Representing the creative future

Heikki Salonen: Fashion as a service to fabric

The RCA alum talks Fashion East, letting your materials drive your process, and why today’s designers need to be more than just that.

Life in the shadows suits Heikki Salonen just fine: in the manner of Cristobal Balenciaga or Martin Margiela, he has never been one for the press pandering expected of fashion folk in vogue, nor a dictator of the meanings of his designs. This comes down less to shyness than it does to a shade of punk defiance that colours his work. Not the kind of adopted ‘attitude’ that looks nice in tartan for an editorial, but an actual fierceness of spirit that upends the encultured expectations of clothing.

Around the turn of the decade, Heikki was London’s rising star for longer than the usual hot minute. Presenting his namesake label twice under the Fashion East banner so soon after his 2008 graduation from RCA, his float to the top was a matter not of ‘if’, but of ‘when’. That ‘when’ has since come: Heikki quickly rose the ranks of OTB’s Diesel, and has, since 2013, stood at the creative helm of the diffusion line of one of Paris’ most revered, and certainly most secretive, houses. That’s a five-year leap from fresh-face to design director. 

The opportunity cost for such a vertical rise was 2012’s announcement: Heikki Salonen’s brand was to be placed on hold. Any mourning was put to an end in 2015 with the announcement of ‘Deadstock’, a comeback in equal measures ragged and luxurious, and a tribute to the forms and fabrics of garments past. More recent years have seen an SS17 collection whose roots extend to leather-clad bikers and suffragettes, and the launch of Vyner Articles for AW18. 

In a quirkily fronted townhouse just off Regents Canal, the fresh-off-the-Eurostar Finn meanders from the fortuitous beginnings of his brand, through fishing the bins of fabric mills, through laying the foundations for ‘ArtWorkWear’, to why he won’t speak to students unless they have their goddamned fabrics with them. 

“Having your own brand is one of the most expensive hobbies that you could ever imagine. It’s time-consuming, money-consuming… it just consumes a lot.”

Heikki: Looking back, I don’t think there’s a single Heikki Salonen collection that I’m embarrassed of. With some of the other brands I’ve worked on, there have been a few where I think this or that could have been a bit stronger, or that I should have been a little more honest with myself; but with Heikki, I’ve always known that I’m doing exactly what I want. I’ve always allowed people in to interact with Heikki, but there came a point when I began to feel that I should take greater control of the brand. I find it a bit worrying when designers begin to feel like that, so it was good to start work on Vyner Articles. It’s allowed me to focus on what I love most in fashion: the collaborations with sound designers, print designers, photographers, stylists. That’s why we’re all here, isn’t it? 

1 Granary: Speaking of why you’re here, I’d like to jump back a bit. You graduated from RCA in 2008, quickly going on to launch your namesake brand, and present with Fashion East for two consecutive seasons. Was this the trajectory you always had in mind? 

Wendy Dagworthy was still the school’s director back when I was there. She would always say “Heikki, you really should consider starting your own brand!” I’d never make that mistake, I thought. I wanted to gain industry experience and learn from people I really respected. But then International Talent Support 7 came around and I won the Diesel award. Robin Schulie from Maria Luisa, the boutique in Paris, came to me and said they’d wanted to give me their award, but couldn’t as I’d already been given one — so they offered to buy my graduate collection instead! I said OK and that was that!

You’ve often spoken of the importance of honesty to Heikki Salonen in particular; how did you navigate maintaining your creative integrity when launching your own brand straight after graduation? 

I think that the honesty is still there in Heikki, I’ve maintained more or less the same design process throughout. I was a pattern-cutter at Erdem throughout my studies, as well as while designing my first Fashion East collection. It was great to learn directly from him, to see how he builds a collection and to measure how I build mine against that. He works like a couturier, a real dreamer — I’m the polar opposite! My goal has always been to create narratives that come alive through other people, I want the wearer to bring their stories to the clothes.

“My research always has something to do with nature, my Scandinavian heritage, and notions of gender neutrality, all of which are somehow bound with sustainable production practices.”

I just want to return to Fashion East briefly — how key was the platform in allowing you to create your brand? 

It was extremely important, and London has been such a supportive city to work in. RCA, the British Fashion Council, Fashion East: they’ve all been incredible. But when I look at things as they are now, I think it’s a little worrying, scary almost, to see how many new designers are being churned out; there’s a new ‘star of London’ every season. It can make people get quite big-headed sometimes, they lose sight of the goal they had setting out. And I think it can often shape people in the wrong way, it’s very rarely that you see that people have taken the right things from it. But, obviously, I think it’s all worth it if you have, say, three designers that do get it right, it’s pretty difficult to sustain more than that. 

But fashion is so trendy now, it’s really fashionable to be in fashion. It’s wonderful that it’s become a much more open, democratic space, but there are just so many designers, photographers, casting directors ‒ I mean the phenomenon of the casting director is particularly funny, they’re absolutely everywhere! Regardless, I really feel that I wouldn’t be where I am were it not for Fashion East. And then also being part of the BFC’s Paris showroom, being exposed to buyers, the press, all of the mechanisms around fashion: you just don’t have a clue about any of that when you’re studying. A designer should never be the one looking after sales, for example, but they should at least understand how it all works.

Heikki Salonen then went on hiatus in 2012 as you focused on your work at Diesel and other OTB brands. What were your reasons for putting the brand on hold? 

It was a matter of time and resources. And money: having your own brand is one of the most expensive hobbies that you could ever imagine. It’s time-consuming, money-consuming… it just consumes a lot. Some people get what they want from it, if fame and recognition is what you’re after, but that was never the case for me. I always wanted Heikki to be solely about the clothing. In fact, I’ve rarely given interviews, it’s only now, because of Vyner Articles, that I’m beginning to. I feel that it deserves press coverage. It’s not about me, but rather the community surrounding the brand. I’m just the one leading it, or rather the one inviting people in. That’s why it’s important that we’re now opening up to journalists. But fashion journalism today is so polarised…

Absolutely! Something worth asking off the back of that is: how difficult a space is it to navigate from a designer’s perspective?

You can hardly navigate it! There are booby traps everywhere! But there are many relevant publications in London, and elsewhere of course, that are providing critical fashion coverage. It’s so important, and something that I’ve really missed. 

In 2015, you revived Heikki with ‘Deadstock’, a bricolage of the fabrics that you’d used in previous collections. How did the decision to return to the brand come about?

Well, the use of deadstock fabrics has always been there in previous collections. With this collection, it came down more to the fact that Hostem [the Shoreditch concept store] was willing to collaborate and make my dream come true. Heikki has been a bit like that all the way through though. From the second collection onwards, I was working at Diesel simultaneously. It’s a long story, but next to Diesel was the Bonotto fabric mill, there in the fields of Italian countryside that I would walk through to get to my flat. Thursday was trash day, so I would go and collect all of the fabric samples that had been thrown out, I was just in love with what they produced. I told the Diesel studio manager, who then, without my knowing, spoke with the owner of the mill, Giovanni Bonotto.

To tell him that you were going through his bins? 

[Heikki laughs] I ended up meeting him actually, and he thought what I was doing was great! He allowed me to come to the Bonotto factory and select my fabrics. He’s also one of the most prominent art collectors in Northern Italy, and the biggest collector of Fluxus in Europe, which is part of the reason why I’ve been such a great admirer of Fluxus for the last ten years [Heikki gestures towards a sizeable collection of Fluxus books on a shelf behind him].

Anyway, the fabrics I was able to get hold of were simply amazing! He’s a man that travels the world to research and combine techniques. He’s honestly taught me so much about how to create, how to be creative and how to maintain my own design note when working with others. So that’s why I’ve been using their fabrics ever since. Apart from the first Heikki collection, every one has been at least 50% Bonotto. I only ever use end-of-rolls, never specially produced fabrics: there might be 50m of this or that left, and that’s what I’ll take. There have been times where I’ve really loved a fabric, but there’s only enough to use it for the front panel of piece, which is how the fabrics themselves came to direct my design. I didn’t want to do much of that with the earlier collections, but it made sense to adopt this approach for ‘Deadstock’. Every piece was directed by the resources that I had.

“Think of a bass drum in techno; there are two types that all producers use, and yet distinctive, original music is constantly being created.”

That reminds me of Cristobal Balenciaga’s design process and dedication to obeying the wants of the fabric.

Absolutely. And everything was done in reverse before I met this guy. The fabric choice was always last. Now, I can’t understand how designers can do that, having a certain idea in mind and then going out to find the material for it, that is. Unless you own a mill and can actually make it happen, you’re never going to be able to just find the fabric you have in your mind. Now it’s always about the material first. My grandad was a carpenter, and in carpentry, you always select the wood first. It’s a similar situation when producing music as well.

Since you’ve mentioned music, I must say that one of the first things that came to mind on hearing ‘Deadstock’ was a pun on ‘Woodstock’. Looking at the collection, this seems to manifest itself in the patches tacked on to jackets and trousers, almost like band patches.

Completely, and also the materials refer back to old Heikki collections; if you’re aware of them, you know that this patch is from this season, that one from another. They refer back to collections as if they were, just that, bands. 

The story it tells is important, but I never want its presence to be too obvious in the actual clothing, it’s a bit too much for the wearer. I want there to be keys of interpretation that they can pick up on, but that they can also apply their own personal meanings to. If they know that this patch is from a certain collection, great, but it could also be that a leopard print patch means something particular to them. 

The approach you’ve adopted is fundamentally sustainable, but they aren’t credentials that you explicitly promote. Why is that? Has “sustainability” become a dirty word? 

Yes, perhaps, but it should also be something so natural that we don’t need to shout about it. It’s 2019, it should be embedded within us to produce sustainably. My research always has something to do with nature, my Scandinavian heritage, and notions of gender neutrality, all of which are somehow bound with sustainable production practices.

Given your work with deadstock fabrics and your referencing of previous collections, it’d be interesting to hear your take on what originality in fashion is. Does something need to be ‘new’ to be original?

Think of a bass drum in techno; there are two types that all producers use, and yet distinctive, original music is constantly being created. There’s a common language, but the contexts in which you hear it make you reflect on possible new meanings and functions. Fashion is always a matter of many things coming together in a host of different contexts. That extends to whole outfits. It’s frankly amazing how different a single outfit can look on different people. I love losing that control, where I no longer dominate the garment and it takes on new life through its wearers. 

That sense of different notions coming together in new contexts fuels your SS17 collection. You have point-collar leather jackets and buckles giving a hardened biker’s masculinity, which is then complemented by headscarves and printed references to Tove Jansson, early Finnish feminist Minna Canth, and Emily Davison, the pioneering suffragette. 

It all began with Emily Davison. I went to this exhibition documenting the bandana-wearing women of the Hells Angels. I’ve always been a feminist and great admirer of Tove Jansson, one of the great Finnish authors, and of the suffragettes, and noticed the similarity between Emily Davison and Harley Davidson. You wouldn’t put the two together at first glance, but I felt there were some key similarities in their ideals and how they lived their lives.

For that collection, one of the first things I did were all of the lino-cuttings of prints using wood-carving techniques, marrying early 20th century methods with classic Harley Davidson-style motifs. It was time consuming to say the least, I worked on about one a day.

That’s another thing I noticed in this collection, how you employ certain techniques to pull these references together. The use of visibly rough stitching is a good example. It draws attention to the act of hand sewing and its importance across history in the creation of radical identities through clothing: punks sewed; suffragettes sewed; bikers sewed.

Yes, I think that’s a very valid point. I’m also a great admirer of Japanese boro stitching and the techniques employed by old English prisoners of war. The same stitch is found across all of these cultures, but its placing and the lines you choose to create through them really has an effect on how you view its cultural positioning: this relates to America, that relates to Japan, for example. Or that’s how they figure in my head. 

Anyway, for this collection, I began with these [Heikki shows me through a portfolio of illustrations that serve as the starting points for his collections]. 

When you begin sketching, do you set out with certain motifs in mind? Or do they arise organically during the sketching process? 

Both really. I usually spend a couple of days on each, figuring out the silhouette and trying to understand what can come out of it, to see what garments can be produced. Sometimes it’s quite abstract, more of an artist’s approach, which I hate! I’m not an artist, I’m a designer first and foremost and I love to make products. Looking at my sketches, you can see that the most distinctive features of the collection, like the seam down the front of the sleeve, come pretty early on in the process. I already knew what I wanted to do here, but by repeating through the sketches, the exact shape I wanted it to take became clear. Then it was off to the pattern cutting table!

But funnily enough, I never return to those drawings again. It’s a similar process at the other brand I work for, where I collaborate with Robbie Spencer [Dazed creative director]. It’s great working with him, we both really feel that collections should always refer to the past, while hinting at the next collection. It fosters a sense of respect to your customers as well.

“I see myself as a service provider saying: “This is the product, do whatever you want with it.” If that means the clothes go somewhere I didn’t necessarily expect, that’s all the better.”  

Off the back of that, there are some subtle common features across Heikki, Vyner Articles and your other brand. How conscious are you of keeping your work at the three separate? Or, on the contrary, how consciously do you cross-pollinate? 

No, there’s no conscious effort, they keep themselves separate enough as it is. With Vyner Articles, I’m actually trying to introduce a bit more of Heikki. This first collection was a new venture for me, the opportunity to produce a new sort of collection. But, after the first collection already, its visual language is independent enough for me to easily introduce elements of Heikki without the risk of it becoming a Heikki collection all of a sudden.

Vyner Articles’s name is taken from the street on which your studio sits, known for its community of artists. Is the brand directly influenced by life on the street it calls home? 

100%! In fact, when I was studying at RCA, I used to live two blocks away and come here every Thursday for different gallery openings. There used to be seven on this one street, one of which was owned by our current landlord. It was so important to me to be here on this very street; the space matters a lot. 

How would you describe the project of Vyner Articles, especially when placed next to Heikki Salonen? 

There’s nothing particular that I’m trying to say, as such, it’s more a case of allowing people to speak through the brand. I see myself as a service provider saying: “This is the product, do whatever you want with it.” If that means the clothes go somewhere I didn’t necessarily expect, that’s all the better. Anna Pesonen, for example, she owns perhaps 100 Heikki pieces, and will always ring me up to ask if it’s ok to chop the hem off, or something like that. “Go ahead, it’ll look fantastic!”, I say, so she now has an amazing collection of self-fashioned Heikki shift dresses. She’s a fashion person, of course, but I’d love to see a chef, an artist or anyone else doing similarly. Vyner Articles should be even more open to that. 

“It could even be the way someone walks that flips a piece from something that appears aggressive to the total opposite.”

Vyner Articles draws heavily on archetypical workwear silhouettes, but there’s still a sense of tapping into rebellious youth cultures; skateboarding features prominently, for example. 

Of course, but this collection was also the laying of a foundation for the brand. We call it “ArtWorkWear”, a collection that treads the boundaries of artwork and workwear. Whether you produce art in it, or turn the clothes into the art itself, the doors are very much open to the wearer’s own creativity.

But I began this collection with sketches of figures that are known for the strength of their personal style. When you think of Peter Saville, for example, you see him in a turtleneck and white jeans, or Basquiat is always in a tailored suit. He completely recontextualised the suit; without him, it would be really hard for me to understand it in the same way. 

Looking at them helped me to understand what the collection needs if we’re looking to create a wardrobe for today’s creative. There needs to be a turtleneck, there needs to be a suit, a pant or jacket at the very least.

This research also made me realise the importance of colour to Vyner Articles. I’d never been much of a person for colour, but it really makes sense to focus on it when producing these stripped back, almost stereotypical, garments. What colours do they need to be in order to look new? I mean, look at Basquiat wearing a red t-shirt underneath a blazer, that’s what made it new. Of course, everything is offered in white or black, we’re catering to artists after all, but then we produce pieces in colours that are odd somehow, sorbet tones you wouldn’t be able to find from Levi’s or Carhartt, for example. It triggers something in you, you recognise the shape, just not in that particular colour.

“I want fashion to be like what it was when I’d open an issue of The Face: there would be musicians, artists, a piece on the best clubs — and then the fashion would appear there, in the middle of it all. You’d see people styled in ways that totally embodied the energy of their times. That’s fashion to me.”

How do you relate to the changing tide in menswear? We’re increasingly seeing challenges to and disseminations of traditional understandings of masculinity, especially here in London.

Yes, it’s a really exciting time to be making menswear. I’ve never considered myself a romantic when it comes to longing for the past, but I am in a more ‘poetic’ sense. I’ve always hated ultra-masculine dress, but then I’m producing workwear, which couldn’t be a more petrol-stained, beardy framework to work in. It’s a matter of creating mixed messages, like when you look at skinheads and punks wearing close to the same outfits. Just as with the patches in the Heikki collection we discussed, this collection has little hints that subvert traditional understandings of the clothing. That comes through even more strongly when the pieces are worn. It could even be the way someone walks that flips a piece from something that appears aggressive to the total opposite. 

Something I’d like to touch on is a key feature of recent fashion discussion, the distinction between ‘the designer’ as an artist-like figure, and ‘the creative director’ as someone who delegates responsibilities. As someone who fulfils both roles across the three brands you work with, what do you see as the key distinctions between the two? 

Wow…big question! Well, I think I’ve always been more focussed on the collaborative side of things, which entails a more directorial approach. I find it quite difficult sometimes to work with people that identify solely as designers. That’s my most common question when interviewing people: what do you do when you’re not designing? Please say that you do something besides fashion, I always think to myself, even better if it’s something non-creative. I think that’s where you draw the most inspiration from, that’s where you get the energy to design. If they say they love partying, thank God! At least you know that they enjoy life beyond a stitch or the point of a collar. Take Azzedine Alaïa, for example, he loved hosting dinner parties and cooking. After all, It’s so important that you don’t lose yourself. I’m always worried when I see the teams in some houses working weekends and nights. I just don’t know how they do it, or how directors can allow their designers to do that. 

Another hot topic is the ongoing relevance of a traditional fashion education. Your work really wears the processes of its making as badges of pride, so I was wondering to what extent you would attribute the ability it displays to your formal fashion education? And how important do you think it is to pursue one today? 

Extremely. You need to be familiar with so many different notions in order to be able to play with them. If you don’t know how to pattern cut a bomber, then how will you make an oversized one? In order for us to evolve and remain relevant, it’s super important to know more. 

A fashion education is vital. As I said, I used to design ‘the wrong way round’, sketching and then trying to find the fabric. To be honest, a tutor should have told me that before I left school, that you should always start from the material. But now, whenever I go to RCA to teach, I always ask to see the students’ fabrics first. They’ll often say they’re going to the fabric shop later… No, you can go now and we can speak when you can bring them to me! You just can’t invent those materials, you need to see them, feel them and then create from there. 

That brings me back to what we were saying about Balenciaga, who actually did develop a fabric to fulfil his designs, silk gazar. As you mentioned, we obviously can’t all do the same, but the fact that the most influential couturier of all time showed such a respect for the cloth complements your point quite nicely.

Exactly! Cristobal has always been an inspiration, he’s one of the reasons why I’m still designing today. My first Fashion East collection was really heavily influenced by him. I was looking to combine clothing inspired by my Scandinavian heritage with Balenciaga’s big bows and cocoon backs. I think the respect he had for his profession and the people around him demonstrates the perfect balance between being a designer, an artisan and a director. It’s a very humble approach.

It demonstrates a placing of your craft above yourself.

And we see so little of that now, that’s what’s shocking, truly baffling! Why do people want to be famous before they actually know what they’re doing today? Look at how Raf came in, or Helmut Lang. They were so absent in the public eye, it was only about their clothes. 

But coming back to what we were saying earlier about fashion journalism; growing up in Finland in the 90s, magazines were my only real point of access to fashion. That’s how I fell in love. I read The Face and grew up with London’s scene from afar. The Helsinki scene was always quite DIY, though I guess that this has stayed with me in many respects, especially when it comes to understanding that limited resources can be a good thing, just as it was for Lang and Margiela. I want fashion to be like what it was when I’d open an issue of The Face: there would be musicians, artists, a piece on the best clubs — and then the fashion would appear there, in the middle of it all. You’d see people styled in ways that totally embodied the energy of their times. That’s fashion to me.