, worked 12-hour shifts for about $1.25 an hour. I received a free Marimekko outfit as well as discounts on clothing and material (I still have lots of dresses and metres of fabric from the three summers I spent working at Marimekko stores.)

Marimekko is the same now, but changed: It’s a global, publicly-traded company. And, like Finland, which was used to be homogenous and isolated by its Arctic location and language (related to Inuktitut), it’s more international.

Finland used to have few residents, apart from its Roma (Gypsy) population, who weren’t Finns, Swedes or Saami. You could go a day or a week without seeing a person of colour. You couldn’t find a pizza or even any fast food at all, but now, at least in Helsinki, you can choose from many ethnic restaurants and there’s a new multicultural look to the city.


Marimekko fabric on sale at the factory store in Herttoniemi. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

So how do you bring Marimekko into that new global reality, to become the Ikea of Scandinavian clothing and accessories? Today Marimekko isn’t just striped T-shirts and bright fabric: Its line includes everything from paper napkins, cups, towels and bedding to t-shirts and high-end dresses — and even café dining.


A display at the Marimekko factory store in Herttoniemi. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Marimekko has outlets in 40 countries, with 154 shops in North America, Europe, Asia and the Pacific region, opening new stores in Singapore, Bangkok and Dubai in 2015. And this spring Marimekko launched a lower-priced design line with the big U.S. chain, Target.

But “Target’s Marimekko Collection Draws Muted Response,” said the Wall Street Journal, noting such collaborations are supposed to help the retailer create a buzz — but it seemed that during the Target promotion that Europeans were mainly lining up to buy the Marimekko collection.

Marimekko’s 2015 annual report shows that keeping ahead of the slagging global economy has been hard. But the Marimekko brand (now a borrowed word, “brändi,” in Finnish) can show its strength in global market, CEO Tiina Alahunta-Kasko said.

That brändi is now worth 186 million euros and the company had sales of 96 million euros. So there’s a lot of stake for Marimekko.

I toured the Marimekko factory in Herttoniemi with Sanna-Kaisa Nikko, the company’s  PR manager for Europe, North America and Australia.


The newly printed fabric is rolled into huge rolls at the Marimekko factory (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

In the factory, quiet on that morning, Nikko said Marimekko is now all about making the old new, “cherishing what we have,” and getting it more out to the public. And this means coming up with new products, like towels with raised designs, and using updated materials, not just cotton, she said.

It also means Marimekko is taking old patterns and redoing them, maintaining the “timelessness” of the product, Nikko said.


Marimekko fabric rolled up into round bolts which will then be cut into 15-metre bolts. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Today, Marimekko design and fabrics may have their roots in Finland, but they’re not all made in Finland.

“It isn’t realistic to make everything in Finland” Nikko said, because it’s a country with high wages and production costs.

But she said company looks for the best quality and ways to keep it… well… Finnish.

And so it is, that in nearly every home in Finland, you’ll still find something from Marimekko — although some of my friends complain that the clothes are made to appeal to smaller Asian customers than to sturdy Finns.

That Asian market looks to be booming: On my way to the factory from the Metro, I couldn’t get lost because I saw many Japanese tourists carrying heavy Marimekko bags, so I knew I was heading in the right direction.

When I went downtown to the Helsinki store, I discovered that the downtown store where I worked now has a Japanese salesclerk who does what I did so many years ago — that is, sell.


A Japanese salesclerk helps a Japanese customer in her own language at a Marimekko store in downtown Helsinki. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)


Travelling by air in the North? Remember these 10 things

When I visited the western Nunavut community of Cambridge Bay recently, a little plastic nose pad or a “plaquette” (as we say in Quebec) fell off my eyeglasses. So the glasses were lopsided and painful to wear.

Luckily, I had another pair with me —  actually two, counting my sunglasses.13096190_10208108908032524_2699857646217233277_nSo here are 10 things you want to think about if you’re heading from point A to point B by air in Canada’s Arctic, particularly if you’re planning to work when you arrive:

#1 — If you wear glasses, bring two pairs. When I first travelled to Iqaluit in the early 1990s, I stepped on my glasses in transit and broke them in half. I arrived in Iqaluit and found someone at Nunavut Arctic College who was able screw the two pieces together. Don’t ask what I looked like.

Iqaluit airport

#2 — Bring two of everything you really need. I still travel with a laptop and an iPad, two cameras (digital, cellphone), etc. If something breaks, you can still do your work. I learned that again the hard way when I was in Iceland and the top of my  laptop broke off when I opened it: Apple has fixed that weakness now. But, in that pre-smartphone era, I had to write my stories on a hotel computer.


#3 — Remember your power cords. Once when I packed my equipment to leave for Yellowknife from Iqaluit, a co-worker started talking to me. Distracted, I left the power cord to my laptop on my desk. I couldn’t find one in Yellowknife. Again, I was fortunate to have a friend there who loaned me her laptop so I could get my work done in western Nunavut.DSC03780

#4 — Wear your heaviest outerwear on an airplane. A military survival expert in Resolute Bay said wearing a warm parka and boots when you crash on land can make a difference between life and death. He advised even carrying a sleeping bag on flights. I once got on a flight heading north in Montreal, with my warm parka packed in my suitcase. I arrived. It didn’t.

Resolute Bay

#5 — Pack enough essentials in your carry-on bag to tide you over. Just this week, a woman from Cambridge Bay, who was heading on a short hop from Cambridge Bay to Kugluktuk, arrived in Kugluktuk without her bag and a week’s worth of food and clothes. In the bag, which couldn’t be located, was a supply of frozen maktaaq (narwhal.) I once spent a week in Nunavik with only what I could pick up at a co-op store because I had packed everything in my bag, which never made it to the community.DSC02101

#6 — Bring socks. Bring underwear. Bring a toothbrush. Bring the right boots. You know.  I’ve packed and forgotten these items or brought the wrong ones. I arrived in Yellowknife this past weekend without my hair brush, which was back in Cambridge Bay — but a store was right across the street. You won’t have this luxury in most places. And bring the right kinds of boots. Are the streets snow-covered or icy? Muddy or dry?  Will you be out on the land?

The boots with built-in crampons that I use in icy Cambridge Bay would be silly for Iqaluit where it’s already rubber boot-season.

When I went to the floe edge in Pond Inlet I suffered from cold feet because I brought boots that were too light, and when I first went goose-hunting in May 1991, I arrived in Eastmain, Que. with boots that ended at my ankles — and spent the next 10 days in borrowed rubber boots in snow up to my knees. I’ve also ended up in Ottawa wearing sealskin kamiks when a flight was diverted there. Lessons learned.

#7 — Take snacks. And water. You never know when you may get an unexpected layover. This past weekend a five-minute station stop lasted for more than an hour.

#8 — Fill your carry-on bags to the maximum. I always travel with two heavy carry-ons and leave the light stuff in the bag, which may or may not arrive. But don’t let them out of your sight as I did on Ellesmere Island, only to find out later in the air that my backpack had been offloaded and left behind on the Lake Hazen tarmac.

View down Tanquary Fiord, Ellesmere Island

#9 — Check your time of departure and make sure you arrive when you need to. Sometimes flights are cancelled, sometimes they’re delayed or even leave earlier.DSC01399

#10 — Talk to people while you wait for the flight and while you’re in the air: You’ll make new friends. Even airports can be fun. On April 30, National Hockey League alumni arrived as I was leaving Cambridge Bay.