This year, London’s top fashion magazines covered only two student fashion shows, with one being that of Aalto University. At Hyères, the most highly regarded fashion competition in Europe, Aalto students have gained three Grand Prix wins and numerous finalist positions since 2011. The latest acknowledgement came in the form of a university ranking in which Aalto’s BA fashion programme was listed among the top three in the world. This goes to demonstrate, how lucky Aalto is to have Tuomas Laitinen.
To his own surprise, four years after finishing his BA studies in fashion design, Laitinen returned to his alma mater in 2005. The years elsewhere had been an eventful time for him, to say the least: Laitinen had completed an MA at Central Saint Martins in London (CSM), the best fashion school in the world, and gained valuable working experience from the industry both in Paris and London.
During this period, he had not only witnessed a different way of teaching, but a fundamental change in the industry as well. On commencing his work as a teacher, he knew things demanded urgent reform.
“The whole structure of education was designed to serve the fashion industry in Finland: an industry we had in the 1980s and, to some extent, up to the 1990s. However, the problem was that it was not relevant any more. That industry no longer existed here and it had changed so much outside of Finland, too.”
Culture of openness
Changes were plentiful, but required years of persistence to implement.
“Professor Pirjo Hirvonen and I started to replace small design courses with more comprehensive projects and also to emphasise the meaning of finding one’s own identity and creating one’s own world through visual research. Also, getting closer with textile and encouraging people to make their own materials. We have all these amazing facilities with which we do almost haute couture level materials.”
At CSM, under the renowned professor Louise Wilson, Laitinen had witnessed how one could demand a lot more from students, and consequently get much more out of them. Therefore, his most transformational impact of all was likely the fostering of a new study culture based on open communication.
Initially, Laitinen’s directness came as a shock to some, but proved elemental in teaching students to tap into their full potential as designers which transferred to their collections. Now, students cannot wait for the opportunity to work with him.
“People were not used to receiving criticism or talking about their work and bringing it into the broader context of what’s happening elsewhere. It took a long time to create a culture of openness, where we can discuss anything. Creating an experimental atmosphere where we encourage people to make mistakes was another goal because it really is the only way to learn.”
Tuomas Laitinen stresses the importance of working in the field you teach, while you teach, as an utter necessity.
“The relevance of people changes, as does that of phenomena, and you have to be there to know and feel it.”
Laitinen has willingly put his extensive and relevant networks at the service of his students. His contacts have been indispensable, especially in relation to the fashion show arranged each spring by the University. This show has become the key element in Aalto’s continuously growing reputation as a fashion school.
“The biggest change happened in 2012 when we held the first show in the Suvilahti cultural centre in Helsinki. That same year, Helsinki was the World Design Capital and our student Satu Maaranen won the Grand Prix at Hyères. There was all the attention because of that and we had 20 foreign guests. That was a watershed, now it’s madness! Last year, we hosted iD, Dazed, Italian Vogue, Chinese Vogue, Japanese Vogue as well as headhunters from LVMH and Kering. Sometimes I wonder if the students think it’s normal to have Michel Gaubert in the front row or to have your graduate collection styled by the same person who styles Balenciaga!”
In addition to the show being a formi-dable marketing tool for the University, it is also essential in promoting the stu-dents and their work.
“The show is not for someone choosing a coat to wear that summer, it is about showing clothes in an industry way to industry people. That is also why the show is long. And the headhunters are there to see the clothes. The fashion show requires an insane amount of work, work that is both at a very high level artistically and product-wise.”
Tuomas Laitinen finds the persistence of the idea of fashion as a frivolous industry frustrating.
“People still refuse to understand the sheer turnover or money that fashion brings and the jobs it creates. It’s one of the biggest industries in the world. They also don’t understand high fashion and often think what we do is too artistic or too individual, but it does actually serve the industry. We also work with many mass market companies like H&M who want the same students Balenciaga or Lanvin want because they are after same kind of creativity.”
Laitinen’s mission as a teacher is solid and straight-forward.
“I think that, if you work in education, you should have one prime responsibility: educating people so they have a chance to find employment, live full lives and be a part of society.”
However, as many of the best students are hired to work abroad in fashion capitals like Paris, London, Milan and New York straight after graduation, concerns are voiced about local talent dispersing.
“What we can do is provide Finnish people with very wide knowledge, skills and creativity that can be sold to foreign clients and which have the potential of becoming big business.”
The successes of recent years are, to Laitinen, a logical result of the whole-hearted effort put into developing the fashion education programme.
“Of course it feels nice because it’s been a lot of work for everybody! I’m not the only one here, there’s a whole team of tutors and professors, and the people who work in the studios must not be forgotten either. Our huge, decade-long team effort is now finally bearing fruit.”
Tuomas Laitinen wants us to know that now is not the time to get comfortable nor to fix what is not broken.
“This really is the beginning of things, not the end. We are doing something right, but that should be developed much further and the freedom to do so should not be compromised.”
Tuomas Laitinen completed his BA degree at the University of Art and Design Helsinki in 2001 and graduated with a distinction from the MA fashion course at Central Saint Martins in London, 2004. In 2006, with his sister Anna, he won the special mention of the Jury Prize at the Hyéres Festival. The prize was strongly supported by the competition’s head of the jury Ann Demeulemeester and it enabled the Laitinens to launch their collection Laitinen in 2007. For seven continuous years Laitinen was stocked at leading retailers across Europe, Asia and US. Laitinen Autumn-Winter 2014 collection was also featured in the Hunger Games Mockingjay Part I and II Hollywood films.
Currently Laitinen is the Fashion Director of SSAW Magazine and works as a consultant for various industry clients and contributes to international publications including Harper’s Bazaar China and L’Officiel Hommes Paris. He has been a lecturer in fashion design at Aalto University since 2006.
Ones to watch:
1. “Elli Savolainen, graduated with a BA in 2001, currently Design Director of Saint Laurent menswear in Paris. Long career behind the scenes both at Christian Dior and Saint Laurent, probably the Finn with the biggest chances of becoming a Creative Director of a major international fashion house.”
2. “Kaisa Inari Kinnunen, graduated with an MA in 2011. Currently works for Balenciaga in Paris under the Creative Director Demna Gvasalia as a research designer, which is an important member of any creative team and an unknown position to many unaware of the fashion system.”
3. “Sophie Sälekari, graduated with a BA in 2015, print designer at Alexander McQueen in London and finalist at Hyéres Festival 2015. Sophie’s opulent style is very much what is wanted in fashion right now. Previous work experience at H&M shows that the opposite ends of the fashion ladder are often after the same talent.”
This article is originally published in the Aalto University Magazine 18 (issuu.com).