From the tragic and the romantic, and 17th century Vanitas to 1-pound Tesco bouquets, Vivi Raila, a graduate of Royal College of Art’s Womenswear MA, explored the cultural associations of everything floral in her graduate collection. She learned fashion the hard way as a student at Helsinki’s Aalto University, after which RCA seemed like a moment of contemplation – securing herself a position at an international luxury house in Italy right after she finished.
Vivi Raila’s path to an acclaimed floral-bomb of a show at The Royal College of Art began in Turku, a coastal town overlooking Åland Islands in the South West of Finland. There, she studied fine art while at high school, and wanted to head to Helsinki (the capital) to study fashion at Aalto, the prestigious design university that carefully admits only 12-15 students annually. “I was told by my fine art teachers in high school that nobody gets into Aalto on a first try,” she explains over e-mail, “but I still tried out of curiosity and managed secure myself a place.”
That is not to say that Vivi was the quintessential fashion-craving, model-drawing teenager, who had dreamt of fashion school since before she could walk. “Sadly, I wasn’t one of those people who would read i-D from cover to cover in their pre-teens,” she remarks – “I wish I was. When I applied to study fashion I did not have a clue what I was putting myself into. I thought I was going to learn about creating and designing garments but ended up learning a lot more.” Nonetheless, looking back, she recognises an early interest in the visual and tactile elements of culture, always embedded in a physical object. “For me, the focus has been always in the product, but I’ve learned that the way you see a product is due to everything around it: the branding, the campaign conception, the model, the set, the photographer, etc.”
“Sadly, I wasn’t one of those people who would read i-D from cover to cover in their pre-teens – I wish I was. When I applied to study fashion I did not have a clue what I was putting myself into.”
Completing the BA in Fashion and Apparel Design from Aalto ”prepares students by teaching a bit of everything around fashion,” Raila says, including illustration, pattern-cutting, printing, dying, business and fashion history. ”It’s quite a lot what they push into the degree,” she explains: “I remember one year, my classmates and I were calculating that the school days didn’t have enough hours to do what we were supposed to according to our schedules and course requirements.” (sounds familiar, CSM?) Additionally, students compete to secure a spot in the annual fashion show curated by senior tutor, designer and artist Tuomas Laitinen and styled by Lotta Volkova. “As the fabric selection in Finland is awful, you build the collection all the way from the fabrics, by using all of the textile studios,” she explains. “It is a lot of work, but it does prepare you in a way for the future.”
So when she was to continue developing her practice with a Masters degree, Vivi first of all wanted time: time to focus on the concept creation and design of an idea, a luxury she felt she didn’t have while in her BA. “And that’s exactly what I got,” she reflects: “In my final year at the RCA, I could concentrate fully on the collection and make it more coherent bit by bit. There was a realistic timetable and help was provided towards realising the collections. We would have a lot of visiting tutors coming to share their opinions on our projects and we got to talk a lot about our work.”
A feeling of contemplation resonates fittingly through Vivi Raila’s graduate collection as a romantic examination of the floral image in all its pluralism. From abstracted flowers in acrylic paint and antique-looking lace to Japanese orchid-imagery embroidered on to transparent textiles, the collection is gothic, girly and grim all at once. Her work explores fragility, femininity and toughness, and she admits how much she enjoys contradictions. “I used to hate florals for their daintiness in my teens, but in the final collection I decided to embrace the dainty, rather than to suffocate it,” she says. She has chosen one of the most saturated and established symbols of femininity, ‘fragile’ and ‘beautiful’ as they have been defined to be, to re-signify them with meaning, and in that way, open a discussion on how we might understand ‘the feminine’. “A friend of mine once said, ‘you don’t have to look like a boy to be cool,’ and that’s what I was looking in the flowers: hat you can look dainty and fragile and still be tough.”
Her year-long research on florals and ‘daintiness’ led her far into the wilderness of lifestyle-, art- and design history; from the opulence of flowers in 17th century Dutch vanitas painting (when one single flower bulb could easily exceed the average monthly salary of a worker) to the banal £1-Tesco flower bouquets of today; from traditional Japanese Ikebana flower arranging to the 18th century paper mosaics of Mrs. Delany. “There is so much! A bit too much,” she says of her research, as she explains the different approaches she took to her topic. Looking closer at flowers as a cultural object, you realise its significant impact on fashion, visual culture, lifestyle and history.
As her garments show, Vivi kept this air of long-lost decadence with the reapplication of hand work haute couture techniques. “I really enjoy looking at couture and seeing the hours of work that goes into a single garment, the hand work, and having the luxury to invest all that time to make them precious,” she says of her process. At the same time, she is not shy to admit her love for her machinery: “you can’t beat the satisfaction of pressing a button and then the machine makes for you.” In her work, she applies both old hand- and digital innovative processes, as she (under economical constraints) find a way to create couture-esque techniques with the aid of the digital. “I was cutting over a thousand petals for the silk flowers, and by laser cutting them I could make the petals a lot more intricate, accurate and be more economical of my use of fabric than what I could manually. After that I would mould the petals manually with hot flower irons to make them all slightly different,” she speaks like a true pragmatic North European.
The RCA MA gave her the time, techniques and freedom to go exploring deep into her concept and stay there, which she finds to be one of RCA’s strongest qualities. “I think that in an MA, you really want to concentrate on one chosen thing,” she reflects as we discuss the recent changes at the Royal College. “Having Zowie Broach as the new head of RCA Fashion brought a welcomed buzz in to the college. She’s a great ball of energy who would shake you up when you were ready to bail out, and who would really try to make it happen for the students.”
Additionally, Vivi met a “great bunch of people” while studying there, and she enjoyed the collaborative ethos the college advocates. “I do enjoy working as a team for a mutual goal. Discussing a problem makes decision-making so much quicker. With two people together you have the possibility to create more than you could separately. That’s the ultimate collaboration,” she says. When she met machine embroider and future collaborator Alice Timmis while deep in her graduate project for example, she knew she could trust her when she saw her work.
Vivi barely graduated before she was snatched up by renowned luxury house in Italy, where she now functions as a junior designer. Here, she enjoys the work and the freedom it has brought with it, and seeing the functionalities of an Italian house is, we imagine, rather different from the studios of the RCA.