February’s Weekly Studio takes us to the world of Laura Juslin and Lilli Maunula, the forces behind the brand Juslin Maunula. They talk about the big changes in the fashion industry, the relationship between form and fabrics – and about Lady Gaga.
Lilli Maunula (vas.) and Laura Juslin at their studio in Ullanlinna, Helsinki. © Veera Konsti
I realised after I asked to interview you that I had actually been to your studio before, almost exactly two years ago, to interview Satu Maaranen. What a nice coincidence! Let’s start with an introduction. Who are you and how did you come to work together?
Lilli: We studied fashion together at Aalto. We did our first and second years together, but then I left to do other things and Laura stayed to finish the degree. I think it was 10 years before we saw each other again, but it was in preparing for Pre Helsinki 2015 that we met again. Laura had been invited to show and I was participating as a set designer.
There was a good energy between us and we wanted to continue working together, but we weren’t sure whether our collaboration should provide design services or end-products. It’s a tricky question, actually, and one we’re still trying to answer because they are two very different businesses. Should we be a design studio or a brand selling products? I think we’re at a crossroads where we need to decide.
Laura: I would add that part of the reason we ended up working together is that we share a vision of combining a multi-disciplinary approach. Lilli is a trained architect who wants to work in fashion. I’m a fashion designer with a strong interest in architecture, so it was a natural partnership. We never needed to decide who does what. We both do what we’re best at and we complete each other quite well.
In terms of whether to be a design studio or a brand, is this something you feel you have to choose between or can you see a future where you can be both?
Lilli: We would love to do both, but being a brand selling products requires a serious marketing and sales strategy. At the moment, the company is just me and Laura and we would really need a whole sales and marketing team to make a success of ready-to-wear. Selling products requires marketing muscle.
Laura: And with only the two of us, we don’t have time to do both. Just ready-to-wear alone would take up almost all of our time.
That seems to be a key issue in the fashion industry at the moment. The pace is crazy and the work-load extreme. The number of collections that brands are expected to produce is absurd, so much so that even designers with huge teams and resources are overly stressed, so I can see how two people working on their own would find it difficult.
Laura: Luckily, it’s changing. The big players in the field are starting to change the system.
Lilli. There is a trickle-down effect from these big players and we are allowed to break away from this system. But it will take a while before new systems get embedded to the point that it would be considered acceptable to produce only one collection per year.
Right now, if we produce only one collection a year, no one will buy because that’s not what buyers want. They want big collections, something like 100 pieces of clothing four times per year. And the expense of producing 400 pieces a year, let alone marketing and selling, is so vast that it almost seems pointless to even try if we don’t have the muscle to do it. But then again, we also want to try to find our own way of working at our own scale. And that’s a challenge for us to figure out.
Laura: And at the moment, it’s still an absolute necessity to present at a big fashion week like Paris or New York. If you think that you work on a collection for six months and then you only get six days to sell. And if no one buys, which actually happened to us this time…
Lilli: That’s very normal, actually. When you’re a young company, you don’t always get orders immediately. Buyers often wait until you’ve been showing for a few seasons and then they buy.
© Veera Konsti
© Veera Konsti
So, the current system is clearly not sustainable. What needs to change, in your view, to better support younger brands?
Lili: The pace and the volume. If we could produce pieces that were carry-over styles from season to season we wouldn’t have to design from scratch every year.
Laura: I really hope that the idea of seasons becomes meaningless. You don’t need four, you don’t really need two. Even one would be enough.
Lilli: If you think of a company like Iittala, they have certain styles in stock all the time. And they launch a completely new design every few years. But they also have the old classics from the ‘60s available as well, so you layers which is so much more interesting than new designs all the time.
It seems that consumers don’t want this either as the fashion industry is increasingly criticised for un-sustainable production methods. I’m actually a little bit surprised that bigger changes haven’t emerged in the industry.
Lilli: I think small brands have already started becoming more sustainable. They face a similar dilemma to us, and they produce less and repeat styles annually. But it seems like those brands still aren’t respected very much.
The valued brands are still those big names who produce big volumes at a fast pace. Streetwear is really hot right now. Everybody wants to buy street wear and young, 25-year-olds are prepared to pay almost anything for a special branded hoody. The young generation is going crazy for brands. So, it feels like, on a bigger level, things are going in completely the opposite direction and if we jump off the bandwagon, we’ll be all alone.
Fashion media continues to perpetuate the glamour of endless consumption, though. Why do you think there’s such a disconnect still between the reality of the industry and its image?
Lilli: It’s clearly to do with money. Products sell better behind a glamourous façade, but that isn’t necessarily a reflection of the truth. Fortunately, some magazines have started writing openly these problems. Vestoj, for example. The editor in chief Anja Cronberg writes quite openly about these issues.
© Veera Konsti
We’re getting a bit deep into industry concerns here. I wanted to ask about your interests in combining fashion and architecture. Could you talk a bit more about how the process of creating fashion in a spatial context works?
Lilli: We start the design process of the clothes, accessories and the spatial installation – the entire collection – in parallel. The spatial element is not something we add at the end when the clothes are ready and the models on stage. It’s very deeply integrated in the collection from the beginning.
Because we’re both involved in the design of the ready-to-wear and accessories, we’re both very embedded in the world of the collection. The installation is more integrated into the collection than a mere backdrop. We try to intertwine the two. For better or for worse, I sometimes think there’s a risk that the installation takes too much attention away from the clothes. But our intention is to strengthen the whole experience of the clothes and so far, I think it has been quite successful.
Laura: That’s actually a key part of how we started. We both share a vision of a brand that isn’t just wearable products, but a complete three-dimensional experience.
Lilli: The reality is that sometimes we have to scale down. If we had endless budgets, I think we could do really amazing experiences, but we don’t have endless resources so we do the best with what we have.
I read in a previous interview about the bubble-wrap fabric which you had made for your last collection. It seems like fabric is a crucial component of your designs?
Lilli: We work with an amazing Italian factory that makes couture fabrics for a lot of the houses, and fabrics have become a key part of our collections and our designs really draw attention to the fabrics. We hope to be able to continue in this way. If we moved into producing clothes in a cheaper price range, it would be difficult to work with textiles of this quality and I think we would lose a lot of our identity.
In terms of the relationship between form and fabrics, do you sketch first and then look for fabrics, or fabrics first?
Laura: Fabrics are absolutely crucial to our designs. Fabrics come first. That’s where a lot of our inspiration comes from, actually. Fabric and colour.
Lilli: That’s reflected in the industry calendar, too. The fabric fair always happens before you start the design process. So, fabrics first, but you at least need a theme in mind. As far as the form goes, we try to be clever in that we aim for something flattering on the body, but with a simple, functional shape. And all the excitement tends to go on the outside.
This is a bit silly, but that makes me think of the stereotype of Finnish culture related to the seasons – hide in the winter, go crazy in the summer. It’s kind of an inversion of that. Instead of hidden excitement, all the excitement is on the outside…
Lilli: It’s funny you say that because we don’t have a huge market for our designs in Finland because people don’t want to stand out so much. So, we can either design a more commercial line in grey and navy and black clothes or we can find markets where people look to stand out. That’s why our aim has been for the business to be abroad, not in Finland.
Laura: For the accessories, these are easier to sell at home, because people don’t mind being a bit more daring or wearing colours.
© Veera Konsti
© Veera Konsti
© Veera Konsti
You’ve recently collaborated with Peacebird, a Chinese manufacturer. Satu and I also spoke about working in China, so it seems there’s a strong demand there for Finnish designers.
Lilli: Last night we actually sent over sketches for the second collection and we’re going out in two weeks to finish that off.
And how did that come about?
Laura: We have an agent in China who we met through Pre Helsinki. Last October we went to meet five clients and started to work with three.
Lilli: Peacebird was the one we most wanted and it has turned out to be the best collaboration. The quality has been excellent with beautiful results. There’s such a strong demand for design in China and it’s easier to sell design services there than in Europe or the US because they really need design knowledge and designers.
Laura: But you have to have connections.
I’ve just been in Shenzhen for the opening of a new design museum and all of the rhetoric was about how much China needs designers because they don’t have their own…
Lilli: Well, they do have their own fashion designers who are really good. Maybe the reason they use us is because, going on what we’ve heard, the big Chinese designers are being divas and it’s easier to work with young Finnish designers because we don’t demand so much.
Laura: We also have a really good agent and that has definitely helped us get clients. Our agent used to work for Vogue and in China they love reputations so they trust our agent.
Lilli: I’ve also wondered why would they want to work with us and how did we get this job.
Laura: I think Lady Gaga was another reason, because she wore our coat almost exactly the same time we met the client.
Does that affect how you design? We need to make sure we design stuff that Lady Gaga wants to wear?
Lilli: That’s actually connected to a problem we’ve had, which is that our collections are more show collections and we’re missing a commercial part. If we wanted to sell more clothes, we’d have to produce “wearable” clothes in sellable colours. We weren’t thinking about Lady Gaga when we designed the collection, but it’s a bonus if a celebrity wears our clothes. Although, celebrities in general don’t have great style, so we don’t design with that in mind.
It sounds like you have a lot of work to do, but also a lot to think about for the future. Are you planning a RTW collection for 2019?
Laura: We’ll definitely do an accessories collection.
Lilli: I think we’d need a business person to join the company if we’re going to do another collection. Someone with experience in fashion marketing and sales who could help ensure that any future investment would pay off, someone who believed in us and could help us sell the collection. Ask us again in a year’s time. Right now, we’re still making decisions about what to focus on next.
© Veera Konsti