Marimekko was set up for women and by women in 1951, and the bold, stylish, pattern-happy prints produced by the storied Finnish design house have been worn and cherished by women ever since. However, it didn’t become a popular favorite until the 1960’s, when Jackie Kennedy sported Marimekko shift dresses during the presidential campaign to offset her buttoned-up Parisian couture.
Marimekko has always been made for women and run by women, and has employed generations of young women designers ever since its inception. In 2015, approximately 94% of its employees were women, and the company is often celebrated for putting women in the majority of its leadership positions. But it didn’t set out to rebalance gender inequality in the workplace.
“It’s true that strong and talented women have played a crucial role in the company’s history and heritage, and those empowered women also inspire us today,” president and CEO Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko tells me. “But at Marimekko, we first and foremost value individuals and their potential. We look for a new recruit to be able to bring new perspectives into our design translation, to have personal handwriting, character,” she asserts.
Because of its founding philosophy, Marimekko has side-stepped the rigid, patriarchal norm entrenched into so many other companies’ recruitment procedures. It’s grown organically into the kind of company that employs predominantly women simply because they happen to be the right fit and have the right approach. And the right handwriting.
“I think sex is an irrelevant factor,” Alahuhta-Kasko continues. “What it boils down to is the Marimekko company culture fosters internal entrepreneurship and creativity. We always strive to be fair to everyone and everything. I believe that in an atmosphere of fairness and trust people have the courage to paint with bolder strokes, whether they are women or men.”
Marimekko began as a collaboration between textile designer Armi Ratia and her husband, the printer Viljo Ratia. According to company legend, Armi couldn’t get a loan from the bank to start the business, which needed to be done through a husband.
In the ’60s, pioneering women designers Vuokko Nurmesniemi and Maija Isola were responsible for the creation of the brand’s two most iconic patterns: the vivid striped red-and-white Jokapoika shirt and the now legendary Unikko poppy print. Its designs have always been bold, lively, and energetic, and in its early years, especially, the loose, airy clothing liberated women from tight, bodycon dresses. Marimekko’s designs have always been about making women feel good, using optimistic colors and graphics to encourage playful self-expression.
The company’s name translates to “a dress for Mary,” i.e. the everyday woman on the street. Even though many of its dresses and products come with a hefty price tag, Marimekko is committed to accessibility, and its new collaboration with Target means it’s become much easier now to purchase its famous prints and products.
So what’s it like to work at Marimekko today? As well as Alahuhta-Kasko, I spoke with Minna Kemel-Kutvonen, who started at the company in 1992, working in various design positions until 2008, when she was appointed creative director of the company’s interior decoration line. In 2010, she moved on to become creative director of products, and in 2014, she became design director of prints. Now, she’s design director of home products and print design.
“It’s a great company full of opportunities for committed people,” she states emphatically. “It’s an amazingly organic platform for professional growth.”
Emmakaisa Soisalo has similarly climbed the company ladder over time, as many staffers do. Perhaps this accounts for why Marimekko feels less like a traditional business and more like a family, albeit a very creative and enterprising one. Soisala started as assistant designer in 2011, and has now become design and product development manager and a designer of ready-to-wear collections. The fact that you can grow at Marimekko, explore different areas and develop a variety of skills is why Soisalo believes it’s “one of the most appealing employers amongst design students, at least in Finland.”
Both Kemel-Kutvonen and Sisal are an easy fit at the company because their ideals, philosophies, and confidence align with the Marimekko way of thinking. “Functionality is an important for all of us,” says Soisalo. “We create designs that make people’s everyday life joyful and beautiful.”
Kemel-Kutvonen agrees. “The company was founded to bring joy to people’s everyday lives and that’s still our mission today. We’re very future-orientated and we always seek the positive side of things. Even when things look dark and grey, we have a tendency to look for a little ray of light and reach for it.”