Rebekka Bay certainly has an impressive resume for someone who says she “never really wanted to work in fashion.” In 2006, after doing trend forecasting for several years, this Dane was tapped by H&M to create COS. The success of that launch led to many other international creative directorships, including with The Gap and Uniqlo.
Last year she moved back home to Denmark with her family, and became the creative director of Marimekko, a Finnish brand that specializes neither in minimalism nor basics. In her personal life, the designer is devoted to monochrome (she Zoomed with me from a white room, wearing a cream-colored sweater, while sipping what looked like white wine). But there’s no avoiding print at Marimekko, and Bay doesn’t want to. What she does want to do is look at the bigger picture, drawing on all aspects of the 70-year-old company’s heritage, like its connections to nature and architecture, and its long-term commitment to letting a woman’s body be free in her clothes. The values on which Marimekko was founded are in sync with Bay’s own “belief system in creating great design of great quality for the many.”
Here, Bay discusses sustainability, the company’s vast archive, and what it’s like being a Dane working for a Finnish company.
What’s your history with Marimekko?
Of course I have known Marimekko my entire life growing up in Denmark…. When I visited Marimekko the first time, which was probably five years ago [when I joined the board], there was this immediate wanting to be part of something that is bigger than just—and I’m saying that in quotation marks—just fashion. [Sometimes] you have these turning points in your life when you visit a place and you [meet] with people where you immediately feel that there’s a connection. I was already in love with Finnish design, I’m a huge [Alvar] Aalto fan, so it was a short distance to fall in love with Marimekko and the city [Helsinki]. I fell in love with the people, and the brand, and the printing mill—this idea of printing fabric in your headquarters.
How do you make the leap from the minimalism of a COS, say, to the print explosion that is Marimekko?
I have always admired Marimekko prints the same way as I [do] furniture, architecture, and art. For me, Marimekko was always about creating great art that was applied to a canvas—and the canvas just happened to be a dress. I love all the components of Marimekko, this idea that a dress is something you can run in, [that a] dress will have pockets, and [be] versatile, and for everyday: It’s my entire belief system in fashion. I have this opportunity now to apply great art, or great wearable art, to ready-to-wear. I feel like I’m just celebrating diving into this archive of prints. A lot of Marimekko prints are super bold, very architectural, very graphic, which is everything that I have always used as reference.
Can you explain how you are using the archive?
We’re building on 70 years of history, which is unique. I think being Danish, or being non-Finnish, is actually an advantage here because I am less sort of dragged down by the heritage of Marimekko and so excited about all this material we have on hand and what we can do with it.
There’s so much in Marimekko history that is super, super relevant today, more relevant today than we could have imagined. When I look back at the early Marimekko pieces…there’s really no ideal around a body shape, or a person’s age, or size, or height, or color; it’s more this idea that you will be the bearer, or the carrier, of a piece. And then I also think [what is] more relevant than ever, [is that] Marimekko has been a very female-led company throughout the 70 years, and really sort of celebrating inclusivity, democracy, diversity; this idea that we’re all equal, that we can all participate. And I think now what really attracted me to Marimekko, besides the obvious, is also this idea that design can happen in collaboration, that you can be a community, and it is in the interaction and the collaboration and the dialogue that great things happen. So there’s this super open approach to what designing means, and really not trying to follow trends, or even being concerned with following or setting trends, because [the company] sort of lives in its own world.
In its 70 years Marimekko has sometimes intersected with fashion, but Armi Ratia, the company founder, always insisted that it wasn’t fashion at all. Why then present at CPHFW?
During my time on the board of directors at Marimekko, I was always the one opposing participating in any fashion or runway presentations, and I’m still very much taking the stance that I don’t think Marimekko has anything to do with fashion or seasons. We’re trying to create something that is evolving, rather than being seasonal. We’re there not so much for fashion week, but more because Copenhagen Fashion Week has set super ambitious targets in terms of sustainability. We at Marimekko published a very ambitious sustainability strategy at the end of last year, something that is for me of highest priority and has really shifted how we think about designing and materializing. So I view our participation in CPHFW not as a seasonal presentation—and I can promise you it’s not a runway presentation—but more a commitment to participation, and a promise to take sustainability and sustainable actions, super serious in everything we do. In that context, I think Copenhagen Fashion Week has become an amazing platform to participate in this sort of bigger promise, a bigger ambition towards more sustainable actions.
Can you speak a bit more on your approach to sustainability?
I think one of the biggest changes I have made to Marimekko internally is that I’m really sort of imposing this idea that to be truly sustainable we need to think sustainably even before we design. It cannot be an afterthought. It’s not just in the material, it’s how we think about silhouettes and fits and materials and prints. And maybe that [goes] back to my belief system that there is something like creating great design of great quality for the many. For me, that is the most sustainable thought, this idea that you can create something that is bigger than the time you live in, and it’s bigger than the season, and it’s bigger than yourself, and it’s bigger than your team, and it is developed and designed through dialogue and collaboration. I’m sort of super Danish in my thought that it’s not about individuals or egos; it’s really sort of figuring it out together and there’s not one part that is more important than the other, and I think that’s what Armi was about, too.
You’re a Dane designing for a Finnish company. What similarities and differences have you observed between the countries?
I actually think there’s a lot of synergy between Danish and Finnish design. I think both in Denmark and in Finland we have this affinity for material and architecture and nature. So when I say I’m a huge Aalto fan, [I mean] I so admire his idea of architecture and nature playing off each other and with each other, which I think is very Danish in many ways. The love for organic material and functionalism is also shared, [but] I think the shape language is very different. When I visit Helsinki I’m always very aware of the Russian influence; there’s more decoration and more art nouveau. I think Denmark has recently woken up to the strength of someone like Aalto, because we’re so nationalistic with design and architecture, but I do think that we share this love for material and nature and light and space more than the other Nordics.
Where do you want to take Marimekko?
I’m very focused now on refining or finessing or cleaning up the shapes, ensuring that the shapes and the silhouettes and the fits are relevant today. As much as I love the A-line dress… there is a huge difference in the A-line shape that we loved 70 or 30 years ago, and the [one] that we love today. I really would love Marimekko to be as famous for shapes as for print. I think we have always just been a canvas, and I would love us also now to be [about] shape; to be famous for the perfect A-line, or the perfect fit and flares. I love this idea that even if our prints are organic at times, or ornamental, the shape language is very architectural, it’s very graphic. I’m really not one for darts and shaped side seams, so [our work] is also a little bit of cleaning up. How do you create shapes that fit a lot of different bodies equally well? I would love Marimekko to fit my grandmother and my little sister equally well.
What about styling? Would you ever consider adding plain pieces to pair with the prints, which might open Marimekko to a larger base?
The challenge with solids is, what is the reason for it at Marimekko? Or, how do we make it Marimekko? Even when I was on the board and working with the team, I was very concerned with [questions] like, can we create prints that are solid? What does it mean to create a print that is almost not a print anymore, like a print that is more like a shadow of a print or works as a solid? I can tell you there are solids in the collections now because I really feel like we need to create a bit of a rhythm, or a little bit of a pause. Sometimes a print is stronger against a solid.
You will see for the summer collection that we’re working with black on black coloration, for example, or changing the background, or the canvas color, to be less white, and having a bit of a pinkish or peachy tone; I think it’s so interesting. I’m very much from a color forecast background, so of course I’m changing the colors. There’s still green and red and yellow, but just by tweaking the levels or the gray tone…. I think that the Marimekko prints are as relevant as ever, but relevance is really in scale and tonality. and, and I’m really intrigued by this idea that we can create new prints that look like archive prints, or we can change the scale of archive of prints to make them feel super modern.
I think we’ll be creating collections that are increasingly combinable, modular. [To show that there’s not one way of wearing something. For me, making something relevant is also to allow ownership. I really want to create something that you can then decide how you want to own it.
What exactly are you showing in Copenhagen?
We are producing another digital presentation. I love the digital format. I’m really not a runway kind of person, I find it a bit boring and detached, and it’s difficult to create complexity. Also, I still fear that so many people cannot travel, and I really love the democratic value of a digital presentation.
The summer collection is formed around this idea of developing silhouettes that are very architectural, but also very botanical. I really think that Marimekko has the ability to have a very sophisticated language, but also something more feminine and casual and with more frivolity.
I have introduced this idea that we don’t have seasonal themes. We have themes that carry over for a year. So for the year of 2022, we are exploring this idea of new folk. New folk, because I think this idea of craft and naive arts and expression is more relevant than ever. And I think it’s a global expression that [doesn’t belong to] one country. [Folk is a] shared expression, not an individual folk [one]; it’s created in a culture, in a group. So we have explored what is modern folk. And then for every quarter we will look at a new expression of folk. For summer 2022, it’s the expression of botanical. I love this idea that botanical is not necessarily floral or pretty; it can be animalistic, or it can be challenging. I really just want to create beautiful dresses that are super wearable, that you can run in, that you can own.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Originally Appeared on Vogue