How to dress like Jackie O

Fifty years after America's First Lady of fashion took the boat trip that launched the brand, Marimekko's prints and patterns are conquering the world again
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Marimekko is having a moment. Another moment, to be precise, as almost half a century since Jackie Kennedy put the Finnish design house on the global fashion map its bohemian florals and bold graphic prints are back in vogue in a big way. The iconic 1960s designs, perfect for this season's bright and beautiful patterns, would have looked as fresh as ever on the spring catwalks. No wonder fashionistas from high-end to high street are hooked.

Take Manolo Blahnik, the high priest of footwear. He has splashed Marimekko's most iconic print, Unikko, a bright red poppy flower, across one pair of his masterful stilettos and used BonBon, a black and white print, on another. Dolce & Gabbana has been selling floral-spattered dresses that shriek Marimekko (even if the Italians are now in trouble with the company for, ahem, "borrowing" its famed red flower without asking. Or at least using something suspiciously similar). For those on more modest budgets, next month the Swedish mega-chain Hennes & Mauritz (H&M to us) launches a capsule collection daubed with yet more designs from Finland's national treasure.

So what is it about Marimekko that has suddenly got the fashion world so excited? To Blahnik, Marimekko is an old friend; its fabrics scattered on cushions throughout his homes. "In the 1960s everybody was wearing it," he says. "I remember my sister in their smocks. To me, their prints look more modern today than back then. There are millions of their prints that I adore but I really have a particular fondness for Unikko and BonBon."

Margareta van den Bosch, H&M's head of design, thinks its Marimekko collection, which hits stores on 10 April, will be "joyfully fresh, like a vitamin injection". The 50-piece range will feature prints from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s on cute A-line tunics, maxi dresses and smocks. There will also be items for men and children. Although this is far removed from H&M's recent tie-ups with the likes of Stella McCartney and Karl Lagerfeld, fashion pundits predict a scramble. If they are correct, the range should do for Marimekko's Noughties image what Jackie Kennedy did for it when she stumbled upon several cotton shift dresses at a Cape Cod boutique. She wore one of her finds on the cover of the December 1960 issue of Sports Illustrated. The public loved her choice and Marimekko loved the effect on its sales.

These days the label is better known in the US than in the UK. Sex and the City devotees obsessed about Carrie Bradshaw's Marimekko curtains (the 1960 print Tantsu) and loved the vintage Marimekko sundress she wore in the cult series' 64th episode. The homewares retailer Crate & Barrel has a long relationship with the Finnish company.

The story of Marimekko – which is Finnish for "Mary's dress" – dates back to 1951, when Armi Ratia transformed her husband's small oilcloth and textile printing company into a graphic-design hothouse. Charlotte Fiell, a design historian, explains: "Instead of being slaves to contemporary fashion trends, Marimekko set out to set itself apart from the fashion industry. Its first collection was so bright and colourful and just so different from the drab, earthy colours of the 1950s. The durability of its designs shows you can have fashion that is impervious to trends."

The company flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, making a name for itself as a resolutely female business, but after Ratia's death in 1979 came something of a decline. After being sold to the Finnish conglomerate Amer Group in 1985, it came close to bankruptcy.

Kirsti Paakkanen, a stalwart of Finland's advertising world, was persuaded out of retirement to buy Marimekko from Amer for a song and under her aegis the company prospered, tapping new export markets. She approved the H&M collaboration because she felt the Swedish retailer would "take the brand forward in a very trendy and high-quality manner".

It was to a man, Mika Ihamuotila, that Paakkanen handed over last month when she retired a second time. She says his gender does not bother her. "He has committed to treasure Marimekko's current culture – both internal and external."

Ihamuotila says he "deeply respects and treasures" the company's heritage. "With its design, Marimekko has spoken a language that crosses boundaries and has made Finnish design well-known the world over. I see Marimekko as a 'pearl'. However, I think the company could be much, much more."

Don't bet on that Marimekko moment ending any time soon.

Print power: Turning bold into gold

Three more designers whose iconic prints have stood the test of time...

Zandra Rhodes

Flamboyant grande dame of British fashion dressed everyone from Bianca Jagger to Princess Margaret in the 1970s. Her rainbow prints, out of favour in the 1990s, are enjoying a revival

Celia Birtwell

Romantic textiles were a winning combination with Ossie Clarke's designs in the 1960s and 1970s. Recent ranges for Topshop have been the chain's most successful

Emilio Pucci

A former Olympic skier who found fame in the 1950s with slinky silk dresses in bright, swirly patterns. Died in 1992 but his prints have lived on