Nothing is less permanent than fashion. Trends come and go, and new things are created on the fly. Fashion appeals to our fondness for change and wish to keep up with the times. But as the pace keeps getting quicker, is it even possible to be in fashion anymore?
Clothing designer Anna Ruohonen wants to look beyond the borders of fashion. She wants to create a more permanent and sustainable style for her clients, in all senses of the words. Style is personal and changes slowly; it is based on a wardrobe that is spiced up with trends and seasonal variation. High-quality clothes that fit well and are made from premium materials are long-lasting, which makes them an ethical and sustainable choice.
Paris, almost at the beginning
Anna Ruohonen’s career as a designer started at the University of Art and Design Helsinki in the late 1980s. At that time, fashion students were mainly trained as industrial fashion designers. Ruohonen felt the industry-oriented approach to be slightly alienating and struggled to find her path. She eventually found her own way as an exchange student in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam and Utrecht.
“They approached the creative process from a much broader perspective,” Anna Ruohonen says. “We were asked to create worlds and materials and concepts.” New ideas were not supposed to work as actual pieces of clothing, they were merely a method for examining the structure of a garment or the design process. The difference with the Finnish practical approach to design studies was immense. The teaching was also more personal, and its aim was to help the students find their own identity and vision. On the other hand, the workshops and equipment of the University of Art and Design Helsinki offered an excellent testing ground for different techniques and materials, which complemented the training obtained abroad.
The turning point of Ruohonen’s career was her second international exchange period in 1994. She completed the European Master of Textile and Fashion Design programme, which consisted of studies in the student’s home university, in a European institute, and a final course in Paris, at Institut Français de la Mode. Ruohonen showcased a menswear collection as her diploma work in Paris.
“I created a truly provocative menswear collection. I presented it in Paris thinking it was mere provocation, an idea that was not sellable,” Anna Ruohonen says. “But they asked me, ‘Why wouldn’t you sell it... don’t you want to?’” In Finland she had learned a narrow definition of commercial, defined by buyers and the industry. But in France, an exceptional and challenging collection fit within the definition of commercial – it only had a smaller target group.
Anna Ruohonen stayed in Paris. Institut Français de la Mode did not only teach fashion design, it also taught the students how to become entrepreneurs in the fashion world. There were commercial courses, brand building and teachers who were the crème de la crème. “It was amazing! Our teachers would spend the morning at Dior and then come to tell us in the afternoon what was taking place there right now,” Ruohonen tells us. The school had its finger on the pulse, and the students were placed as interns with the best fashion houses. “I did my internship at Martin Margiela, a Belgian designer who was a living legend at the time and is probably one of the most important designers of the 2000s,” Ruohonen says.
Margiela’s uncompromising attitude to his own vision impressed Anna Ruohonen. “His aesthetics differs, but I learned a lot from his mindset,” she comments. “His way of thinking and questioning the rules of fashion have been significant."
Anna Ruohonen showcased her radical menswear collection in 1995. Two years later, she participated in a linen design contest by the Masters of Linen organisation. She didn’t design her collection for sales purposes, only for the contest, and it included linen outfits for two members of the Leningrad Cowboys band, one men’s and one women’s look. She didn’t succeed in the contest, but her outfits gained a lot of attention. She was also offered a stand at a menswear fair. “I attended the fair and suddenly the Japanese came and wanted to buy my clothes!” Ruohonen says. She needed to change her plans and think about the production process. And distribution, invoicing, all of that. In other words, she had to establish a company. She founded it in Finland, because it was easier there than in France. “It started almost by accident. I had never imagined it would begin like that,” Ruohonen says. Anna Ruohonen had become a fashion brand.
Anna Ruohonen Paris
Anna Ruohonen started as a menswear designer. She felt that men had few choices at the time despite the high demand. At some point, she noticed that her Japanese clients kept buying smaller and smaller sizes and realised that they were actually women. At first, she created a women’s version of her men’s collection and gradually turned her attention mainly to women’s clothing. She hasn’t lost her interest in menswear, but one needs to focus on something. She has found her own direction and vision for women’s clothing.
Anna Ruohonen wants to avoid the word ‘fashion’ when describing her collection. Her clothes are made for women who are looking for a certain kind of style. Her silhouettes are architectural and simple, cuts well thought-out and the number of details limited. Ruohonen’s style has been described as a mix of clean-lined Scandinavian functionalism and delicate French elegance. Timelessness, high-quality materials and long-lived designs are the keys to her work. Anna Ruohonen’s work is not based on trends or seasonally changing collections. She even says she feels safer from trends in Paris than in Finland – Paris has such a vivid and versatile scene that individual phenomena do not stand out so strongly.
The overall concept of Anna Ruohonen Paris is the result of two decades of careful consideration and development. The brand never releases a collection that is fully new. Of course, a commercial company must put new products out there, but for Anna Ruohonen, this usually means classics in new colours, materials, and editions. Her classics always come with a twist – an interesting detail, cut or material. The concept consists of an atelier collection and a ready-to-wear collection. The atelier collection, made to order, has seasonally changing products and the Black Classics section which is, in a way, the "archives" of the brand. AR by Anna Ruohonen is a ready-to-wear collection made of bamboo jersey in Finland.
The specialty of the atelier collection is that the clothes are always made to order and measure. No woman is the perfect size 38 or 40 from head to toe, Anna Ruohonen says. One does not need to work out in order to wear clothes by her. “When women come to my shop and describe the problems of their figure, or diet or training regimes they have in mind, I tell them that it saves us all a lot of trouble if we simply adjust the garment. People don’t need to change to fit their clothes, clothes must change to fit people.”
This concept truly places the client in the centre. However, it is a designer collction with specific colours and cuts, not a dressmaker's set of models. The client can only affect the look in limited ways: a sleeveless dress is not available with sleeves, the fabrics are not freely interchangeable and the colour palette follows the aesthetics of Anna Ruohonen. This is an economically and ecologically smart concept, because the products are manufactured based on demand, which minimises warehouse and production-related risks.
New company form
Anna Ruohonen’s production philosophy means that her pieces are not available directly but after a certain delivery time. The media laughed at the whole idea at first, she says, it was considered impossible and against the ideology of fashion. “It has been a pleasure to discover that they were wrong,” she laughs. “People have become so used to ordering goods and waiting for their delivery, they just adjust to a different timetable.” Of course, the company does its best to serve clients who have a tighter schedule.
Anna Ruohonen has developed her brand concept over the years. She started in the traditional way: designed a collection, went to a fair, sold the samples and managed the production. But gradually, she started to question the process. She had to compete with new kinds of shops, e-commerce grew stronger and the competition against large brands with their efficient marketing departments became tighter. She also noticed that her customers wanted new things. How could a small brand remain successful?
The answer lays in size. Being small also means flexibility and agility. And more personal, customised service based on a profound understanding of the target group. Anna Ruohonen does not sell standard garments, but her clients always get the right size and colour. The price is, of course, higher, but Ruohonen would like people to think of clothing as an investment. “After all, it also matters how often you wear the garment, how long it lasts... When you buy something timeless, it is a kind of an investment.” In Ruohonen's view, the current focus on shopping is absurd. “It is the great product that should make us happy!”
Of course, this is not the easiest path for an entrepreneur, and Ruohonen is developing her company continuously. When the company sells its products directly to consumers, there are no buffering effects provided by retail chains. Anna Ruohonen's brand is a pioneer among fashion entrepreneurs. Instead of low prices, mass production and quick availability, her company's strengths are customisation, eco-friendliness and local production. However, the company also differs from micro-enterprises and independent artisans.
A concept that is based on customisation and on-demand-only products is more sustainable, because it means that products are only made when needed. And having to wait for the product increases brand commitment. After the wait, the client gets a customised garment that is made from high-quality materials, can be used for a long time and, hopefully, also brings joy for a long time.
According to Ruohonen, aesthetics should never be compromised. It is the first priority for the client, she says. But production methods and places are also becoming more and more important. The problems of the fashion industry are urgent and global and require immediate resolution. The designer’s responsibility for the production chain is a sensitive issue, and designers should take the chance to educate and guide their clients towards more sustainable consumption.
Anna Ruohonen is also interested in technical advances in the apparel industry: recycled fibres, new materials and changes in production and distribution technologies. The cycles and processes of the fashion business should change: nowadays, new collections are presented six months before they hit the stores, and consumers become bored with the products even before they are available. People’s craving for new things is insatiable, although our perception of what’s new and what’s familiar is only imaginary, Ruohonen laughs. She relies on her classics. People want to buy them year after year, and if they wear their favourite piece out, they can replace it with a new one, because the same model will still be available.
Creative processes and teamwork
Although Anna Ruohonen does not consider herself as a couturier, she is uncompromising when it comes to her vision. When one has found her own vision and aesthetics, they must be followed consistently. She refuses to analyse her own creative process and wants to preserve a certain amount of mystery around it. She is inspired by life around her, particularly in her hometown Paris.
“That is what makes Paris so astonishing: I can sit at a café or in the métro and get inspired,” she says. “There are constant visual stimuli, different cultures, different outfits... My inspiration can come from a workman's trousers or a person who wears something in an unexpected way. That’s how I get the vision. Sometimes, it can be a film, a piece of music or an emotion...”
The next step is designing. She always starts with the fabric – trying how it falls, drapes and behaves. Anna Ruohonen doesn’t really sketch, she drapes fabric on the mannequin. All of her new products are created like this, through a design process. Sometimes she cuts and sews the prototype herself, but usually, she lets her skillful tailors do the work. The technical details are also finalised with the tailors. The whole team discusses the solutions together at fittings, but Ruohonen always has the final word. And because there is so much work, Ruohonen has an assistant designer with whom she tosses around different ideas and exchanges opinions.
At times, she might edit a finished product that is already available in shops – change its material or details. The simpler the product, the more intricate the design process, Ruohonen says. The garment and its silhouette must be impeccable. Another challenge is knowing when to stop, not to over-design the piece.
In addition to her own collections, Anna Ruohonen has designed, for example, clothes for Nanso, jewellery and accessories for Aarikka and home textiles for Finlayson. She finds working with large enterprises and the apparel industry interesting: there are so many things to learn, new possibilities. However, she can stay true to her own style; after all, that is what she was asked to do. Another area that interests her is making costumes for theatre and dance, which she has done in France.
Signs of the new times
“Tidens tecken”, Signs of the Times, is a book on the connections between fashion and design in the 20th century, authored by two Swedish fashion experts Tonie and Claës Lewenhaupt. The book draws comparisons between fashion and industrial design and social and cultural phenomena in different decades. Similarly, Anna Ruohonen’s work reminds one of contemporary design paradigms: customer-centred design, functionality and practicality, ecological and ethical considerations.
Anna Ruohonen has always seen herself firstly as a product designer and secondly a fashion designer. “I consider designers like Kaj Franck and Wirkkala my forefathers in the sense that proportions and the right match between form and material have always been important to me. After all, proportions are what aesthetics are ultimately about... When the product enhances the best features of the material, I feel like I have done something right. The symbiosis of form and material is something I keep working on extensively,” she says. “And finding the right form is always more important to me than following the latest fashion.”
She hasn’t lost her passion for fashion design and constantly finds new areas of interest. The fashion business is not without its challenges, she says. “Somehow, I don’t think it’s enough to make nice clothes anymore. We designers must rethink the big picture. There are so many other elements that are crucial: the client, the concept, the solutions you provide now and in the future... I think our old approaches to fashion and brands are far too narrow.”
Anna Ruohonen has firm faith in her own vision. “Every day I feel more convinced with my choices. This is the inevitable vision for the future that we must follow.”
© Anne Veinola 2017
Photo: Anna Ruohonen Black Classics collection, photo Victor Matussiere