Representing the creative future

Fashion Schools in Lockdown: AALTO, Finland

The staff and students at AALTO, Helsinki, have hopes for a more sustainable industry

Aalto fashion student Janette Laakso working from home

“Normally, this would be the busiest time of the year with all the hustle and bustle leading to the show,” says Tuomas Laitinen, course leader of the fashion programme at AALTO, Helsinki. The designers emerging out of Finland’s fashion factory are facing challenges imposed on them by the global COVID-19 pandemic. We caught up with five BA students and their course leader to see how lockdown has changed the way they work and the industry they face.

On 16 March 2020, the Finnish government announced that the country is in a state of emergency due to the Coronavirus outbreak. Following other countries, the nordic republic set restrictions in place and closed all public spaces, including schools. With more than 6,000 confirmed cases and over 4,000 recovered, the population, overall, seems to be improving, while the economy is now suffering. “The situation is better than in many European countries,” says Laitinen. This is reflected by the government’s recent decision of easing measures and letting people gather in groups of ten.

Usually in May, final year BA students would ambitiously and tirelessly prepare for the annual fashion show “Näytös”. Their graduate collections – ranging from fashion to exhibitions to theatre costumes – would have consisted of a minimum of five looks accompanied by a written thesis to be submitted in August. With everything rescheduled and put on hold, a new plan had to be made.

“We’re trying to make graduation happen in August with new criteria adjusted to the current situation.” – Tuomas Laitinen

Leevi Ikäheimo

“We’re trying to make graduation happen in August with new criteria adjusted to the current situation. The students will submit their written thesis and instead of full looks they have a reduced range of products which are key to their collections. If they still want to complete their graduate projects, they can work at the AALTO facilities until the end of 2020 and receive elective study credits for their extra work,” explains Laitinen. All current final year students can show their collections along with next year’s batch and their digital as well as physical portfolios will be sent out to agencies and fashion houses.

Working from home, Toivo Rajala
Aalto fashion student Toivo Rajala working from home

As accommodating as the new requirements and schedule may be, students have undoubtedly encountered difficulties ever since lockdown became a reality. On an emotional level, it took everyone some time to come to terms with this strange, new situation.  “A feeling of depression and lack of motivation took over me,” says Meri Malminen whose collection revolves around crime scene investigation and the death of cloth. Like her fellow students, she packed all her work up, but was not able to touch it for many weeks. The lack of routine, equipment, and studio space makes it hard to focus and continue the creative process. Most of all, however, they miss the camaraderie between them. “They inspire me and we learn so much every day from each other,” says Janette Laakso.


Fittings by Venla Elonsalo

Needless to say, the teaching staff at AALTO did not remain unaffected by the lockdown. As the nature of teaching is workshop-led and collaborative, everyone felt frustrated and lost at first. However, theory lessons over Zoom on pattern cutting or working with different materials and fabrics have been successful and ensured that the students would not lose momentum. The priorities now are to create a new schedule, plan the university’s re-opening and make sure that students are gaining enough credits to secure financial support from the government. The class has weekly Zoom meetings with their course leader, strengthening the feeling of community and support.

Working from home, Venla Elonsalo

Until further notice, the BA fashion design students at AALTO are back in their respective homes, working on their collections as much as possible. Fortunately, all of them are safe and healthy, quarantined with their parents or in shared apartments. The isolation has given them the time to go through their research again, recollect their thoughts and maybe even view their collections in a new light. “I think it’s good to stop for a while and look at the bigger picture,” Meri says, and fellow student Leevie Ikäheimo had a similar realisation. The knitwear designer is approaching his work differently now by asking himself, “What do I want to say with my work? What are the values I want to show the world?” His collection is exploring the fashionings of the male body.

Fashion is not only creativity, but also a global business. COVID-19 has affected the industry immensely and the pandemic will surely have lasting effects on it.

Janette Laakso

Fashion is not only creativity, but also a global business. COVID-19 has affected the industry immensely and the pandemic will surely have lasting effects on it. As emerging fashion designers, AALTO’s students are naturally thinking about the future of their field. While they are realistic when it comes to the immediate future – less employment and internship opportunities –, most of them choose to live day by day and find strength and hope in the fact that all of them are in this together. Finland’s new fashion generations are positive about their individual futures as well as the industry’s at large.

Research by Leevi Ikäheimo

“I hope that the industry will become more sustainable” – Venla Elonsalo

“I’m still quite optimistic about the future. Difficult times are an opportunity to be creative and to find new ways to work and produce more locally,” feels Toivo Rajala whose collection is influenced by paintings and the imagination. The students are collectively hoping for a slower, fairer and more conscious fashion future. “I hope that the industry will become more sustainable,” says Venla Elonsalo who researched soft toys for her graduate collection. Course leader Tuomas Laitinen agrees, adding that change has long been due in an industry that endlessly overproduces and consumes. “If anything good comes out of this it will be creativity finally shining over endless and meaningless commercial products.”

Meri Malminen

When lockdown interrupted their studies, AALTO’s fashion students were in the midst of finishing prototypes,working on prints, cutting fabrics and putting their collections together. Now, two months later, they have found their own ways of making it work. Zoom parties and WhatsApp group chats keep them together and closed fabric shops are no problem when you can swap materials with your course mates. With restrictions eased and people allowed to gather, Helsinki’s underground workshops are also open again, offering students from various courses an escape from the confines of their homes.

Meri Malminen

“I think many of us have evaded burnouts and exhaustion that would have normally knocked on the door at this time of the year” – Janette Laakso

As impactful as COVID-19 and the lockdown have been for the fashion programme at AALTO, Tuomas Laitinen is convinced his students have already learned a lot from this experience. Besides being challenged to alter their design processes and think outside the box, they have already become more organised and learned how to prioritise.

“I think many of us have evaded burnouts and exhaustion that would have normally knocked on the door at this time of the year,” says Janette. This involuntary break benefited them mentally and has led them to value and appreciate their work, colleagues and tutors even more.

The 2020 graduates of AALTO’s BA programme are true creative problem solvers. As Tuomas Laitinen put it, “No crisis can stop creativity.”