Representing the creative future

Milka Seppänen: “The capacity to adapt is this generation’s biggest asset”

The Aalto graduate on making fashion that is personal, punk and proud to be sustainable

The Aalto graduate on making fashion that is personal, punk and proud to be sustainable

Milka Seppänen won the Designers’ Nest award for 2020 with a collection of mismatched animal-print mohair cardigans, trousers in distressed leather, lacey crochet sweaters, and kilts straight out of a rock’n’roll Braveheart. Inspired by old photos of her mum’s 1980s punk crowd, Milka’s collection used recycled materials to recall a time when teenagers who were angry at the establishment came together through music and fashion.

When she first presented the collection, this angst had been repurposed with an ecological slant. Now, her most pressing fears are related to coronavirus. “I am mostly worried about my friends, family and those risking their lives,” she says. “But I am afraid that, when this ends, we will wake up without the possibility of working in fashion in the same way.” While her current fears revolve around the uncertainty of coronavirus, the climate crisis is still a critical issue. Here, Milka shares her thoughts on how the punk mentality relates to sustainability, why fashion comes second to art in Finland, and what she would change about Aalto.

Things have moved quite quickly for you since you graduated. 

Yes! The collection I showed at Designers’ Nest was my BA graduate collection, because I had just graduated from Aalto University. Back in Autumn, we had a showroom in Paris, and then I was at the H&M competition in Berlin, followed by Designer’s Nest. I have been travelling quite a lot and living outside of the school bubble. Few weeks ago, I was packing up my things, ready to move to London for an internship with a local brand. It felt like things were finally coming together for me, but now I don’t know what’s going to happen or when, because of the outbreak.

 “Few weeks ago, I was packing up my things, ready to move to London for an internship with a local brand.”

Aside from potentially losing an internship, what issues has the pandemic raised for you as a young designer? What would help?

I have a hard time justifying the importance of this industry to myself, especially when I have close relatives working on the frontline of the healthcare system. At the moment, support should go to health care and other systems keeping civilization going during this state of emergency. I think governments should help small businesses and freelancers financially, to avoid bankruptcy. Otherwise, we will end up tackling issues of mass unemployment.

Coming back to your graduate collection – what has inspired it?

I wanted it to be quite personal, because it was my first big solo project. As a teenager, I idolised certain singers and wanted to dress like them. My parents moved house a while ago and I found these amazing pictures in the basement, showing my mum and her friends in the 1980s – they were part of the underground scene in Helsinki. She reconnected with her old friends from the time and they gave me more images that were a bit punk, a bit 1980s contemporary, sometimes a bit pre-grunge. I loved that those moments were related to my family, they weren’t just from Google or Pinterest. I also interviewed my mum and we found some of her old clothes from the era, which I used as the base for the pattern-making. I wanted to capture that feeling of when you get your hands on a record or a magazine and you try to do your own clumsy version of your idol’s style.

“I loved that those moments were related to my family, they weren’t just from Google or Pinterest.”

That starting point lends itself so well to upcycling, but which came first? Were you already working on upcycling and looking for a theme that would fit? 

I felt like I had a hangover from being at school, using so many new materials and seeing so much overconsumption. So, I knew that I wanted to use recycled materials, and then the whole upcycling thing fit in so well with this theme that I just went with it. With this approach, it was not just an aesthetic thing, but also a way of interpreting an ethos of the era, which was very DIY. You didn’t buy things new, you would just modify existing things to make them your own.

Your take on sustainability goes beyond the materials you choose, extending to how you modify and use them. Could you describe some of the processes you used in this collection? 

Using materials that already exist means you can even use trash in some way. Last year, I used devoré, which is very toxic, so not a very sustainable way of modifying fabrics. But I had some leftover, and it seemed like a waste not to use it. So, I combined it with the recycled corduroy and velvet and created this way of print-making that would imitate the devoré effect. I would press it on with a paste that flattened the hair on the velvet. When you know what you want to do, you can start thinking of more sustainable ways to do it. There are many ways to make fashion processes more sustainable and chemical-free, but it comes down to each designer’s capacity. 

You studied at the Lahti Institute of Design before Aalto – how did those two experiences differ and how did each one inform your current approach to fashion and design?

Aalto is very artistic, but it could benefit from being a bit more practical. We are told to be very creative, so we can bring this kind of thinking to brands when we graduate. At the Institute, it was more about learning practical skills and focusing more on ready-to-wear. Aalto has good contacts, but sometimes I wonder whether there should be more of that practical side. When you go to work, they will want to see what you’ve done in your BA collection, so they can determine what skills you have. So it’s important to start thinking about that, even on the BA. For my masters, I want to go back to Aalto, but I think I would take some other pathways outside of fashion design. I would like to learn more about sustainability. Even though I have never been very business-minded, it might be useful to have some business studies in my masters as well.

Aalto is very artistic, but it could benefit from being a bit more practical.”

That would definitely help if you wanted to start your own brand in the future. Is that something that you are considering?

I don’t know. I have always said no, but now I think maybe yes. Even though we have a really good art school in Helsinki, many people are going abroad, which is a bit of a shame. We don’t really have any investors here, but maybe having a creative community or collaboration could work. There are so many talented people in Finland, who it would be great to collaborate with.

Even though we have a really good art school in Helsinki, many people are going abroad, which is a bit of a shame.”

What support systems are in place for Nordic fashion students once they graduate and how have you engaged in those systems? Or if there aren’t any, then what would you like to see?

I don’t think there is that much in fashion. Many people go into art after graduating from Aalto, which is very good as well. Fashion is often overlooked in Finland, but it would be so helpful if grants were available. In Finland, people don’t seem to know what fashion is about. There is a long history here of art and industrial design, but not fashion. I don’t think people know how to react to all of these students. Any existing grants seem to be given more out of curiosity than genuine investment. 

Fashion is often overlooked in Finland, but it would be so helpful if grants were available.”

You recently won the Designers’ Nest award, which was set up in 2003 to support Nordic fashion graduates. What was the most challenging part of the competition process?

It’s always a bit nerve-wracking to present your work to a jury and try to make a statement in a small amount of time. But I have done that a few times already, so it’s starting to feel better. 

This is a very Finnish thing to say, but I felt totally at ease when I won the competition; it was the crowds afterwards that made me feel really awkward. When you say that you won an award, it suggests a level of credibility. For people who don’t follow fashion that much, it can encourage them to take an interest in you.  

I felt totally at ease when I won the competition; it was the crowds afterwards that made me feel really awkward.”

What sort of response have you had from the fashion industry since winning? 

The response has been really good! I am really bad at Instagram and marketing myself, and I really don’t like being the centre of attention. I have got some pretty good offers and a lot of interest though, which has been very flattering. Now, I see that these competitions are very important for anyone who would want to start their own brand, because they give you this kind of exposure that you wouldn’t get from other places.

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