Tuomas Laitinen is Finland’s fashion polymath. A designer, teacher, editor, and stylist, Laitinen has fostered the burgeoning fashion scene in Helsinki through his work at SSAW, the biannual fashion journal he cofounded, while also teaching at Aalto University’s fashion department (his alma mater). He’s also known for designing his own line that showed previously in Paris. Through his various projects, Laitinen wants to push a new generation of Finnish designers into the global spotlight. His roles during this week’s Helsinki New were numerous, as the curator of the Match Made in HEL show of Scandinavian and Asian designers at Helsinki International Airport; tutor to Aalto University students showing their collections at Wednesday’s presentation; and the launch of SSAW’s new Spring/Summer issue. Alexandra Pechman spoke to Laitinen about his role connecting Finnish fashion design with the larger world at Helsinki New and beyond.
Alexandra Pechman: Match Made in HEL at the Helsinki International Airport was a year in the making. I was curious how that process started and how you came up with the set of designers.
Tuomas Laitinen: We were approached quite early on as the whole even was taking shape, and I suppose that they thought I was the person, because of the [Aalto] school, because of SSAW, that had access to people abroad. And with the designers we just tried to make a selection which would be one where they complement each other and that they be different types of designers like Hyein Seo from Korea, who’s really kind of cool, edgy, and underground and just starting to get picked up by all kinds of press, and then you have more established Scandinavian designers like Henrik Vibskov. We wanted not just one note but a spectrum.
AP: Since the point of the event was to highlight collaboration between Scandinavian and Asian designers, how do you see that link developing?
TL: Finland of course and Japan have always had this kind of love affair, even from the 1960s and the heyday of Marimekko. It’s something about the Japanese and Finnish mentality, which in a weird way are quite similar. You know, it’s, like, two nations that don’t speak much and like minimal quiet things. But somehow that became a link. And of course now Asia is a big market for anyone working in fashion, and for all the designers.
AP: In SSAW you’re looking out from Finland’s fashion scene but it’s an international perspective. Could you talk about what are you trying to bring out more of through that platform?
TL: SSAW is different as an entity because it’s a completely international biannual. It doesn’t matter that SSAW is not typically Finnish. We, the editors, use Finnish photographers, we use Finnish writers, but we don’t, I’m sorry to say, shoot much of Finnish fashion. Even we have this pressure of shooting Prada and Gucci. I mostly look at it as our collective being a bigger teacher. People say what’s happening in Helsinki it’s a bit like what happened in the mid-80s with the whole Belgian movement. But it’s different because, in these times, it’s not so much about [designers] starting their own labels, but going to work for other people. It’s a very difficult time to be a young designer, as most of the people in London will say, as most of the people in New York will say as well. It’s more about the remedy, having this weird, resource land for talent. At Aalto, we have kids going to Saint Laurent, kids going to Balenciaga, kids going to Calvin Klein, and getting jobs. That’s kind of my main job, is to get people to have jobs. And maybe through SSAW and things like that we can, but in a way SSAW is more about helping these Finnish photographers and writers. You can be next to Nan Goldin…of course, that’s kind of amazing for a young person to be alongside a legend. That’s what we’re trying to do, is to put young people in the same context as industry people.
AP: The new issue of SSAW just came out [volume 9]. Can you talk more about the birth of the magazine a few years ago?
TL: We started in 2012 and from the very beginning we started working with a lot of people who were our friends, like Lotta Volkova, Gosha Rubchinskiy, my boyfriend Chris [Vidal Tenomaa], people we’ve known for years. It’s a group of friends, and we’ve kind of grown together. We always had this agenda of having young interesting people next to the people we love. So we worked a lot with people like Jean Colonna, all these 90s designers, and then we started working very early on with Harley Weir, which of course helped us a lot. We always had this mix, having Harley Weir next to David Armstrong. Now we have Nan Goldin and Sarah Moon. It’s about combining different generations. It’s very, very personal for the three of us: it’s about what we like and what we love. It’s not about going after what’s cool.
AP: You’ve been talking about your role putting young people next to these big names through the magazine but you also do a lot of that in your role as a professor at Aalto as well.
TL: I never wanted to teach in my life. When I was studying myself, I was like, “No fucking way I’m going to become a teacher.” Karma sort of comes back. I did my BA at the school, where I’m teaching now. Then I went to Central Saint Martins and studied with Louise Wilson. When I came back and ended up teaching here, I tried to combine the two. Aalto is closer in spirit to schools like Antwerp or Saint Martins. It’s really a fun place, but at the same time, it’s tons of work and criticism and sometimes tears, but you need to push them. In a way Finland is quite funny because we don’t have a tradition of fashion. It’s not like in Paris where you have all the fashion houses but there’s not really a single good school. They’re stuck in the tradition of couture. Or even if you compare us to Sweden, which has a massive industry– it’s all H&M and Weekday– and in Denmark as well. They have big market commercial fashion industries which Finland doesn’t have. So basically we’re not coaching for a Finnish industry, we’re coaching them for an international industry. In the end it’s quite funny that the H&M people and the Balenciaga people want to hire these same kids.
AP: How do you work with the young designers specifically for their final collections?
TL: They basically work with the collection as they would if they were in a fashion house. We try to make it as similar as possible. It’s very one to one in that way. It’s not about holding classes; it’s about being with each student from the very beginning to the very end. They all have to work at the same pace as if they worked for a designer and produce quality and quantity in a very small time. But in the beginning, it’s about opening their eyes because they come after high school and they don’t know anything maybe. Now with the Tumblr generation, they put images together but they don’t know if it was from Vogue, the stylist, the context. They don’t know why these images were here or what were the images next to them, or the history of that time. You need to know what was made before, what is now, and what could be and understand the connection. And hopefully they build their own world and have something to say.
AP: What similarities do you see emerging from the presentations this year among your students?
TL: In Finnish terms, they were very, how would I say…sexy! Because in Scandinavia compared to Italian, Spanish, or even English people, they’re kind of buttoned up, but these kids aren’t at all. What I like about them is that they work hard and they also have lots of fun, and you can see that. That’s personally very important to me. It’s high quality work but it looks like it was done by a young person with a young person’s life, who works hard but who still goes out and lives. Sometimes I get frustrated when like at one point in New York you had this generation of designers–I shouldn’t say this–like Jason Wu, who are 23 or 24 and they design like Oscar de la Renta. For me, it’s important that when you have young designers that they actually are young. They do desirable things before people want to wear them, like if you think about basically what happened with Vetements in Paris. They have this feeling of youth and freshness without being prejudiced, without worrying about whether they are making art you can wear. That shouldn’t be on your mind when you’re 24.