The regular autumn seminar of the Federation was held in glistening autumn weather in the equally decorous Residence of the British Ambassador, Ms Sarah Price, and in the Embassy itself. Attended by a gathering of over 30 participants from many Finnbrit societies around Finland, the seminar presented British Fashion in the widest sense of the word, and invited us to ‘catch the spirit’ of fashion as a feature of international inspiration.
Ambassador Price opened the proceedings by admitting that in all her three years’ occupancy of her post in Helsinki, she never before had been able to attend the seminar due to pressure of work! But this year she wished us all welcome to the event, while emphasizing how fashion had become an increasingly important part of her own work of promotion for British business and culture. So even if we don’t all anguish over our fashion wardrobe every morning, in fact the current trends in style, art, and even business are very much part of all our lives.
The mental perspective
Azmina Jiwa started the series of five presentations, jumping straight into her topic of self realisation by explaining the importance of finding and retaining ‘the zest for life’. Her talk started with her personal story of her mid-life struggles to rediscover this zest, and her benefit from the words and thoughts of Marianne Williamson as well as the training from the Feelthefear workshops, where members are encouraged to embolden themselves to try to break out beyond their normal comfort zone.
Azmina recounted the story of giving her first motivational presentation at the Mind Body Soul Exhibition in London, expecting a handful of listeners and having to face a lecturehall-full! She also explained the importance of controlling what she vividly described as ‘the internal chatterbox’, the tumult of thoughts and ideas that we humans generate all the time, and which tend to become very restrictive and negative if we are not careful. With the aid of a positive mindset, and even a well selected wardrobe, we can and must work to generate a positive self image that will help overcome the inevitable fears that we all must sometime confront in life. Azmina finished by giving the audience some exercises to discuss with neighbours, setting the tone for a very hands-on and interactive seminar experience.
The historical perspective
Päivi Salo’s talk on the history of British fashion, was tied in with the introduction of her former student Elena Koivunen, currently a fashion student at London’s leading school of art and design, Goldsmiths College.
Päivi took us through the development of the concept of style in clothes, and suitably for her audience in Helsinki focused primarily of female fashion. Starting from the turbulent times of the Prince Regent, the future George IV, at the end of the eighteenth century she pointed out the role that appearance played developing a sense of belonging and even political unity at a time of tension and, across the channel in France, revolution.
Following in the footsteps of the first renowned dandy, Beau Brummel a friend of new King George, Päivi illustrated in words and selected graphics the changes in the emphasised colours, shapes and styles of the Victorians, the Edwardians and the increasingly rapidly changing styles of the twentieth century. Finishing with her own favourite designers from the 1990s, Stella McCartney and Alex McQueen, Päivi laid the path straight to feet of her protegé Elena who, by her very presence and attire, brought British fashion right into the room.
The modern perspective
Having started as a student of Russian culture and literature, it was only at the age of 23 that Elena saw her future in the world of fashion. Rejecting the world of academia she enrolled on a seamstress and tailoring evening course at the Tampere Institute. Elena stressed how motivating both the teachers and the fellow students on this course were, inducing her to apply to continue her studies in London. An administrative blunder there forced her to wait a year before she was able to start but from what she showed from her portfolio she has not suffered from this setback.
Indeed, Elena stressed how useful the practical skills which she honed in Tampere have been for the studies in London. Fashion is as much about the practicality of how materials are created and physically combined as it is about the concepts that inspire the design. The sketches of her designs that she showed at the end of her talk were as amusing as the were appealing. One particular example was a bag whose shape was almost a negative image of a traditional handbag, with that shape cut out from the centre leaving a squared life-ring hole that enabled the bag to be slung over one’s shoulder.
Elena also explained how her course in London had led to her getting practical work experience of ‘the rag-trade’ from the inside. For a few months earlier this year she had been placed in two of London’s cutting edge fashion houses, McQ (an offshoot from Alex McQueen’s own brand) and J&M Davidson. The lesson she revealed was that there is a lot of drudgery and donkey work in the fashion business, a myriad of cuts and stiches before one gets anywhere near the catwalk.
The cultural perspective
The context of the catwalk and the fashion industry was very much at the heart of the talk by consultant and media and design activist Taina Laaksonen. The title of her talk was Between Tradition and Fashion, and she too revealed how important her background in tailoring had been in establishing her contact with the fashion industry. From her origins in Tampere, Tarja introduced us to her own original work using Tamperetailored jackets which she adapted and redefined for the modern market. You can follow some of these interests at modus.fi, a Tampere based association where she is involved in raising the profile of local design, or find her on Facebook!
More significantly Taina showed how the fashion industry, together with the related fashion professions in the media, design and even blogging worlds, blends in with the creative arts as a reflection of cultural trends as well as ways of understanding the modern world. Building on the examples given by Päivi Salo, Taina showed how the way we even understand fashion is a reflection of our own understanding of culture. She emphasised how the perceptions of the Birmingham Institute for Contemporary Cultural Studies have revealed the role of ethnic influences in shaping modern fashion trends, especially in the British context. In contrast to the viewpoint of Pierre Bourdieu and his ‘trickle down’ concept of elite fashion, she sees modern fashion as an example of the grass roots’ influence on culture, showing pictures from the British punk movement of the 1970s reflected in the style Finland’s recent Eurovision entry, Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät, as well as modern fashion gurus spawned from the ranks of professional footballers.
The role of the Embassy
Finally Nina Sjöberg from the British Embassy’s Department for International Trade, deputising for Kevin McCafferty, talked about the role the Embassy plays in the promotion of British business in Finland, even in the post Brexit world. An up-and-coming fashion blogger like Navaz Batliwalli (known as Disneyrollergirl in the media world) might now expect to find a seat reserved for her in the front row at a Finnish trade show, especially after the publication of her recent book on British fashion, The New Garconne or How to be a Modern Gentlewomen. It’s Nina’s task to be aware of such developments and offer promotional support.
To wind up proceedings, Federation Chair Marjut Salminen offered a few timely thoughts on the business of fashion in our lives today. In addition to thanking all the speakers and offering appreciation for the essential help from the Embassy staff, Marjut reiterated the role of joy that is so important in life, and so readily available via a well-chosen wardrobe! But more importantly she stressed the possibility in the interconnected international world of fashion and culture that we have of ‘all being our own supermodels’. The catwalks of the world await, so go out and strut your stuff!