When It Comes to Clothes, It’s a Small World After All

An exhibition at Helsinki’s Kiasma Museum of Art finds common ground between traditional clothing from around the world and the Marimekko archives.

Clothing is a code. For centuries, what we wore telegraphed where we were from, our social status, and even our ideologies. But the relatively recent democratization of fashion has effectively broken that code. The process may have begun with the cotton gin, but the likes of H&M and Zara are finishing the job—or so goes the lament over globalization. However, the exhibition Global Dresses, on view through September 9th at Helsinki’s Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, makes a different case: contrary to popular belief, it seems that fashion has always had crossover tendencies.

Designers Aamu Song and Johan Olin, the wife-and-husband team known as Company, produced ten clothing pairings for Global Dresses, part of a larger group show sponsored by the museum and Finland’s most famous clothing brand, Marimekko. Each pairing features a traditional style from another country and one from the Marimekko archives—only Song and Olin have made the traditional garment out of a Marimekko print and the Marimekko style with fabric from the other country. Take the first outfits they produced, a South Korean military uniform and the ever-popular Kihlatasku dress that Vuokko Nurmesniemi designed in 1960. “We were curious about the fact that every nation has its own camouflage,” Olin says. “For me, being Finnish, Marimekko is a bit like that.” The effect is eerily convincing. Made from true Korean camouflage, the dress would blend right in on a military base. Likewise, the uniform, featuring Erja Hirvi’s abstract cactus print Mojave from 2002, would all but disappear in the desert.

But Global Dresses didn’t start out as an international dosey doe. “At that point we were only thinking, ‘Can we mix the scary world with the cute Marimekko world?’” says Song, who is Korean. “So we looked for a military costume maker [in South Korea] and brought a camouflage-looking Marimekko fabric to them.” Song and Olin returned with a double-take uniform, a bolt of camo for the Marimekko dress, and, ultimately, a concept. “More and more, the direction became about traditional costumes,” Song explains. “Making a traditional dress out of Marimekko fabric really captured our imagination—that’s the moment that it felt like us.”

For Company’s “Secrets” design series—which has so far featured six countries, most recently Secrets of Russia—Song and Olin seek out traditional collaborators. “This is, in a way, our hardwiring,” Olin says. “We really love visiting and working with old factories. They are amazing places with amazing techniques and amazing people.” 

Song looks to traditional design techniques the same way that regional architects study vernacular construction. “When I’m choosing clothing, I want a summer dress from Bangladesh, because they know what summer is and how to make a dress for hot weather,” she says. “For winter, I might wear an Eskimo dress, because they know how to make a dress for the cold.” Song and Olin believe their outsider perspective lets them appreciate traditions that might be taken for granted, both in a local context and abroad. “Part of our work is translating these traditions,” Song says.

During the year-and-a-half they worked on Global Dresses, Song and Olin tracked down two more styles from Korea, two from Japan, and one each from Russia, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and Togo. They also included a pairing based on two familiar archetypes—an apron dress and a men’s suit. Their criteria? “We chose styles common people wear—that was our rule for finding them,” Song says. “We didn’t bring, for example, a Saudi Arabian king’s costume. We didn’t choose things that are fancy but ones that are useful.”

With each subsequent pair, the illusion is just as natural as it was with the cacti and the camouflage. The Korean stripes used to make a Jokapoika shirt look suspiciously like Marimekko’s own Piccolo stripes, save for their satin sheen. The Uzbek tunic featuring Fujiwo Ishimoto’s Ostjakki ikat could just as easily be a Marimekko style. And if the Togo combo didn’t include a kufi, one could reasonably assume the two outfits were products of the same culture. “It was a surprise to see how the Marimekko patterns blended so well with the traditional costumes—so well, that the dresses almost look like original folk costumes,” says Maria Härkäpää, the Marimekko archivist who helped Song and Olin uncover the patterns for the project.

So is Company on a quest to put Zara out of business, one keffiyeh at a time? “We don’t want to stop mass makers from producing clothes, because they do bring a certain democracy to it,” Song says. “They probably don’t know how to make things perfectly, the way traditional makers do, but I’m not interested in telling others what to wear. We shout, sing, and dance for what we think is most beautiful.”

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