It all started with the Mary Dress. Not a Marie Antoinette gown, Crown Princess of Denmark twin-set, nor one of Mary-Kate’s lace sheaths, but a Mary ‘mekko’ – the Finnish name for a peasant woman’s simple dress.
In the aftermath of World War II devastation, Viljo Ratia acquired the small Finnish textile-printing company Printex, which focused on oilcloth production. He asked his wife Armi, a textile-design graduate from Helsinki’s Central School of Industrial Art, to develop some printed patterns. Armi invited her classmate Maija Isola, and later fashion designer Riitta Immonen to help in her mission to make vibrant dresses for everyday women. The brightly patterned and liberatingly free-fitting garments they created for a debut show, at a Helskini restaurant in 1951, were a hit. Marimekko was born.
The visionary businesswoman went on to innovate and expand, recruiting a line-up of talented print designers, courting editors and catching the eye of icons – US first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, artist Georgia O’Keeffe, and activist Jane Jacobs, to name but a few!
Having now produced over 3,000 different patterns in 20,000 colourways and with 160 stores around the globe, Marimekko today spans furnishing and interior fabrics, women’s ready-to-wear, menswear, and some seriously covetable homewares (good luck leaving Bendigo Art Gallery’s gift shop without an ‘Oiva’ teapot).
In Finnish ‘fashion’, the brand prides itself on a strong connection to the environment, through both inspiration and work practices, as well as a real commitment to the empowerment of women – 90 percent of Marimekko employees are women, including at the management tiers, as Marimekko president Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko revealed upon opening ‘Marimekko Design Icon 1951-2018’.
A youthful and passionate chief executive, Tiina also charted Marimekko’s long history in Australia. Turns out, Australians have been sporting Marimekko prints since the 1960s, and the brand’s flagship store in Sydney followed only New York and Tokyo as the earliest international outlets.
The exhibition in Bendigo is an exclusive collection, transported all the way from Helsinki’s Design Museum. ‘It’s quite an extensive exhibition, with a huge number of fabrics suspended throughout, plus more than 60 garments alongside archival material that helps in telling the story of Marimekko and its designers,’ details Leanne Fitzgibbon, senior curator at Bendigo Art Gallery.
Visiting from Design Museum, Harry Kivilinna worked with the gallery on curating and selecting the exhibition material. Having conducted extensive research on the company, he’s quite the guru and fittingly dons Marimekko’s ‘Jokapoika’ (‘every boy’) shirt as his uniform.
So, what’s Harry’s verdict on the immersive exhibition they’ve woven together? ‘I think the last room with ‘Unikko’ (poppy pattern) is definitely the best section, and also the big hall in the middle with a cavalcade of dresses… and Maija Isola’s fabrics are stunning. The archive material and press clips are quite interesting to see too,’ he entices. We’re just as hard-pressed to name one highlight!
‘Everyone who has seen the exhibition so far has been overwhelmed and delighted with the vibrancy of the designs; the colours are so uplifting,’ adds Leanne. ‘Marimekko really does give a sense of joy. It is amazing how something visual can invoke such an emotional response.’
‘Marimekko Design Icon 1951-2018‘
March 2nd – June 11
Bendigo Art Gallery
42 View Street
The exhibition coincides with a wonderful program of events including a Swinging 60s Party, monthly Curator’s Talks with Leanne Fitzgibbons, Marimekko: Design Icon Auslan Tour, and DIY Design: Family Fun Day. Plus our fave Beci Orpin will be hosting the Gallery’s Art & Tea (free) on March 21st.
If you’re staying overnight, we’d recommend the Quest Schaller Hotel Bendigo (championing inventive Melbourne artist Mark Schaller), which hosted us as a guest of Bendigo Tourism during our visit.