In 1951, Armi Ratia founded Marimekko (an anagram of Armi combined with the Finnish word for dress, mekko) and commissioned young, predominantly female, artists to create textiles and clothing with bold patterns and distinctive silhouettes, such as the now-iconic Unikko (poppy) pattern designed by Maija Isola and the unisex Jokapoika (every boy) shirt designed by Vuokko Eskolin-Nurmesniemi.
Unlike the cinch-waist dresses of the 1950s, Marimekko’s crisp cotton and open design allowed women to move their bodies freely and comfortably. Georgia O’Keeffe bought four smock-dresses, Jacqueline Kennedy bought seven shifts. Not everyone approved of Marimekko’s unconventional approach, though. One person complained to Armi Ratia that Marimekko dresses were “sexless.” Ratia replied, “A woman is sexy, not a dress.”
This perspective is reflected in Marimekko clothes past and present. Instead of molding a woman into the shape of a dress, the clothes beautifully frame a woman’s body as it is and allow her to breathe. Of course, wearing them doesn’t guarantee you’ll move confidently through the world as you are, but perhaps by making women the subject and not the object of their clothing, such designs subtly shift our focus from how the world sees us to how we feel in our own skin.
Marimekko’s website lists its core tenants as: living, not pretending, fairness to everyone and everything, common sense, getting things done together, courage even at risk of failure, and joy.
Maija Isola designed the Unikko (poppy) pattern, because Armi Ratia specifically asked the designers not to create florals. Maija Isola bristled at being told what to do and Ratia relented when she saw the quality of Isola’s designs.
Most of the company’s positions of power are held by women. As of 2015, the company was 94% women.
Armi Ratia initially wanted to be a novelist. She had even considered titles and covers: Vacuum (black cover), Miracle (white cover), and Mirror (she couldn’t decide on the cover, perhaps because what we see in a mirror changes).