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A reputation for beauty

Designer Marja Suna has witnessed the highs and lows of the Finnish fashion industry. Season after season, she has designed collections that have outlived the seasons and become classics. Originally making her name in fashion, she has since become equally respected for her work in paper art, jewellery and glass design. She is the recipient of the 2010 Kaj Franck Design Award.

Marja Suna knew she would become an artist ever since she was a little girl. Her decision to apply to study fashion design at the Institute of Applied Arts was based on the suggestion of her father, a visual artist himself. Choosing fashion studies was far from an obvious choice in the economically difficult times of post-war Finland, but Suna's father was open-minded enough to see the future potential offered by the field.

During her studies, Suna realised that her strengths lie in the three-dimensional form. Her career in fashion took off when Herrala Oy made the bold decision to hire a young designer. "That's how my life in the fashion industry began. It was an interesting time with a lot of new materials. I had a lot of freedom and could create the collections I wanted to,” Suna recalls.

In the early 1960s the clothing industry saw the introduction of new artificial materials. Ease of care and comfort in use were major selling points that went well with the youthful fashions of the era. Suna's designs were very popular: they were clear with simple lines, suitable for many uses, particularly compared to the form-fitting outfits and complicated cuts characteristic of the previous decade.

Marja Suna's career continued from her work with Herrala to collaboration with many familiar companies in the Finnish fashion scene: Kestilä, Piironen, Turo, Luhta. Over the years that followed, Marja Suna designed well-received fashions for both men and women.

In the mid-1960s, Marja Suna expanded her horizons and began designing footwear, a pioneer in that field as well. The Roihu shoe factory hired her as a designer. "I found footwear very fascinating," Suna recalls. "It has such a strong three-dimensional element and a combination of different materials." Suna's footwear was marketed with the "Design Marja Suna" text and exported to foreign markets as far away as the United States – quite an achievement at the time. Her design work took on an even more surprising direction when she began designing buttons, first for Herrala and later for the Sarvis plastics company.

Suna continued her work in the field of shoes by teaching footwear design at the University of Art and Design Helsinki. Later, she also taught clothing design. Her academic career spanned a period of ten years. In January 2010 Suna was invited to become an honorary member of Aalto University's School of Art and Design.

A designer can sometimes have a crucial role in the success of a company. This was the case with Marja Suna and the Turku-based company Silo. It had recently been acquired by new owners who were looking for a head designer. "Silo needed a designer and someone had recommended me to them. I soon realised that Silo would be the ideal place for me. I felt like I would be able to express myself to the fullest there."

Suna started working for Silo in 1975. The autonomous nature of her work gave her great satisfaction. With extensive experience from industrial clothing manufacturing, she was very familiar with weaving machines and the opportunities they presented. Within the space of one year, Silo made headlines with its knitwear and tricot clothing. The collections became known for high quality, good materials and original style and sold well in not only Finland, but also the rest of the Nordic region and Central Europe. In those days it was highly unusual for a Finnish clothing brand to have any sort of presence in the international markets.

Silo was one of the success stories of the Finnish clothing industry, albeit a fairly short-lived one. Suna enjoyed her time working for Silo despite the fact that the long commute to Turku often felt tiring.

Marimekko's founder, the legendary Armi Ratia, had had her eye on Marja Suna for a long time. "Armi told me: I want you at Marimekko," Suna recalls fondly. "I told her I can't leave my child, Silo was like a child for me!" But Ratia would not take no for an answer. "I figured that one only gets asked to join Marimekko once. And I had a family and I was always on the road between Turku and Helsinki. So I told myself to make the sensible decision. And I did."

Marja Suna began as a designer with Marimekko in the spring of 1979. She had only created one midterm collection before Armi Ratia passed away the following autumn. "We had such great plans for what we would do!" Suna recalls. Ratia had hoped the new designer would bring a breath of fresh air to Marimekko's collections. With Ratia's passing, Suna was left to design them all on her own.

"I decided I would design knitwear for Marimekko, not only printed garments. Soon the export department realised that customers were always asking for knitwear first," Suna explains. She continued to design knitwear for Marimekko well into the 1990s and 2000s. Several of them, including the Kiille knitwear dress, were seen in the collections year after year.

Marja Suna is best known for her knitwear. They are characterised by clear geometric shapes and patterns. They often have broad, deliberately placed stripes or coloured details. Even a plain colour piece of clothing must have structure or a pattern, otherwise it is simply too boring, she says. Suna is a master at using knitwear's elasticity and flow for fantastic results.

In 1979 Marja Suna was awarded the State Award for Design. The jury highlighted the originality and timelessness of her fashions as the key reasons for the award. Suna had the ability to identify the most relevant and essential aspects of fashion trends.

"Of course I follow trends," Marja Suna says. "However, at the same time I also want to design classic pieces that can be used for a long time." Many of her designs have stood the test of time exceptionally well. "Knowing whom I am designing a piece for has always been important for me," Suna points out. "I design fashions for consumers, so I have to be conscious of what kinds of clothes people want to wear. My work is about fashion, not fads."

Naturally, with new collections constantly coming out, the industry is somewhat characterised by short-term thinking. However, this doesn't exclude the possibility of designing fashions that stand the test of time. "Even a classic must be understood for what it is," Marja Suna says. "A classic design is representative of both its time and the future." Perhaps one of the secrets behind Suna's success is precisely the fact that she has the ability to anticipate the future. This is also evidenced by the fact that she was chosen as one of the designers for Design Forum Finland's 1995 exhibition "Classic Makers ".

Marja Suna is optimistic about the prospects of the Finnish fashion industry. When she began her career in the 1960s, Marimekko and other well-known fashion houses had the industry buzzing with excitement. However, exports to eastern markets fizzling in the late 1980s and Finland suffering from a bad recession in the early 1990s were heavy blows to the fashion industry. "Competition has intensified," Suna says. "The world has changed. There is so much international supply. It has resulted in challenging times for Finnish fashion."

The success of Finnish fashions is dependent on exports. "It's not enough to simply create these products here, we have to be able to sell them overseas," Suna notes. Success calls for the right shape, fashion and style, and price. Focusing on a single factor is not enough. Suna is upbeat about fashion education in Finland. However, she recognises the challenges posed by Finland being located far from the world's fashion metropolises.

Promoting the interests of designers and fashion designers has always been close to Suna's heart. She was one of the founding members of the Finnish Association of Fashion Designers MTO back in 1965 and has since been on its Board of Directors for extensive periods of time. She has also been on the Board of the Finnish Association of Designers Ornamo and was invited as an honorary member of Ornamo in 2005.

Marja Suna tried to retire from Marimekko a number of times in the early 2000s. "Knitwear was still selling well. Kirsti Paakkanen, the CEO, was not about to let me retire easily. I tried three times. Finally I said that's it, I am about to turn 70, I am really leaving this time!" The year was 2003 and Suna had been at Marimekko for over twenty years of highs and lows.

The preceding years had already seen new exciting design interests enter the fray for Marja Suna. She was selected as the Fashion Designer of the Year in 1998. The exhibition celebrating the award featured jewellery designed by her. From jewellery, she continued on to paper, glass and even pieces she calls clothing sculptures. A new chapter in Marja Suna's career had begun.

"I have always had this curiosity for new materials," Suna says. Paper was a logical first step after working with fabric and knitwear. Her first paper art exhibition was held in 1992. As jewellery began to interest her more and more, metals also became familiar to her.

Glass entered the fray with the "Festival of Snow and Ice" exhibition at the Wäinö Aaltonen Museum of Art in Turku in 2004. "I was looking for a way to interpret the name and theme of the exhibition. I decided it was time to work with a new material. I pictured clear sheets of glass as translucent ice and frosted glass as snow. Black glass played the role of black ice. Then there was fire, the melting force of red glass. And finally, green glass depicting spring." Different glass items engage in fascinating dialogue in her works for the exhibition. Glass as a material adapted well to the soft and organic shapes she had in her mind.

The theme of snow and ice also gave rise to Snow Flower, a line of flower-shaped silver jewellery subsequently produced by Kalevala Koru. "The Snow Flower has been their highest selling product for two years in a row now," Suna says. The delicate shape of an opening flower bud lends itself beautifully to a full set of jewellery from earrings to necklaces and rings.

In 2005, Suna designed large white characters out of cigarette paper for the foyer of the Finnish National Opera. She has also created sculptures out of tar paper and cellophane. Where does she get the ideas for using such unusual materials?

"I just come across certain materials and come up with ideas on what to do with them," Suna begins. "When I needed very thin paper, I called the Tervakoski paper mill. They suggested cigarette paper." Cigarette paper can even be used for knitting. It is durable, thin and crispy. Cellophane, on the other hand, is transparent and shiny while tar paper is sticky and black. Paper sculptures give the audience visual hints of their faint sounds even without being touched.

So, Marja Suna eventually became an artist after all, after a long "real" professional career. In addition to her work with glass and jewellery, she has, in a way, continued designing fashion in the form of clothing sculptures.

Suna draws a lot in doing her design work. "I drew. I just kept drawing, lots of drafts..." Occasionally she pauses to work on a shape by using a material such as paper. Her work also always has a story behind it. The Festival of Snow and Ice was one that very obviously told a story. "But my work always has a story. My jewellery has a story, everything I do does." The story is pieced together when she thinks about the design she is about to work on.

Marja Suna is a designer with an exceptionally long and successful career in the fashion industry. She has designed clothing that catered to both the industry's needs and those of interested buyers. "I felt that, as someone who works in a factory, I should do work that best serves the interests of my employer. I aimed to design clothes that would sell well and satisfy both the consumer and the manufacturer."

Despite her sensibilities for the industrial side of the fashion industry, she always had an interest in designing unique items or products with small production runs at the same time. Which one is closer to her heart, the industrial or the unique? "I am equally fond of doing both," Suna says. "On some days I want to focus on one, and then maybe the next day I want to focus on the other. I am very flexible!" This approach also calls for a high level of expertise: she must be able to switch her way of thinking from industrial production to more freeform and artistic designs.

What, then, is the source of Marja Suna's inspiration to keep creating? She has never lost her enthusiasm for new things and experimenting. She is an avid photographer who likes to take nature walks and identify all kinds of visually pleasing things along the way. "I have this need to keep doing things!" she exclaims. "I don't know if you would call it passion, but I have this need to keep creating."

In recent years Marja Suna has been kept busy by numerous exhibitions both in Finland and overseas. Her exhibitions are very popular: people know her name and are interested in her work. It gives audience a genuine feeling of having been made by hand, with an original approach and in-depth familiarity with the materials used.

The statement from the jury for the Kaj Franck Design Prize emphasises the fact that Marja Suna's work has always been characterised by beauty. In fashion design, clear lines and a high degree of practicality have been obvious starting points for her work, but never at the expense of beauty. Beauty also has a great deal of personal significance to Suna. In her own life beauty is an essential source of vitality. Beauty is characteristic to her work, from fashions to jewellery and from glass to artwork.

© Anne Veinola