For most of her career, Rebekka Bay stewarded fast fashion’s biggest names: The Gap, Uniqlo, and H&M, where the Danish designer spearheaded the launch of COS. Her experience at those big-box brands is exactly what makes her new endeavor all the more intriguing. As the recently appointed creative director of minimalist Finnish brand Marimekko, her intention is to head in the opposite direction. “I think there’s something in slowing down the pace and allowing us more time to explore the same idea over and over,” she says. With her inaugural spring/summer collection, showcased at Copenhagen Fashion Week, the fashion world got a taste of what she has in store. Bay harnessed the house’s 70-year history to generate a lineup that fosters a connection beyond fashion and into the realms of art and architecture. But one of the most surprising revelations is her plan to eschew the seasonal model and instead design an entire year’s collections under the guidance of one unifying theme. In the process, she hopes to cultivate a more democratic luxury that bridges the divide between her two worlds.
Fresh off the runway, we ask Bay about her first impressions of the show and what to expect from Marimekko in the future.
Following successful stewardships at the likes of H&M, GAP and Uniqlo, how did you navigate the switch from the fast fashion industry to a couture house?
Growing up in Denmark, I have always been aware of the brand. About five years ago when I joined the board, I was invited by the chairman of Marimekko, to visit the printing mill in Helsinki. I absolutely fell in love with the people of the city, the brand, and the idea of having a printing mill in the middle of your office is like a dream. So I think after years of working with very large brands, retailers, and design teams, it was exciting when the opportunity came up to work at a different pace and at a different quality. It’s the first time I get to work with an archive, a fun heritage, and a really strong story. I love the collective approach to designing, which I believe is as relevant now as when Marimekko was founded. So the shift has been amazing because I now have the opportunity to be very hands on and involved in the bigger picture as well as the small details. I started my career by building something. Now I’m back to being involved in so many touch points of the brand, much more than just the collection.
Having a full-scale printing press in the office is definitely a hallmark of the Marimekko workplace and not something you see everyday! As you step into your new role, what is your vision for the fashion house?
I really want to continue the great work that has happened over the past 70 years. Specifically over the past five years, where the brands have become increasingly global and commercial, I think it is relevant to expand our audience outside of Finland. What I hope to bring to Marimekko is a little more precision: I think there’s all this richness and this vast archive, but I would also love to tighten and edit it in order to be a little more definite to ensure the collections are equally relevant for young and old, skinny and big, and to ensure that we are equally relevant in new markets as we are in existing markets.I think we’ve been very dependent on the archive, and rightfully so, but I want to expand and create a future archival of collaborations.
In its 70-year history, Marimekko has operated as an autonomous clothing enterprise. In fact, members of the board say the brand is not inherently tied to the fashion sphere. Why show your first collection at Copenhagen Fashion Week and how’s it going?
You know, it’s so funny because like, I wouldn’t know. I will probably know by tomorrow night when I start reading all the reviews. I’ve mostly been building up the store and creating the sovereign display, which is something that I love doing. I’ve seen a few shows from the upcoming brands and the Design Academy, but to be honest most of my time has been focused in the Marimekko space. I’m not generally a runway person so I prefer the digital platform.
I tend to avoid showing on runways because Marimekko is always adapting. Our pieces are not seasonal, we build into the long-term as we focus on sustainability in our designs. This year Copenhagen Fashion Week has placed a very strong emphasis on sustainability and so our showcase is a promise to our following and a wider audience that we are incredibly committed to sustainable practices.
What inspired the spring collection?
For this season, we have introduced this idea of working with themes that actually will last an entire year. I think there’s something in slowing down the pace and allowing us more time to explore the same idea over and over. So for the year 2022, our overarching inspiration is coming from new folk. I’m very intrigued by this idea of folk, local craft, the unskilled worker, and primitive arts as a way of connecting. There’s so much synergy in what folk is across the globe as it is not a destination culture. Folk is an approach to certain art, craft, dressing, and wearing. It’s a soft translation of that global costume, but there is a lot in folk costume that is really interesting to take on.
So for the spring collection, we looked at a new folk through the lens of architecture, wanting to create this heavy contradiction or something that is not historically architectural. For summer, we’re looking at new folk through a botanical lens, exploring how flora and fauna take on abstract shapes. It is also the inspiration for our color palette: chlorophyll green, marigold, and petal tones. So really referencing something that we find in nature. And then lastly, we have actually translated this idea of botany into shape. We created dresses that have organic petal-like curves to the sleeve and the contoured lines of the body. We recreated something that resembles an almost fairy tale setting.
As you weave the realms of architecture and art using fashion as a canvas, are you more focused more on the collection’s youthful essence or its ability to bridge cultures?
I don’t know if I’m concerned with youth and beauty. But I’m really concerned with this idea of connecting fashion, culture, and art—creating these conceptual abstract connections to something that’s bigger than fashion. I think that we really live through a time where beauty standards are shifting. I’m really concerned with this idea of feeling connected or being part of something bigger or understanding the bigger cultural context of what we do. And then I really hope to create a Marimekko collection that can be owned by the consumer, presenting it as a sort of offering.
I love how you describe your release as an “offering” to the public. Yet, the global disparity between fast fashion consumer clothing and couture wear is ever present. How do you view the relationship between the two?
I have worked for fast fashion for many years. I think there is a need for us to protect culture and luxury in order to develop new ideas, methods, and solutions to create new materials. Fast fashion is not concerned with the quality of the craft maybe, but it is depending on couture to propose novel ideas. My main reason for joining GAP is because I really love this idea of owning a category and owning a material and owning a shape. I think that is what the better end in the fast fashion can do as they reach and impact the wardrobes of so many people.
Couture is a smaller conversation between fewer people, but I think it is a conversation that will then be amplified, if it is relevant, because there will always be this translation into something more accessible and democratic. Both industries are equally important because I think their conversations within luxury brands are focused on the few, not the many. I’m still very much a believer that we should care for the many; I have a strong belief system that it is possible to decide quality, in terms of fit, material, and shape, for the global collective. They have to feed off each other.
Marimekko walks a fine line between these entities. How do you plan to weather the demand for fast-fashion while retaining the artistry of couture?
I really like Marimekko as a player in this field of new luxury, or more democratic luxury. This idea that we can create something wearable and available that you can engage with, without having to step into a traditional doctrine or geography in a more historical sense. So new luxury is the quality and integrity of what we do, but we can develop it so it’s available and relevant to many.
The global fashion scene used to operate on a rigorous timeline, but the onset of the pandemic has diminished activity drastically. How has the slower pace affected you and the brand as a whole?
I love the big question. I think the pandemic has sort of forced us to reflect a little bit on what is needed and what is wanted. There is this common mood that we need less, and what we have we want to understand better. That has really impacted the collection—I want less ideas, but better ideas; I want less inspiration, but better inspiration. We can focus more on how something evolves, and there’s a specific beauty to that. It’s affecting the urgency to take action in terms of sustainability, not just in terms of raw materials but also how we think about timeless design or repairability. So the question becomes how to find solutions for when we want to get rid of things. We constantly seize opportunities to upcycle leftover fabric and find purpose in the practice of reusing what we have instead of always collecting what we need. It is now wanting less, but better.