Carolina Forss: is there space in the industry for everyone?
Words Emily Burke
The Aalto graduate on her love of Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck, showing her collection at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, and why she thinks there’s room in the industry for everyone.
While many designers may start by focussing on their draping or pattern cutting, Aalto University graduate Carolina Forss, the self-professed “Helsinki-born cosmopolite’, considers the most essential component of her design process to be developing the narrative behind the collection and the attention she invests in her textiles. ‘‘Although I don’t spend a huge amount of time on the pattern cutting, the designs are driven by the historical narrative and then further developed through the textile element.’’ Indeed, with its delicate sheer fabrics, intricate smock pleating and strong silhouettes, the thread of that narrative can be traced clearly through each of her garments.
“My BA work was inspired by the concept of an American housewife who decides one day to run away from her perfect family and life; in one hysterical moment, she’s gone, just like that.’’ The tale of an unpredictable and empowered woman from a bygone era transpired into her initial MA work, which told the tale of an aristocratic woman in Europe in 1916, who during WWI started visiting Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, a popular meeting place for artists associated with the Dada movement.
For her final MA collection, however, she turned her attention closer to home, drawing upon the creative climate of her homeland one century ago: ‘‘The end of the 19th century was the true golden age of Finnish art, when the country grew into its creative and national identities. The influence of art in Carolina’s work, and life at large, is evident, showing itself in the art-historical references that pepper her work and her decision to undertake an artist residency at Paris’ Cité Internationale des Arts. “At times, my life feels like it revolves around art. But this is the same for most of my friends.” Her muse? Helene Schjerfbeck, a painter during this ‘golden age’, well known for her self-portraiture as well as for her involvement in the creative scenes of cosmopolitan cities like Paris.
‘‘There is a lot of anxiety about the fashion industry, but my mother always says there’s a place for everyone and I truly believe that. Of course, it’s hard, it’s uncertain, but uncertainty can be found in almost any aspect of any career.’’
Carolina’s journey into fashion was paved with a certain naivety: graduating high school, Carolina chose to complete a foundation course in fashion design in Sweden, simply as a way to leave home and start new adventures. Since then her view on fashion has changed, in no small part thanks to the education she went on to pursue. Though Carolina completed her MA at Helsinki’s Aalto University, her studies have also seen her pass through Vienna’s Universität für Angewandte Kunst under Bernhard Willhelm, and complete internships in New York at Eckhaus Latta and at H&M in Stockholm. Her interest in fashion research has also seen turn to writing, which was featured monthly in Finnish fashion magazine Gloria. The cross-disciplinary aspect of fashion is something the designer has a particular interest in. Most recently, her pursuit of avenues beyond the fashion industry itself led her back towards the art she loves most, namely that of Helene Schjerfbeck.
At the Royal Academy’s Summer Late, celebrating the institution’s major exhibition of the Finnish painter’s work, Carolina’s collection was presented on the marble staircase of Burlington House’s foyer. “I think they had heard about my graduate collection from mutual friends and colleagues,” says Carolina, speaking of the invitation she received from London’s Finnish Institute. “It felt like a good opportunity to show my graduate work in a new environment, a new country and for new audience.” But it was the presentational autonomy that the show offered that the prospect particularly attractive: “I was able to build the whole thing as I preferred, all the way from casting to which type of font to use in the wall tapes/stickers. It’s quite different to, say, Aalto’s annual fashion show. It was a lot of work though, you really need someone to help with the production on something like this.”
“It may not have much of an impact from a sales perspective, but then again, I participated with my graduate collection, both out of curiosity and for the experience. It’s important to be open-minded about different events and venues.”
Indeed, while the cross-pollination of art and fashion is a trend we continue to see more of, with designers increasingly taking to galleries to present their work, large-scale institutional endorsements of designers remain comparatively rare. Given the notable impact of Scherfbeck’s work on Carolina’s, her place on the platform makes sense. “Her work is so beautiful: so silent, but at the same time so loud. She is well-known for her portraits, and the way she interprets her models is exceptional. In my perspective, her work is about silhouettes, which is also where I start with my design process. She doesn’t focus so much on details, and uses muted colours with some accent colours—this also something that I feel I can relate to,” says Carolina of the effect of the artists’ paintings on her graduate collection.
While it may certainly have been a unique experience, the pay-off of such events for young designers can often be hard to measure—press coverage can be limited, and there is often no translation to sales. For Carolina, however, she still deems the experience worthwhile. “Sure, it may not have much of an impact from a sales perspective, but then again, I participated with my graduate collection, both out of curiosity and for the experience. It’s important to be open-minded about different events and venues—this may not have been a specifically fashion-oriented event, but it great to talk with people from different fields and hear their thoughts on the collection. I would definitely do it again!”
Back on fashion’s shores, Carolina’s path has recently seen her move to Stockholm, where she works for a Swedish design company, though she’s admittedly uncertain as to where she’ll be five years from now. But the designer’s own take on the industry is one that helps set her straight, whichever path she takes. ‘‘There is a lot of anxiety about the fashion industry,’’ she says, ‘‘but my mother always says there’s a place for everyone and I truly believe that. Of course, it’s hard, it’s uncertain, but uncertainty can be found in almost any aspect of any career.’’
Featured Image Helen Korpak
Royal Academy Summer Late Images