Fashion design for dreamers

  • 2014-06-04
  • Interview by Jonathan Brown

Sanna Lehto

Now in its 14th year, Habitus Baltija has become one of the biggest fashion events in the Baltics. An acclaimed international competition for young fashion designers, Habitus Baltija 2014 coincided with two essential Latvian cultural events, Riga Culture Capital 2014 and Riga Fashion and Textile Week. As the reputation of the competition balloons on the Baltics’ cultural calendar, so too does the prestige of winning.

The Best Designer award went to Anna Alanko of Finland for her collection, SS14. Alanko is an alumna of Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Finland. She has been featured in Finland’s edition of Elle magazine, interned in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Finland, and worked in Japan. In addition to the title of the Best Fashion Designer, Alanko also won a certificate of Summer Courses at IED Milan, Italy, an invitation to take part in Fashion Week Belarus, free publicity from the fashion portal Not Just a Label and an invitation to participate in the Fashion Mill competition in Minsk, Belarus.

You’ve worked throughout Europe and most recently in Japan. How have the places you’ve worked in influenced your designs?
Travelling in general is inspiring. But living in foreign cities, experiencing them as a local might and working alongside people from diverse origins is even better - you get a deeper insight into different cultures and customs. Having worked in various fashion and textile companies in Europe, having visited producers, textile mills and designers in Japan, China and Korea, I’ve been able to observe and take part in different creative processes, which has introduced me to new working methods, which in turn has made me a bolder, more playful designer.

Did you have an epiphany moment when you realized you wanted to be a designer?
Not really. It was more of a process. I knew from a very early age I wanted to do something creative, but finding my field was a little bit challenging. As a teenager I went to an art high school, which gave me the opportunity to take all the art classes I wanted, so I did basically everything from ceramics to oil painting and from woodblock printing to photography. During my studies, I realized that being a designer suited me better than being an artist, so I applied to study fashion design and photography and ended up getting in the Fashion and Clothing Design program in Aalto University. At university I realized that besides fashion design I also want to do textile design, because an amazing textile creates a foundation for a great garment.

What qualities do you look for in a fabric?
Impeccable quality, interesting and diverse surface structures, and the ability to take color well, because I often make my own screen prints and dye my own fabrics. This is also why I prefer natural fibers to synthetic ones. Another crucial factor when I’m choosing a fabric is how the fabric falls. This tells me how the material can be used in a garment, how it moves, whether it drapes naturally or is static and stiff. I’m a sucker for good textiles, and I also often design my own fabrics from scratch.

It seems from your designs that you are at least peripherally aware of traditional Finnish dress. Is it a tradition you embrace, borrow from?
This is interesting! I haven’t really ever thought about my work in the context of the traditional Finnish dress. I am of course aware of the costume tradition in Finland, but I myself am always more inspired by moods and the immaterial than traditional clothing references. So if there is an inherent ‘Finnishness’ in my garments, it probably derives from the social and cultural atmosphere of Finland or the quiet and serene landscapes of the Finnish nature and archipelago - not so much from Finnish costume history.

The floral or organic elements in your designs are often contrasted with angular or industrial features. How would you characterize this floral element?
The floral elements in my collection are feminine, familiar, timeless, organic, carefree, sensitive and surface-like.

What are you promoting or saying by featuring this organic or floral element?
I wanted to use a motif that is very feminine and classic, almost obvious in women’s clothing, and try to find different interpretations for it. My goal was to find out how context affects the viewer’s perception of a motif and whether I could change their preconceived notions of the motif by presenting it in a surprisingly contemporary context of three-dimensional silhouettes and kooky pieces of clothing.

How is this element contrasted with angular features?
I matched graphic elements with organic ones to juxtapose the fragility and sensitivity of the organic floral elements with simple angular ones. Together they compliment each other beautifully. In addition, the graphic shapes in the garments create exaggerated shapes that alter the viewer’s perception of the human form.

Your designs, more than many others’, appear to be functional - someone could wear your garments in public. What role does “functionality” play in your approach to design?
I feel that the goal of all fashion design, as well as textile or furniture design, architecture, etc., is always to be at least somewhat functional. For me, the sole purpose of a piece of clothing is to be worn by a person in public for other people to see.
If a design has no function, it has no value, because functionality is fundamental in good design work. This is also how design differs from art. That said, I never consciously think about functionality of my own designs, but it is just something that happens naturally. For me in fashion design functionality means the limitations set by the human form.

For example, the composition of the body dictates how the garment can be constructed; the dimensions of the body hint which parts to enhance and which to diminish; and the proportions of the body indicate which length looks awkward and which flattering. In my MA collection, I embraced, questioned and played around with all these restrictive elements of the body through exaggeration, all the while still keeping the garments totally functional and wearable.

For you, is fashion design art or craft?
I’d like to say neither, or actually maybe a combination of both. Like I suggested earlier, in my opinion fashion design can’t be considered art, because it always has a distinct element of functionality, whereas art can be successful and powerful without any actual function. Then again fashion design is not pure craft either, because craft is only about technical ability and executing things, not about the artistic process at all. So, I have to say fashion design is an even mixture of both art and craftsmanship.

Are there designers whose work is not that practical but that you still admire?
Yes, of course. For example, the 3D printing work of Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen is really impressive and not at all practical. I am also always impressed by her various multidisciplinary collaborations and her groundbreaking textile innovations.

Who is your target audience?
My target audience is a girl or a woman who is a dreamer and an adventurer at heart. She is a person, who can eat cotton candy for breakfast, wear nothing but flowers for a dinner party and ride an ostrich to work. She is sensitive, yet strong; familiar, yet enigmatic; sweet and eccentric.

Does this audience ever dictate the direction of your designs?
No, not really - at least not consciously. Or actually, when it comes to editing my design work, I do think about “my girl,” and see if there is a garment or an outfit that doesn’t belong in her wardrobe. But this editing happens only towards the very end of the design process.

Can you describe the process of creating a garment?
My process is sort of a balancing act between free experimentation and extreme self-discipline. In the beginning, I’m quite playful and experimental; I make a lot of textile samples and toiles. Around half-way through the process though comes the pivotal point - the point I realize I have to execute all the outfits and textiles. So I become super self-disciplined and structured in my work. By this point I always have a very clear idea of how the collection is going to look.

Is there a designer or artist working in another field that compels or inspires your work?
Even though in my designs I am mostly inspired by immaterial things, I do of course also get visually inspired by art and design and especially by the feelings and emotions that arise from great art and the mood great art projects. Lately I’ve been drawn to the surreal stories in the paintings of Rene Magritte, amazed by the harsh concrete architecture of Tadao Ando, and fascinated by the mind-boggling installations of James Turrell.

A piece of advice for aspiring designers?
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Often something new and unexpected can come from them.