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Taking risks

"For some reason or another, I always seek risks,” says fashion designer Jasmiine Julin-Aro. “I’m the kind of person who wants to solve things.”

She compares herself to a goal-scoring player in a football team. These are the players who dare to stake everything on a single card for either success or failure. During her career, Julin-Aro has taken one risk after another – usually succeeding. Known for her functional design of sports and outdoor clothing, Jasmiine Julin-Aro has been awarded the Kaj Franck Design Prize of 2012.

RISKY SITUATIONS
”In some ways I find situations of risk so interesting that I want to experience them, even if I might fail,” says Julin-Aro. “During my career this has no doubt led me to try all kinds of unsuitable things, for example with materials…”

Things new and untested interest and inspire the designer. Julin-Aro’s enthusiasm has also been contagious. “Fortunately, I’ve had workmates, fellow-players, who’ve joined in,” she says. “We’ve sat down and thought together what we might use this material for, since it’s so interesting!”

The experiments have also led to success. As an example, the designer recalls a problem with the pants of a motorcycle outfit that she designed: the driver joined closely to the seat would soon be sweating uncomfortably. “I was asked to think about a solution to this, Gyro Gearloose that I am!” she laughs. The problem was solved with a hollow weave fabric from a trade fair in Germany. It was actually meant for the interior upholstery of seats, to prevent them from feeling sweaty. “I said it doesn’t matter on which side of the wearer’s backside the fabric is, I wanted it. It must have been fifteen years ago when I found it, and even today this material is in use. The complaints ended there and then,” says Julin-Aro.

CHALLENGES
The challenges that Julin-Aro comes across in her work are usually small but nonetheless significant. How to put on a motorcycle glove and pull it over your sleeve when you’re already wearing a glove in your other hand? The sleeve opening had to be reconsidered. What kinds of pockets should there be for golf clothes so that a few golf balls would fit in them? What material for the back of a skiing outfit and what should be used for the shoulders?

The designer has sometimes taken on broader challenges. An example was her first job after graduating, when she was hired by the Kuusinen department store in Helsinki to design men’s collections. “You could say it was everything from underwear to the overcoat, and I wasn’t at all scared,” she laughs. “Of course I’d hardly done any men’s things by then, but somehow it seemed that if the width of the turn-up was the fashion thing and you had a few millimetres to play with to make it look new and interesting, well then that was what I wanted to try.”

The same attitude of inquisitiveness, an open mind when facing new things and finding out has survived throughout her career. It has held her in good stead especially in her special field of designing functional clothing for sports, outdoor recreation and exceptional conditions.

FREELANCER
Jasmiine Julin-Aro was originally interested in graphic design and went into fashion ”almost by mistake”. A friend who was already studying fashion design lured her to the same department at the University of Art and Design. In 1985, a few years after graduating, she established her own firm, Studio Dimensio, and she has been a freelance designer since then. She is also a loyal worker; collaboration with many of her clients has continued since the 1980s. Through this history, she has become familiar with fashion houses and brands, and their collection philosophies, as well as their personnel and product development processes. The teams involved in the work become trained and honed to collaborate with the aim of developing the company’s collections over the long term.

Julin-Aro recognizes the advantages of working for large companies compared, for example, with having her own small brand. A large organization provides assets in keeping with its size: the latest equipment and computer programs, the best materials, opportunities to study developments abroad and to visit trade fairs and events, and assistance when necessary. With her own brand she would have had to devote all her energies to keep the firm running in a sector of fast product cycles and the need to produce new collections several times a year.

FASHION / DESIGN
Jasmiine Julin-Aro’s work is almost more like industrial design than traditional fashion design. The market of course plays a role in this. Trends are also reflected in ski and sailing wear and they ultimately affect the consumer’s choices. But when the products are relatively expensive with high expectations of functionality and durability, the rapid changes of fashion are not of great importance. Central considerations are user-centered design, functionality and usability. Many of the outfits designed by her are meant to protect the wearer against injury in extreme conditions or in special pastimes, such as downhill skiing, sailing or motorcycling.

The work of developing functional outfits takes at least a year. “A year goes into developing a new collection. Or eighteen months for more difficult projects. A motorcycle outfit can require two or even three years from start to finish,” Julin-Aro observes. “But many other things, for instance a new technology or a new functional detail in clothing may take even longer. There may not yet even be the material for achieving what one is aiming at. First you have to develop the material with someone.”

Design and product development are carried out with the assistance of professional users of the clothing. “I’ve collaborated with professionals for as long as I’ve been in outdoor and sports fashions. Of course the consumer’s a professional, too, but the clothing is first made for athletes and those who test the items in extreme conditions. The information is then passed on to benefit consumers,” the designer says.

The development of a functional piece of sports clothing designed for special purposes requires detailed and internalized knowledge of the sport in question. The designer, however, does not try test everything herself. She notes as one of her strengths the ability to identify with the wearer. “I have received from somewhere the ability to step in the sportsman’s or athlete’s place. I’m somehow able to think correctly about the performance that is needed,” she says. She began to design golf clothing long before she took up golf herself – after which she could personally note that the clothing was suitable and functional.

THE PROCESS
For Jasmiine Julin-Aro, the design process actually starts from the schedules of product development. Ideas, however, may evolve over long periods, and inspiration can even have minor starting points. “It can be a zipper, one of new appearance and a new type, and I think of what I could create around that zipper. It’s been said that you can’t make a garment around a button, but that’s what I sometimes do, to include that fine zipper or some other item,” the designer says with a laugh. She also has the classic mood board of fashion designers on the wall – with a smiling Jack Nicholson in the centre.

Next comes the sketching stage. Julin-Aro still draws by hand, wanting to maintain her drawing skills and to feel the interconnectedness of eye, hand, pencil and paper. She’s skilled in drawing and has made, among other work, trend illustrations for magazines and trade fairs. She then scans the sketches to be processed by computer and sent on to the pattern maker.

Because of years of cooperation, the pattern maker can even be briefed over the phone, but in most cases the designer goes to the factory herself. Experience makes the choice of fabrics easy, though it’s necessary to compromise if the required material is not available or still undergoing product development. “The first prototype of the season is decisive for me. If it’s terrible and all wrong, there’s the feeling that nothing will come of it. But if it’s promising and good, everything goes on from there!” Julin-Aro rarely improves or tries to save an unsuccessful product. “My style is to get rid of it if it’s not immediately good and to make a new one… If I see that nothing more will come from something, I draw a line over it and throw it away!

There have been plenty of ideas so far. The finest thing is to follow the brief of “doing the best that you can”. This led to the SRO Smart Rider’s Outfit motorcycle costume for the Rukka company, which received the Fennia Prize design award of 2003.

FUNCTIONAL CLOTHING
Also motorcycle outfits were an almost random choice for Jasmiine Julin-Aro. She had been hired in 1988 to design sports clothing collections for Rukka, and motorcycling was one of the areas of this work. She took up the challenge – once again successfully.

Motorcycle outfits are Julin-Aro’s special area of expertise and a good example of functional clothing design. While protecting the wearer in case of an accident, the outfit is nonetheless comfortable and functional in use. It takes into account the requirements of aerodynamics, usability and care as well as the effects of weather and temperature. The outfit and accessories involve a large number of details: protective materials at the elbows, hips and knees, back protection, areas that are rainproof and ones that let sweat through, details that can be adjusted according to weather and temperature, handy attachment details, and reflectors for greater visibility. Innovative materials are combined with the classic biker attire.

Motorcycle outfits have an international market. There is feedback from all over the world, often stories of how an outfit prevented worse injuries in an accident. Julin-Aro points out that outfits damaged in accidents are important for product development. They show what the materials can or cannot withstand. She says that a product designed by her is successful when it is worn by a consumer who is happy with it. But the greatest degree of success is when an outfit has protected its wearer in an accident.

SUCCESS
“I’ve been lucky,” says Jasmiine Julin-Aro. “I’ve had assignments that have given me great pride when I’ve brought them to completion.” She is happy to see her clothing designs being worn by people who she knows could have chosen anything at all among all the products in the world. “The fact that out of all that is offered in the world they chose these products, from tiny Finland, and from an even tinier company. They chose the best, the clothes that are ideal in terms of appearance and function. That really feels fine… to be so good that the products are chosen because of that.”

Julin-Aro has received many professional distinctions. She was Finland’s Fashion Designer of the Year in 2011. In 2001 she and the Rukka team were awarded the Finnish Golden Clotheshanger award. Her sailing and motorcycle outfits have received various design and innovation prizes and they have been included in the collections of museums. She has also designed outfits for several Finnish OIympic teams and she is actively involved in positions of trust, expert capacities and teaching in the fashion and clothing field. Julin-Aro is also one of the designers whose work has made clothing design much more than fashion alone.

Jasmiine Julin-Aro has never wanted a collection bearing her own name. “Students in particular often ask me why on earth I don’t have my own collection, my own brand. It must be because of the fact that when I’ve made these collections for others, I’ve done it as if they were mine. I’ve taken this attitude when creating them. I think it’s fine to be a solid designer behind a brand.” 

THE FINNISH CLOTHING INDUSTRY
Jasmiine Julin-Aro has considered the state of the Finnish clothing industry, especially in her role as Professor of Functional Materials and Design at the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture. She sees great opportunities in specialization. ”Finland could be successful in the high-tech niche. Technological clothing and high-quality materials for special conditions.”

Julin-Aro feels that Finland has the possibility to specialize in outdoor and sports clothing. ”The importance of health and wellbeing has grown to a great degree everywhere, not only in Finland but around the world. Consumers demand functionality from clothing of this kind. Here, we could combine the tourist industry with clothing and equipment design into a big thing where we could be leading names!” The majority of product development work is carried out elsewhere than in Finland, but there already is a great deal of good design in small specialist areas, such as reflectors, lamps and protective gear.

As is known, Finland has traditions in the special needs of clothing for outdoor use and sports alike, says Julin-Aro. And already now top brands, even internationally. Since in many sports the outfit and the equipment must function together, there would be work for industrial, clothing and even packaging designers. She points out that it is encouraging to see leading Finnish brands also employing Finnish designers, although many have had to move abroad to find work. This must also be remembered in design training.  Julin-Aro asks: ”Could we still be a country and nation of this kind of functional design… could we be experts in this, too, and be the best in the world to teach it?”

We are already on the threshold of joint effort. There are projects in which these things are already under way, but the final push is still lacking – and time will soon run out. “It sometimes seems that things progress too slowly,” she says. “It must be done now, for otherwise someone else will soon do it. Things are always in the air at the same time. I feel this is something for Finns, a field of specialization.”

THE THREE SKILLS OF THE DESIGNER

Summing up her work, Jasmiine Julin-Aro observes, “The designer needs three good skills. The first one is in the fingertips, the sense of touch, to be able to say if a material suits the skin.” Then comes social ability, the skill of working as a team, of taking the place of the consumer, of selling one’s idea and receiving feedback. The designer says that her life became considerably easier when she realized that feedback must be considered as product development work. The third skill is the ability to generate ideas, obviously. And to have enthusiasm and to pass it on to others, to take up challenges, and to score the decisive goal.

© Anne Veinola