This column was written for CRAFT07 in May 2008.
If a crafter or designer takes as their mission to make durable products that resist fast-changing trends, can they succeed in business without having to sell their principles? An episode that addressed this question captured the eyes of the fashion world this spring when Marimekko, the original 1960s 'slow fashion' brand that has become a movement among its followers, entered into a controversial deal with H&M, the ubiquitous mass-producer of disposable clothing that Michelle Lee likened to McDonald's in her book Fashion Victim.
As a full disclosure, I’ve been a loyal Marimekko fan for over a decade. I fell in love with their colorful textiles and the commitment of Armi Ratia, the woman who founded the company, to create elegant and timeless garments that retain their value in spite of fast-changing trends. For me personally, Ratia's mission materialized in two stunning dresses my mother wore in the 60s. These days I get to wear those same dresses as my top summer outfits, and I look forward to one day passing them on to the next generation. The age-defying dresses stand testimony to the success of Marimekko's slow style, an antithesis to the wasteful seasonal fashion rally. I even developed a passionate hobby to hunt down and collect all vintage Marimekko dresses I could find.
When H&M announced that it would be using the classic Marimekko prints and models as a source of inspiration for their 2008 spring and summer collection, Marimekko's customers predictably cried foul. Why is the McDonald's of fashion suddenly so interested in slow food? Because vintage is hip. In return for letting H&M reinterpret their products and image, Marimekko got its brand name and logo to be the central focus of H&M's global advertising campaign, sweeping over bus stops and billboards from Shanghai to San Francisco like graffiti written in disappearing ink. Former Marimekko CEO Kirsti Paakkanen (she has since stepped down) explained the partnership considerably increases Marimekko’s visibility among the young trend-conscious consumers. As a result, one of the world’s biggest marketing engines is currently promoting everlasting Marimekko as this summer’s trend.
Not everyone chooses the route Ms. Paakkanen chose for Marimekko. Some years ago I interviewed the founders of ten highly regarded niche design brands for my Master’s thesis. In every single company I interviewed, the growth of the business had flattened when the company had reached a yearly income of 3 million dollars. Surprisingly, the reason for the stalling of growth was not that their wasn't more demand for their products. Instead, the owner-CEOs simply did not want their companies to grow any bigger. They chose to not sell to the masses because they wanted to keep their production local. The didn’t want to have someone with an MBA bossing them around. They wanted to be in charge. They didn’t want to compete on price; they were committed to making the highest quality products. And this, putting quality before profit, had been the way they managed to create the classics that collectors payed top dollar for at auctions and vintage markets. Things whose makers are known for their commitment to quality don’t lose their value. On the contrary, like good wine, their value grows over time.
It has become a phenomenon of its own that big retailers like H&M hire celebrities like Victor&Rolf, Karl Lagerfield, and Madonna to design special collections. These collections have been very successful, and people of every age are thrilled to dress like movie stars at an affordable price. But will these mass-manufactured celebrity designer items hold their value? Will a portion of the H&M clientele, the friends of fast fashion, turn into fans of slow fashion? Or will trend-conscious consumers soon think Marimekko is so out of season?