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Marimekko's top woman execs tell us why they are expanding in Asia, and placing value on its timelessness

Marimekko re-enters Singapore with a "lifestyle concept store" that comprises retail and café at Ion Orchard, B1-12.

Marimekko Singapore store at Ion Orchard. (PHOTO: Marimekko)
Marimekko Singapore store at Ion Orchard. (PHOTO: Marimekko)

For most of us fashion fans who've been shopping long enough, would remember that Marimekko, the iconic Finnish design house, was operating in Singapore circa 2015 and left in 2018 under a different operator. This year, the house returns to our island "with an attitude," shared by Jay Chantarasakha, head of operations of Tanachira Retail Corporation. The lifestyle retail division of Thailand’s Tanachira Group has had success with over 13 concept stores in Thailand, and the Singapore outlet marks a strategic move for Marimekko as it focuses on scaling its business in international markets, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. Singapore, Marimekko's seventh market in Asia after Japan, Mainland China, Thailand, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, is poised to accelerate brand awareness and positioning in the region.

Not just contented with a retail store, Tanachira Retail Corporation has created a "lifestyle concept store" that comprises retail and café at Ion Orchard, B1-12. Fans of Marimekko can expect to shop a unique blend of fashion, accessories, home décor and enjoy café culture, all under one roof.

To celebrate the grand opening, Yahoo Life Singapore got the chance to speak to Ms. Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko, President & CEO of Marimekko as well as Rebekka Bay, Creative Director of Marimekko.

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(From L to R): Rebekka Bay, Creative Director and Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko, President and CEO of Marimekko Singapore. (PHOTO: Marimekko)
(From L to R): Rebekka Bay, Creative Director and Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko, President and CEO of Marimekko Singapore. (PHOTO: Marimekko)

Yahoo Life Singapore: Tiina, why is Marimekko keen on expanding in Asian territories?

Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko: Basically, we're very excited about this, as we feel that within the last year, Marimekko has really found a good recipe to bring joy to people around the world with our blueprints, colours and this lifestyle concept. And now when we're looking ahead, it's all about scaling up our brand phenomenon and growth, especially in the international markets. Asia represents the most important geographical region for our future international growth.

First of all, we have been building our presence in the market for over 10 years already. And we have found out that our brand really, authentically, resonates with people. So we know that there's a good brand match lifestyle match and the growth in these markets. And then thirdly, the partnership model that we have has proven to be a really good one because we can also learn from the partner about the market and the consumer. Being passionate about understanding the lifestyles and preferences of the local consumers is really, at the heart of us being successful. So the partnership model allows us to do that.

Rebekka, because of your background as a European designer, how do you feel about this expansion for Asia?

Rebekka Bay: I think over the recent years, we've actually addressed that, of course, we are expanding to Asia. So I think maybe, whereas previously, we very much had one collection, but now we're really focused on wanting to be consistent across all our markets. So the model we're working on is more modular, where we have our core collections, which are divided into what is our classics, which live on the shop floor for six months versus those that live for three months.

In addition to that, we now have these modules or capsules, that can be more region and market-specific. So for example, we are addressing the customer preferences in the sector, in the scale of print. As you know, we originate from a very cold climate and I think the learning curve that we are in now, is knowing how much of the core production should be in the market and how much we need to address specific needs.

I have never applied for a job. I didn't know how to go about this (laughs). So I asked people to write really nice reviews for me and I asked Tiina, 'Could I ask you to write a nice review of what you believed in?' And she was like, 'No!'Rebekka Bay, Creative Director of Marimekko

Does the company apply AI in any key divisions?

Tiina: So from end-to-end digitally and developing that is, of course, important from the company strategy point of view. We believe that data and new technologies provide a lot of opportunities to increase our efficiency, seamlessness and customer experience. The way that we look at these tools is mostly when it comes to sort of, operational excellence. I think that when it comes to design, actually, human integrity plays such an important role.

The cafe at Marimekko Singapore store at Ion Orchard. (PHOTO: Marimekko)
The cafe at Marimekko Singapore store at Ion Orchard. (PHOTO: Marimekko)

Rebekka: I think everyone's talking about is what is the role of AI in design. But for us, the art of printmaking is very important. Printmaking is not just applying to a surface; it is actually understanding that there is something to do with the hand, like what the hand does and feels when you're screenprinting. So it is extremely important for us to protect that. But in terms of our intuitive digital strategy, we are incorporating 3D design to a much larger degree – 3D printing and the prototyping kind of process.

When you start modeling in 3D, before you make decisions, it actually allows you to be more creative in the process, because you can try out things. The 3D printing also allows us to, of course, shorten the prototyping, because instead of sending things back to print them out, we can first form an opinion.

With the rise of multiple trends like fast-fashion, quiet luxury and slow fashion, does Marimekko adopt any of these trends or is the brand charting its own terms?

Tiina: Our company was founded in 1951 by this visionary woman, Armi Ratia, who wanted to bring optimism and positive energy to people. That's how Marimekko was started to empower people to be happy and bring joy to their everyday lives through bold prints and colours. One of the key foundations and of course, the art of printmaking, is not just the unique design language, but also timelessness and long-lasting design. So Armi Ratia said that Marimekko is not about trendy fashion; it has never been as we walk our own path in life – that's a quote from the 1970s.

And if you think about the world that we're living in today, with an increasing kind of preference and placing a sort of importance on sustainability by consumers; we feel that this timelessness and long long-lasting design philosophy is extremely topical and and maybe even more topical than it has ever been before. So even in Finland, you can find in the vintage shops and market, vintage Marimekko pieces from the 50s to 70s, and I think that that is a true testament to a brand expanding its value of timelessness.

I think that the most important thing is that everybody has the courage to find their own passion in life. Because when you enjoy what you do, that's when you learn and want to learn, and that's how you develop and progress.Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko, President & CEO of Marimekko

Marimekko's bold and timeless prints continue to resonate with loyal consumers who seek fashion that stands out and makes a statement. How has the brand captured the younger consumers?

Rebekka: So acknowledging that wearing prints head-to-toe might not be for everyone. A few years back, we introduced a new concept called Kioski, as I was inspired by the idea of a souvenir shop where you can buy a monumental souvenir or a piece of clothing. I want to be careful with using the word 'younger' audience, as Kioski is more concerned with a youthful mindset more than just a demographic.

Tiina, I'm really interested in your career path, because you mentioned to us, that you started out as an intern and you've risen to the top; I love that. So what would your career advice be for those who like to be in management positions like yourself?

Tiina: I think that the most important thing is that everybody has the courage to find their own passion in life. Because when you enjoy what you do, that's when you learn and want to learn, and that's how you develop and progress. So at least personally, I think that has been the key, the kind of the guiding light in my career. I have felt that I've always been very lucky; I've been with the company for 18 years. But I think what I've reflected upon is that I have never actually kind of proactively progressed my career; I've always been very happy in the positions that I have had in the different years, and been very hungry and curious to learn. And, of course, I've been very, very lucky to have superiors and bosses, who have also allowed me the possibility to learn and develop.

I noticed that you have this vibrant and colourful personality but I was wondering if there's something you'd say no to?

Rebekka: I think you're spot on. But I think that's the one thing Tiina has to learn. I've known Tiina for a while now, as you can see. I think it's a new training ground, possibly post-pandemic, sort of?

Tiina: Yeah, I think during the pandemic, which was, of course, a big crisis. I think it showed us how important it is to focus on what is important. And then like, even in a situation where you have no visibility, and you have no idea whether you're doing the right thing, but then actually having the courage to then decide and follow through, and change direction, if that is needed – I think that experience actually sort of taught us to be also quite firm.

From L to R: Rebekka Bay, Creative Director and Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko, President & CEO of Marimekko in Singapore. (PHOTO: Marimekko)
From L to R: Rebekka Bay, Creative Director and Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko, President & CEO of Marimekko in Singapore. (PHOTO: Marimekko)

So Rebekka, what do you love most about working with Tiina?

Tiina: This is like a friend's quiz! (laughs)

I know, right?

Rebekka: Tiina is extremely good at creating loose frameworks. So you'll always know what the expectation is but you are also free to figure out how to work with it. It is amazing to work together and also hang out together. This sounds like we're teenagers (laughs) but of course, the most important thing is being in an organisation like ours, where we are extremely ambitious, I always feel like Tiina has my back. So it allows me to be bold and ambitious in whatever I do.

And Tiina?

Tiina: Rebekka is such a wise visionary. I've never met a person who has such a forward-looking, visionary view. At the same time, having the deepest understanding of our roots, and an amazing passion for the customers. You have such an amazing ability to think conceptually and philosophically, and then look into the future and translate the ethos of what we are into the future. I will just say that, you know, we spend so much time of our lives when we're at work, so it's important that we have fun. When we have fun at work, that translates to our customers.

I read somewhere that you mentioned you “never really wanted to work in fashion.” And now you're here. Do you see your life differently now?

Rebekka: I'm not someone who looks back at their life. Of course, I've tried to learn from my mistakes but I really don't have regrets. So I spent very little time imagining what could have been, as I spent a lot of time imagining what could be really. I've really strong intuition and I am surrounded by people who are really good at having a very strong business case. Of course, it's important to understand how to operate in a big organisation but I'm also constantly someone who's proposing new ways of working on new processes or new ways of thinking and I'm quite heavy in being the one who proposes the next step.

What’s a day in the life of Rebekka Bay like?

Rebekka: Let's do a good day. For me, a really good day is walking from home to work. I'm someone who needs physical activities to clear my mind. I definitely prefer working face-to-face with the team. I really thrive in this workshop way of working, especially ideation versus presentations. I also prefer my team to work with me. I hate signing off on things that I have not been involved with. An ideal day is a mix of working on tech, reflection and sort of dynamic. And then, of course, I am very lucky to be working between Helsinki and Copenhagen. So I try to take my management or role work more when I'm alone. And then when I'm in Helsinki, I could spend time with both teams.

Tiina: It was always a dream to work with Rebekka.

This brings me back to your career path when you previously worked with Gap, Cos and you left Uniqlo. Did you see this opportunity to grab Rebekka?

Rebekka: Should I tell this story?

Tiina: You go!

Rebekka: It's a really funny story. It was during the pandemic when I was working for Uniqlo at that time. I had a team in New York and I was working with another in Tokyo. I was so used to going back and forth, which made it manageable. But then of course, we went into lockdown and I would have to take meetings at 2am in the mornings and I lived in a loft with my husband and my son and I would drive them crazy. In an odd way, it made me subconsciously think maybe it's time to restart our lives. I also missed designing. I sort of missed designing, the European way of working. So I was thinking, maybe I need to make changes to my life. But I have never applied for a job. I didn't know how to go about this (laughs). So I asked people to write really nice reviews for me and I asked Tiina, 'Could I ask you to write a nice review of what you believed in?' And she was like, 'No!'

Tiina: I was like, 'Where are you going?' Rebekka had been part of our board of directors before, so that's how we have known each other for so long. That's what I meant by it was a dream to work (with Rebekka). And you know, it's been so much fun ever since.

Rebekka: I still don't know how to apply for a job (laughs).

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