We love designers that bravely pave the way for a more conscious fashion industry. Aino Kovalainen, the creator behind the one-woman slow fashion brand Nokonen (in Finnish: "nap"), tells us what makes her handmade items from nettle, hemp and raw silk unique.
Words: Meri Frig
Nokonen has been described as a fresh breeze of Scandi-inspired urban fashion. Can you tell us more about the Nokonen design concept?
I aim to create timeless, multifunctional clothes. I don’t design seasonal collections, but every product collection takes shape according to our needs. From Nokonen, you can order items that are guaranteed to be unique. I paint all patterns by hand, and there are no identical fabrics. I don’t like high street fashion. I can’t wear clothes that are often seen on the streets myself. Nokonen has not perhaps yet found its final form as a brand. But I would hope that when the brand is still establishing its place, it would retain the urban uniqueness that is one of the most carrying themes at the moment.
Previously, you have mentioned that eco-cotton is not sustainable enough for your purposes. What could be some recommended ways for the eco fashion industry to become even more sustainable?
I cannot call myself an expert on ecological fashion, so I am not necessarily the right person to advise how the industry should operate. When it comes to my own work, I always aim to do things as ethically and ecologically right as I can. I am sure this is how small and big businesses should operate: not always aim for the cheapest, easiest, and fastest solutions, but to research all alternatives carefully. Even small changes matter. I find it a bit difficult myself to call Nokonen an ecological brand. Because I see that, when new material is created and brought to the world, it always burdens the environment, when transportation and energy consumption are all taken into account.
"I have noticed that simple things often come across more valuable and more durable."
Even better-than-usual options may become unsustainable, if mass-produced. Using ecological arguments in selling a product is, to a large extent, image marketing: the actual environmental consequences are not fully understood or known. This is why I do not want to emphasise ecological characteristics in marketing, but what I want to communicate to the consumers is that the materials I use are better options, compared to materials, such as cotton and polyester. Buying from smaller (slow) fashion brands improves supply chain transparency.
In addition, timeless design contributes to the ecological sustainability of a product. Designing clothes in seasons encourages people to acquire clothes that are in use only for a short while. When a new season arrives, you have to throw away 'old' clothes to make space for new ones, and consequently, textile waste is created in abundance.
I design a new product to a collection when it is needed, or when I feel inspired. It is possible to satisfy the need for the new even with a small amount of clothes. Designers should bear in mind how much they can influence consumption habits and bravely opt out from the customary system in the fashion industry.
"Designing clothes in seasons encourages people to acquire clothes that are in use only for a short while."
You use nettle, hemp and raw silk as materials. What are these materials like? How are they sourced?
These materials are very luxurious. The nettle fabric is a light and breathable material with a silk-like shimmer. I think it is perfect for festive attires as well. The nettle fabric is stronger than cotton or even linen, the products prepared from it are durable. Nettle grows in very poor soil, enriching it. It does not need fertilisers and pesticides or artificial irrigation, so it is naturally organic. The fibres of the materials that I use come from China, and the production of the fabrics occurs in Italy. The manufacturing is non-toxic, respecting the environment and the employees. I paint and dye all fabrics myself in my studio in Helsinki.
"Designers should bear in mind how much they can influence consumption habits and bravely opt out from the customary system in the fashion industry."
You pointed out that timeless and luxurious design can be created from many things. What are some inspiring examples you have come across?
I cannot name any particular thing or person, from where I get my inspiration from. I come across inspiring things so suddenly: when walking in the city or in nature, in an art exhibition, in a dream, from different cultures. It is very hard to give any specific example. The products are the results of many sources of inspiration. It is important to keep the models simple in the design process. I have noticed that simple things often come across more valuable and more durable.
You see yourself more as a craftswoman rather than a fashion designer. Why is that?
At the moment, I do everything by hand in Helsinki. I design the products, paint the fabrics and sow the products. My products are mostly produced to order. In the future, I would hope that I could outsource sowing, so that I would have more time to focus on design work and product development. I still want the products to keep that unique handcrafted style. You cannot really compare Nokonen to bigger fashion brands that produce great amounts of products on a large scale in factories. Nokonen offers urban style handmade products, produced in small scale – not high street fashion. I personally also shun away from the superficiality of the fashion world, the tough competition and hectic pace. I want to consciously stay away from that world and do things in my own way, as I see best.