Marimekko

"One has to dream. And one must stand out from the rest."

These were Marimekko founder Armi Ratia's famous words at the beginning of her career.

And stand out Marimekko has. Braids, shoulder pads, playsuits, androgynous pale-lipped models.... the iconic Finnish design brand has outlasted them all, and done it with a lipsticked smile planted firmly on its lips.

All bright stripes, polka dots, big, bold flowers and geometric patterns, Marimekko has been making wide, technicolour waves since launching in 1951.

The company was founded by Armi Ratia and her debonnaire husband Viljo and began life as as an oil cloth factory called Printex. It was converted to a garment factory just two years later.

Legend has it that Armi couldn't get a bank loan because she was a woman so her husband had to arrange it for her. But once the bank affairs were in order, Marimekko (as it was promptly renamed) became known as a company that was run by women for women – an impressive feat in the 50's.

"I had the idea of an entrepreneurial couple with Armi on the artistic side, and me on manufacturing and management," Viljo wrote in 1986. "But once Armi stepped into the limelight, it was a solo performance."

With the factory converted, Armi asked some of her artist friends to apply their graphic designs to textiles, but the concept didn't take off until a small collection of unconventional, wide-cut dresses were made to demonstrate how the fabric could be used.

They were shown at the Kalastajatorppa hotel in Helsinki (it's now a Hilton) and after the body-hugging dresses that were dominating 50's fashion, women reportedly 'went wild' for the informal, loose-fitting garments.

The first Marimekko store opened in Helsinki the following year. Today there are more than 80 around the world.

It's difficult to ascertain exactly what was shown in that first fateful collection, but we do know that some of the designs were by Maija Isola - the same feisty woman who created the now impossibly famous 'Unikko' oversized poppy print thirteen years later.

The fact that Unikko – which is perhaps equally famous because it was produced at a time when Armi had banned the production of floral designs – has lasted the distance is even more impressive when one finds out that there are 3500 prints in the Marimekko's archives. Seriously.

(Among these are 800 colour variations of the Jokapoika shirt – the original brightly striped shirt that has been in continuous production since 1956.)

With the return of retro prints to the runway and the craftosphere, Marimekko's vintage-esque fashion and vitreous porcelain homewares (all of which are made in Finland) are all enjoying a return to the limelight.

The fact that the generation wielding the credit cards feel a certain sense of nostalgia about the designs that bedecked their tables and windows as children surely doesn't hurt, either.

Maybe Armi did dream that her company would dress the likes of Jackie Kennedy, cross-pollinate with Finnair and Converse, and make things that were destined to become museum pieces.

But her real dream was that the brand would live up to its name – 'a dress for Mary', the every day woman in the street.

And that it surely has.

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With help from Huma Qureshi