Finnish fashion designer Satu Maaranen captured worldwide attention when she won the Hyères fashion festival in 2013. Winning over fans with her vibrant and colourful prints, she recounts her creative proclivities as a child, how her life has transformed since the competition, and why she chooses to follow her heart.
Exploring The World Through Maaranen’s Hands
As a young child, I’ve always been very interested in using my hands in different ways. This includes exploring different painting techniques, materials, sculpting, making collages and photography. When I was 6 or 7 years old, I went to an art school in my hometown once a week. I remember the first assignment we were given was to go into nature, collect different natural objects and then build a tool to be used. I built a stone hammer.
At home, my father also taught me how to use the sewing machine. So I was always sewing clothes for my Barbies and dolls, and even for my sister and me. It was kind of my way to play.
This continued on with my travels. One time, I went to Africa with my family on a road trip. We were driving along a road when I saw something interesting out the window. I told my mother and father to stop the car, and went out to this stone field. It was a place where people collect stones and sell them to anyone driving by. I bought a few of the stones, and remember making jewellery with them later. The same thing happened in Australia, where I collected shells and smaller items from the beach too.
To this day, I still have collections of artefacts at home. I keep memories and certain objects that I don’t want to throw away. For example, I have kept the stone hammer just to remember where everything started. And I also have a huge archive of all the clothes and collections I’ve done throughout the years. Maybe one day, I can even have an exhibition for everything.
How She Taught Herself by Teaching Others
I initially studied to be an art teacher at Aalto University. I did a one year program, studying pedagogy courses. I used to teach art before, when I was younger, in a smaller town where I spent my childhood. And after graduating, I taught fashion at Aalto University for one year.
I like to work with people. I’m not the kind of person who likes to work alone. I get more out of everything if I have a good conversation and can mirror my own ideas with someone else and vice-versa. Maybe that’s the reason why I liked teaching and wanted to find a job in this line of work. It is a very social job and I can encourage other people to be creative as well. I also thought it was a steady profession. This is opposed to being a fashion designer, which I did not feel would be possible for me to do in Finland, because we don’t have a fashion industry here.
I realised through teaching that you can give people new ideas and help them become stronger. But he or she makes the end result. As a teacher, I am never able to finish any project per se. It is always just being the person on the side, and that doesn’t satisfy me. It’s important for me to have the physical end result and to feel that I’ve done something.
In the end, I realised that I should follow my heart and become a designer. You just need to follow and do the things you love, because everything else comes afterwards naturally. You shouldn’t worry about what’s going to happen. If you’re just very passionate and believe in the things you do, that’s good enough. If the money is not the main reason to do something, then you are on the right path.
Preparation Mode for Hyères
I didn’t have any audience in mind when creating the collection I presented at Hyères. This was also my master thesis collection and graduation work for university, so I felt that it was my last chance to have a very artistic project. The garments I made were for myself – to learn more about me as a designer, and also to give something new to the university. I felt that when doing my thesis, it should give something that contributes to the research of the university.
I had a few people who guided me during the process. From the fashion department, there was Tuomas Laitinen who was my tutor. We had a few meetings, where I showed my sketches in the beginning and he guided me on styling. I also had another tutor who was from the textile department, who helped me more with developing the fabrics.
What I learnt from this collection is that anything is possible! In my case, I really played with fabric development to really push raw materials forward. I was collecting raw materials straight from nature. I even went to the wood studios of Aalto University, and asked their studio workers to open all the wood-cutting machines so I could collect all the sawdust from the machines. From there, I used those materials and started attaching them to cotton, investigated how and what kind of chemicals, glues or lacquers were effective adhesives. I also tried to make the fabric functional, stable and able to be ironed.
I made a portfolio submission, which included sketches, material examples, some technical drawings and inspiration photos. I had to also explain my creative concept, outline a wish list of people who I would like to be on the jury panel, and also name my favourite designers and fashion brands.
Mine was full of material samples that you can touch. And I sent samples which included sawdust, sand and dry grass in them. I think that is how I made a big impact in the beginning of the jury process. This helped me to proceed forward into the semi-finals and eventually the finals of the competition.
The Moment Has Arrived
During the competition finals, I actually don’t remember very much because it was such a nervous experience! But I had the best assistant ever, my friend Sofia Järnefelt. Sofia was there with me the whole time, helping me with my speech, and guiding me with what I should say to the jury. I went through the presentation many times with her. It was very good to have someone next to me who was giving me strength.
For the judging process, each finalist has 20 minutes in front of the jury. The models were wearing my collection, and were choreographed in a specific way that I had asked. I explained my collection and the jury had lots of questions, which I took as a positive sign.
Felipe Oliveira Baptista, the creative director of Lacoste, was the head of the jury that year. He was very curious about my collection. Another asked about the materials and the different techniques. I think all in all, most of the questions were about the fabrics and how I developed them. That was one reasons why I stood out.
After that, we had to walk to another tent where there were press. And similar to the jury, I had to start the presentation again from the beginning and tell the press everything. That was also quite a nervous experience again, but I survived! After all of this, I think it went well. At least, the feedback was good!
When the judges announced my name as the winner, I don’t remember that much. But of course I was very happy! I was also surprised, because Finland had won in the previous year too, so I thought it wasn’t going to happen again. But it did, and I was overwhelmed. I remember my ears were red, and many journalists came up to interview me after the announcement. And all I was able to say was that I was just super happy.
My life has changed dramatically since then. The biggest difference is that I’ve become internationally known. Louis Vuitton actually contacted me the day after winning the competition about the possibility of bringing me on board as an in-house designer. However, I had to tell them that I couldn’t accept anything so soon.
One of the prizes from the competition was that I was able to collaborate with a French brand called Petit Bateau. This opened my name to a much wider audience – not just a fashion industry audience, but consumers too. Since Petit Bateau is so well known in France and all around the world, my collection was sold in every store. All the advertising campaigns and even the shop windows displayed my designs and my name too! It’s a strange thing, but when I walk along the streets in Paris, some people recognise me.
After that, I also managed to work with Exception de Mixmind, a large Mainland Chinese brand. That experience was also great, and taught me about the Chinese market and the Chinese way of working in a design house.
Looking back at my life before Hyères, what I miss most is having free time! I should have more free time. I’m learning all the time to make more space for my personal life. I’ve become very busy since winning. I try now to find a balance between work and having fun. Doing work is also fun, but to have other things in life as well, that’s something I’m missing.
For students or people who are now in a similar position to me when I first started out, I would say to follow your heart. Don’t look too much at what others are doing. Try to focus on your own style and own way of thinking. Because I think the only way to success is to do things differently from other people. There are no right answers on how to build your career. I think everybody has to find their own path.
I felt pressured to either apply to some fashion house in Europe and work as an in-house designer, or to start my own fashion label in a commercial way. However, I didn’t choose those two routes. And still, I’m now happy and doing the things I love. I manage to have a career and I can even have some savings and develop new projects.
Everything is possible in this world. You can dream and make your dreams come true. There is always a solution and a way to solve problems. I feel that designing is actually only about problem-solving, and I think that is the key – that everything is possible and it’s just about how you use your imagination.
Credits and Copyrights: Photo Images (Satu Maaranen).