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Marimekko CEO on modernising the brand while keeping Unikko-heritage alive

By Rachel Douglass


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Business |Interview

Marimekko CEO, Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko. Credits: Marimekko.

If you know Marimekko, then you are likely already familiar with the brand’s bold graphic poppy print, suitably titled Unikko – the word for ‘poppy’ in Finnish. Initially created by the brand’s designer Maija Isola, it has now become synonymous with Marimekko’s design language, and is recognisable on a global scale. Celebrations ahead of the iconic print’s 60th anniversary next year had already kicked off at the most recent Copenhagen Fashion Week, where the label continued its tradition of hosting open-for-all fashion shows. Here, the Unikko print was plastered head-to-toe on co-ord sets, summer dresses and palazzo pants, often sizably scaled up in vibrant hues of pinks, greens and blues.

It is not just the Unikko that Marimekko has been celebrating recently, however. The Finland-born brand, founded in 1951, has been on a growth path in recent years, as it looks to capitalise on the demand for Scandinavian design. Currently, the company considers Northern Europe, North America and the Asia-Pacific region as its main markets, with Asia specifically being treated as its most important geographical area for international growth. Throughout its current strategy period spanning 2023 to 2027, it is this region that Marimekko will contribute a large portion of its expansion plans to – having already announced plans to enter Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia in autumn.

Marimekko SS24, CPHFW. Credits: Launchmetrics Spotlight.

Building local relevance in new geographies

In an interview with FashionUnited, Marimekko chief executive officer Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko elaborated on the choice to focus on Asia, stating: “The growing market, strong brand fit and proven track record with the loose franchise partnership model provide us a good foundation for accelerating omnichannel growth in Asia. We approach the markets via key cities and focus on capturing growth in the company’s existing markets as well as explore opening of new markets in Asia in the longer term. We recently announced plans to expand this fall to Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia with our loose franchise partners. These fast-growing markets provide interesting opportunities for Marimekko’s international growth and hence support our company’s objective to scale the Marimekko business in the upcoming years.”

Departing from its usual approach to operations in other parts of the world, the central part of Marimekko’s Asia retail network, both physical and digital, are linked to a loose-franchise partner-owned model. According to Alahuhta-Kasko, such a setup allows the company to work with partners that offer local market and customer expertise, as well as local connections. Entrusting such operations with members of a third-party does not detract from the need to ensure the brand translates in a globally coherent way, while remaining relevant on a local scale.

Alahuhta-Kasko noted: “The overall brand expression is consistent across markets, while we create local relevance by ensuring our products answer to the needs of and marketing communications resonates with local customers – we work closely with our partners and local teams to gain deep insights on the local customer preferences. Also, while global brand collaborations provide us great visibility increasing our brand awareness around the world, targeted local brand collaborations, along with growing awareness, allow us to build local relevance.”

Marimekko's new store concept at its New York location. Credits: Marimekko.

To mark this new path of growth, Marimekko began a roll out of a refreshed retail concept, which was unveiled at its New York store towards the end of last year. The “dynamic” concept was established with the idea of offering up a modular space that offered an evolving experience with different seasonal themes, in a design that took direct inspiration from the architecture of Marimekko’s textile printing factory in Helsinki. On this process, Alahuhta-Kasko said: “Some years ago, we at Marimekko embarked on a journey to modernise our brand and collections, always being true to our original brand DNA but to translate it in an even more relevant way for our globally growing community of customers. Now we felt that it was a natural time for us to reflect this modernised creative vision also in our new store experience.”

New store concept reflects ‘modernised creative vision’

The “ever-evolving” concept is set to continue moving into other locations. While it most recently debuted in the brand’s fully redesigned Stockholm flagship store which opened earlier this month, it will also be at the centre of Marimekko’s new flagship store opening in Copenhagen this autumn. Akin to its New York destination, fixed displays will be replaced with carefully selected modular structures, including furniture from different decades and distinct material choices. Such intentional factors are all part of Marimekko’s response to changing consumer tastes, as further noted by Alahuhta-Kasko: “We believe that in today’s digitalised world, brands need to provide a meaningful reason for customers to visit the physical stores, a sense of inspiring, ever-evolving adventure and the role of personal service has been further amplified.”

Marimekko's collaboration with Ikea. Credits: Marimekko x Ikea.

This sense of intentionality can additionally be seen in Marimekko’s approach to its entire design process, much of which is based upon sustainability fundamentals and commitments made by the brand. Beyond production, however, and following three guiding principles, the company has gone about integrating sustainable transformation into each of its teams. While its business development, transformation function and sustainability experts are responsible for ensuring the execution of such a programme for the company’s own operations and value chain, Marimekko Innovation Works, an in-house innovation function, together with the brand’s partners, is responsible for the development, promotion and piloting of innovative materials, dyes and technologies. A further emphasis in circularity is also present in Marimekko Pre-Loved, a peer-to-peer resale service launched in August 2022 that allows customers to buy and sell used goods.

Yet while commitments have been made, many of which have already been put into place, Alahuhta-Kasko recognised that there were still barriers around the implementation of such practices. She stated: “Sustainability is the biggest challenge shared by the whole global fashion and textile industry and one of the strongest megatrends transforming the sector. There is an increasing preference for more sustainable choices among consumers as well as other stakeholders. We believe that, in the future, timeless and long-lasting products will be made in balance with the environment, in line with the principles of the circular economy and with a transparent supply chain. Achieving this ambitious vision requires multidisciplinary and long-term development work from one year to another but also continuously driving innovation in technologies, materials, and business models in collaboration with our various partners.”

Storytelling prevails in a time of uncertainty

In the long-term, the company is looking to cement an annual growth in net sales of 15 percent, with a comparable profit margin of 20 percent. Its financial guidance for 2023 also forecasts a growth in net sales up on the 166.5 million euros it achieved last year. Marimekko offers three product lines: fashion, bags & accessories and home, of which the former two saw their shares in net sales grow in the first half of 2023. Alahuhta-Kasko elaborated: “We see Marimekko’s lifestyle concept offering products across various price points in fashion, bags & accessories and home as an advantage that allows us to serve also the more price-sensitive consumers.”

Marimekko's collaboration with Adidas. Credits: Adidas x Marimekko.

She added: “We are constantly closely monitoring the general economic situation and the development of consumer confidence and purchasing power, as well as the impacts of different exceptional situations, and will adjust our operations and plans according to the circumstances. We believe that the best recipe also in an uncertain climate is a strong, desirable brand paired with commercial excellence.”

Marimekko’s ambitions are reflective of the increased desire shown by consumers towards brands considered to be heritage, and while the need for innovation is intimately linked with this factor, storytelling still prevails at a time when consumers are putting limitations on their budgets. In light of this, Alahuhta-Kasko remains optimistic about the brand’s future and the upcoming Unikko anniversary. She concluded: “Unikko is not only Marimekko’s most celebrated print but perhaps one of the most recognised print designs in the world. Unikko is a symbol of joy and creativity and over the years it has become synonymous with Marimekko’s design language. The year 2024 will be filled with Unikko anniversary celebrations across our collections and around the world.”

Marimekko SS24, CPHFW. Credits: Launchmetrics Spotlight.
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