The quiet radical
Rebekka Bay is one of the most respected women in fashion, the visionary who created Cos in 2006 and later joined Gap as creative director. In 2017, she was hired by Uniqlo to head up its Research & Design center in New York. She's had some of the biggest jobs in fashion, and last year Rebekka returned to Europe to join Marimekko. Thoughtful and open, and defined by her integrity she goes against all the stereotypes of ‘fashion’.
You’ve worked at some of the biggest brands in the world. What was the appeal of joining Marimekko in Helsinki?
I love that Marimekko has this long history, 70 years and a huge archive, and I love their approach to the creative process: Marimekko works like a collective. So, it was this idea of joining a brand with a long history and a long history of working with women – by women for women. And then, over the past years, it has become increasingly important to me to join a company that takes a strong stance on sustainability.
Marimekko has always been a female led company. What difference does that make to the brand?
It’s created a culture inclusivity and diversity. Our founder Armi Ratia was ahead of her time. She was a change-maker and a trailblazer. Her approach to design was to lead style, not to follow fashion. She founded the company wanting to create a creative community.
That seems super relevant today, this idea of working as a collective.
Yes, that’s my point about her being ahead of her time. She definitely proposed something that seems super relevant today, but at the time was almost unheard of. There's really something super modern in this way of creating together. So, it's less about the individual, it's less about the ego or putting the designer at the top of the organization. It's much more about bringing skillsets together. That approach is extremely relevant today.
What’s it been like going back through this vast archive? Is there a downside to joining a brand with such a strong DNA?
It’s a treasure trove, and for me, there is no downside. Or, I haven't met the downside yet. I love designing within a framework or within a manifesto. And the archive creates the framework. So, I do see that as a great challenge, we have this opportunity to explore what it could mean or how to make that more relevant today.
You’ve been at Marimekko almost a year. What have you focused on in the first year?
First you need to embed yourself in the company and the company culture. And of course, I joined during a really strange time, working remotely mostly. Obviously, I knew the company, so I didn't walk into unknown territory. So, during my first year, I have really focused on creating new strategies, assortment strategies, simplifying processes, proposing new ways of working, proposing new concepts, and focusing on how we can really embed sustainability at Marimekko.
We are more than a year into the pandemic now. Has the past year changed your vision for Marimekko?
No, the pandemic hasn’t changed my vision. I think that maybe it has allowed me to really distill the vision because the way of working has been so different. We needed to be much more focused, much clearer. There’s not been a lot of time for casual interaction, informal meetings. We have needed to be super precise in our communication. So, the pandemic has not changed how I think about Marimekko or my mission for Marimekko, but it has forced me to be even more precise in how I articulate that vision.
How are you working on making Marimekko more sustainable?
Last year Marimekko published a very ambitious sustainability strategy, which is super important to me. I don't believe that that fashion brands have a role in the world unless we start to address what it means to produce garments. For me sustainability is not just about the raw material. It's also addressing this idea of creating timeless design or creating something of long-lasting value. It is focusing on sustainability in the design, trying to create garments that can be repaired, passed down or passed on. It is using deadstock material, leftover inventory, scrap fabrication. So, it's really trying to take taking a very holistic approach to what it means to design with a sustainability mindset.
Why does Marimekko come to Copenhagen?
It’s a really good question. Marimekko is at Copenhagen Fashion week because first of all we are a Nordic brand and we really want to be part of the Scandinavian fashion tradition. More importantly, Copenhagen Fashion Week has a focus on sustainability within the industry, which is something that is so connected to our ambition at Marimekko. So, it comes at a time where both Copenhagen Fashion Week and Marimekko are focusing on some of the same objectives.
What are the benefits of the industry coming together at events like CIFF?
Now more than ever, it is important to stand together as an industry and not be so scared of sharing our experiences, to be more transparent and engage more in conversations across brands. It’s about coming out of the pandemic, but I feel that as an industry, we need to figure out how to be more sustainable in our practice. And there’s a lot of knowledge to be shared among brands.
Like the rest of us you have been stuck at home a lot over the past year. Are you enjoying getting out into the world again?
I am aching for social interaction, both professionally and personally. I'm super sociable and I really thrive on collaboration and teamwork. So, it has been a strange year of being isolated. I'm really really looking forward to engaging in the world again. At the same time on a positive note, this is the first time in my entire professional life that I have not been constantly packing and unpacking. I've travelled so much over the past 25 years that it has been a nice reset or a pause. And for me, it has actually been – and maybe this sounds wrong – but it has been really exotic to be at home and explore everyday life.
What changes do you think we'll see in the industry coming out of the Covid 19 pandemic?
I believe that the pandemic has shown the industry that we all needed to tighten our ways of working. We needed more clarity about what the product is that we want to bring to market and how we want to bring it to market. So, that the pandemic has been an opportunity for brands to reset and rethink. Suddenly working in this strange vacuum has meant that we all had to stop and question how we do things and why we do things. So, the pandemic will impact the industry because the consumer is also increasingly asking: Why do I need this? Where do I want to buy from? What is behind the brand that I'm buying into?
Challenges can be positive or negative. We need to decide to see this as a positive challenge, where consumer demand has changed because the consumer, like the industry, has had a time to reflect.
You have returned to Scandinavia from New York. What have you enjoyed most about being back?
For me coming back to Scandinavia was not so much coming back, because I haven't lived much here for the past 25 years. What I enjoy the most about being back is the light, the seasons, being able to jump into the harbor in Copenhagen, being so close to nature, being so close to the outdoors.
What do you miss about being in New York?
I really miss the diversity of New York. Maybe I wouldn't miss it if I was there now, but I miss the trash. I miss the entrepreneurial spirit New York has. This idea that you can do anything, and anything is allowed. I miss the food tremendously. I miss Mexican food, tacos. I miss the New York City Ballet. It's totally random what I miss from New York. But definitely living in a city that has inhabitants from all over the world, cultures from all over the world.
How is the work culture in New York different from Scandinavia?
The biggest difference between working in New York, or for a big corporate brand, and then working in Scandinavia is our approach to work, our approach to each other. In New York, working for The Gap or working for Uniqlo, which is Japanese of course, everything is hierarchal. You're expected to have the answers to everything. So, there's very little collaboration. Whereas when you work with Scandinavian brands it is all about the collaboration. It is a more democratic process.
What advice would you give to a young person starting out in the industry?
My advice would be not to ignore the importance of strategy and process. That creativity really thrives better within a framework and with a defined process.
And to an established brand?
Don’t ignore intuition, improvisation, the importance of sometimes just jamming, allowing creatives to be more free in the process.