“Nordic fashion needs a new north star”
The rising stars of Nordic fashion are longing for a new north star. After hearing from the young designers of Finland, Evie Kivi, Maria Ervast, Risto Kirjonen, and Eveliina Lehtisalo concluded that building a meaningful career in fashion has never been as difficult as now. In this article, the emerging talents of Finnish fashion shed light on their current reality and propose a path forward that is more sustainable — also spiritually.
By Evie Kivi, Maria Ervast, Risto Kirjonen, Eveliina Lehtisalo
22 May 2024

Reports on the Finnish fashion ecosystem have been puzzling in recent years. Every other news article seems to be about fashion graduates being awarded at Hyeres, or Aalto University being yet again ranked among the world’s best design schools. The other half of the news is either reportage on atelier brands’ bankruptcies or rumination about the fact that supermarkets are still the main destination when Finns go shop for clothing.

While Finland is known for its world-class fashion talent, its textile ecosystem has remained tiny. There seems to be a clear chasm between academia and the industry, leaving us thinking how much creative and economic potential is currently getting missed.

Curious to understand young Finnish fashion designers’ views and dreams in this landscape, we conducted interviews with a dozen of them during the winter of 2024. The interviewees were all students or recent graduates holding degrees from some of the most prestigious fashion programs in Finland and abroad. While they represented a diversity of views, a deep frustration towards the global fashion system prevailed. As one of the students says:

“I have no idea what I want to do after graduation. I can’t name a single brand in the world that aligns with my values and I’d like to work for. You either sell your soul to the commercial fashion system or starve to death trying to swim countercurrent.”

We, the writers, aspire to bring a middle-grounder’s view to the discussion on fashion’s future. While serving as messengers of the new generation of Finnish designers, our personal perspectives stem from between disciplines. We are a group of young professionals and fashion nerds working at the intersection of business, design, and innovation – and still bold enough to question everything about the current system.

Evie Kivi is a strategic designer with a background spanning venture capital, futures research, and sustainability consulting. Maria Ervast is a business graduate specializing in fashion and textile innovations, including regenerative fibers and textile traceability solutions. Risto Kirjonen is a fashion designer exploring the intersection of performance sportswear with high fashion. Eveliina Lehtisalo is a business graduate who has been driving sustainability transformation at global fashion brands.


The discussions with young designers quickly revealed that a feeling of professional disorientation is the norm – already before graduation. The conflict between creative expression and commercialism is nothing new to the industry. Still, today’s fashion designers are also expected to navigate digitalisation, circular economy, and competition with fast fashion, all while addressing environmental and social problems. Paths to artistically fulfilling, financially stable, and mentally sustainable careers are scarce – even for the top talents.

To illustrate this imbalance between dreams and means, a fruitful framework can be found in the concept of ikigai, meaning “a reason for being”. The Japanese have long been masters in balancing the spiritual with the practical – finding prosperity at the intersection where one’s passions and talents converge with things that the world needs and is willing to pay for. Viewing the reality of a young fashion designer through this lens reveals a paradox that is not only a Finnish issue but likely shared across Europe.

What they love

The journey of a fashion designer usually begins with a spark. A passion for self-expression, a love for textiles and silhouettes, and a plain obsession to bring one’s visions to life. Fueled by boundless creativity and a sheer urge to create, aspiring designers dive headfirst into the world of fashion. As one of the interviewed designers describes it:

– Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by fashion as a medium of expression and communication. My love for the art form is sincere and simple.

Fashion is also approached as a powerful vehicle for breaking barriers, challenging taboos, and shifting mindsets. Overall, the motivations of emerging designers are deeply rooted in creative expression, far from commercialism. The obligation to engage in the artistically limiting and unsustainable commercial system of fashion is almost feared by many. The young yearn for a fashion industry that values creativity, authenticity, and sustainability – a world where their unique voice is celebrated, not silenced by the cacophony of profit margins and popularity metrics.

– The only interesting things in fashion are not commercial. Actually, the most interesting and ground-breaking things in fashion are currently coming from students.

What they’re good at

The graduates of Finnish fashion schools are some of the world’s brightest minds and most skilled artisans. Fashion education in Finland has a strong focus on artistic expression and craft, aiming to train strong conceptual thinkers with unique aesthetic approaches. The students produce their collections from start to finish, making their versatile and holistic skillsets stand out in the international job markets.

– The university prepares us to become skilful and diligent executors at international fashion houses. What’s hindering my career development and creative freedom the most is actually the lack of business understanding.

While the education system creates world-class fashion designers, fashion studies’ intense and focused nature takes a toll on interdisciplinary links and relationships. According to fashion graduates, business or brand-building are almost non-existent topics in university curricula, and support for entrepreneurship or other alternative career paths is scarce. Building networks with business and technology people takes a great deal of proactivity.

What they can be paid for

The post-graduation reality of fashion often conflicts with the expectations built during university. The most financially secure career paths tend to be the most commercial, as the current fashion industry is still heavily characterised by overconsumption and linear business models. The system rewards those who profit from trendy and wearable products, not the ones with the pioneering ideas.

– Graduation felt like freefalling into the void. The only viable path was to sell your soul to commercial fashion – a career far from what I envisioned.

A post at a big European fashion house is typically the first career step for graduates. This allows designers to keep honing their skills while offering a certain level of financial stability – although unpaid internships and fixed-term contracts are a standard. Still, this comes at a cost of artistic freedom and work-life balance. While executing on the vision of a creative director may get the bills paid, it’s rarely what designers joined the game for.

– I’d love to start my own brand and shake the Finnish fashion scene. But if other designers more talented than me are not doing it, why would I succeed?

Only a handful of new fashion brands have emerged in Finland in the last ten years. Above all, this is a signal of systemic defects rather than a lack of entrepreneurial aspiration. According to the emerging designers, taking a leap of faith and starting a company would require more personal business expertise, inspiring success stories from the ecosystem, new funding instruments, and business-savvy co-founders who would still share a similar understanding of fashion’s artistic side.

– There’s a reason why fashion graduates leave Finland and go work abroad. This won’t change before Finns appreciate fashion and view it as a serious art form.

A saddening observation is that many fresh fashion graduates would love to live and work in Finland, but the state of the ecosystem makes it impossible. The commercial fashion and textile companies don’t speak the same language with young designers at all, atelier brands can’t afford to hire, and entrepreneurship is too risky for most. Moving abroad is often a matter of course.

What the world needs

The Western world ultimately needs a framework for a meaningful life, fitting within planetary boundaries and the Paris Agreement. Not new clothes, not incremental improvements. A shift towards 1.5-degree lifestyles involves a deep cultural change in status symbols and consumption habits, but the way there is still foggy. This calls for wild thinkers and imaginative dreamers who can see paths invisible to those occupied in ordinary life practicalities. As one graduate views it:

– A fashion designer’s role is to inspire. To give people a reason to get inspired and something to aspire to. Our job is to create visions that bring people hope and help them dream of a better world.

We already have enough brains, but transformation is also a matter of vision and heart. Fashion tells stories about who we are, what we value, and how we relate to others and the environment. Rewriting those narratives is an incremental step towards a more sustainable future.

We already know a lot about how things should be done. Many of the future-fit alternative models are already here – from second-hand to made-to-order, and from digital fashion to material innovations. Now it’s a matter of scaling and speeding up these solutions. Financial support from governments and regulation of fast fashion are important, but designers hold the power to blow emotion and magnetism into these new models.

– I can’t think of creating anything without a strong focus on sustainability. Alternative business models are interesting, but collaboration with business people is needed to make them work.

Caught between their love for design, the urge to influence societal issues, and the need to make ends meet, many young designers grapple with an imbalance that threatens to extinguish the flames of their passion. It appears that designers’ aspirations don’t align with traditional or modern fashion paradigms.

While the current fashion system is broken, we want to believe that the field has a meaningful role in the future. Creative thinkers are needed more than ever to imagine hopeful visions for humanity and inspire movement toward them. However, we need our designers to be inspired and content to take on this assignment. Balancing their passions, skills, impact, and reward is a dilemma that the entire ecosystem should care about.

The path forward

Here are the good news: friction usually signals that something is already changing. System-level shifts are always painful, requiring reorganisation within and between ecosystem actors. The fashion system is transitioning, and we can still decide its course. The Nordics could now take the lead.

– What’s our shared vision for the whole Finnish field of fashion? The general atmosphere is what enables or hinders success. It’s our collective responsibility to stay optimistic and act.

It seems that a collective reimagination exercise could be useful—to forge a new fashion paradigm and align all industry actors with it. If we were to let go of the elitism, materialism, and hierarchy that now characterize the system, which new values would we opt for? Collaboration, activism, and transparency, perhaps? And if brands have been the vehicles of creative expression in the past, what forms can fashion take in the future? Maybe movements, or something else in between artistic and commercial?

Whatever the vision will be, arriving there is only possible if we build a few bridges first. None of us can go there alone, and new forms of collaboration between the artistic, the industrial, the young, and the established are necessary. Universities, cities and companies can help by setting up new platforms to display and exchange different views. Not everyone will speak the same language immediately, but a collision of perspectives will eventually take us to a fertile middle ground. The fashion industry might be grounded, but plenty of free space can be taken between disciplines, vectors, and generations.

– The state of Finnish fashion would be totally different if the designers could stay and build their careers here. Collaboration and collectivism are the first steps toward that reality.

To align the Nordic field of fashion towards a shared vision, we need to collectively decide on a new north star. Thereafter, everyone in the ecosystem should recalibrate their personal compass – a reason of being – towards that target. The path taking us there is actually a bridge.

About the authors

Evie Kivi is a Helsinki-based strategic designer, about to graduate from Aalto University. With a background spanning venture capital investing, futures research, and sustainability consulting, she keeps a human-centered focus on technology and innovation. 

Maria Ervast is a recent graduate in business management and specializes in fashion and textile innovations. She has experience in regenerative fibers, textile traceability, and impact measurement solutions. Currently, she is based in Paris, France.

Risto Kirjonen is a fashion design graduate from Aalto University. His work blends performance sportswear with high fashion. Currently based in Zürich, Switzerland, Risto continues to push the boundaries of fashion design, exploring the dynamic intersection between function and form.

Eveliina Lehtisalo, a graduate of Aalto University’s Creative Sustainability program, works at the intersection of sustainability and business in the fashion industry. With experience from global fashion brands, she’s currently driving the industry’s sustainability transformation forward based in Stockholm, Sweden.