Can Marimekko's Colorful Prints and Crafty Attitude Conquer U.S.?

The new Marimekko store in New York's Flatiron district looks like a world adult Teletubbies might inhabit. Poppies splatter every surface, huggable pillows abound, towers stacked ceiling-high with textiles preside over the store like benevolent totems. Walking in, you feel warm, optimistic and multicultural. You might even feel cheery enough to pick up that old sewing project hidden in the bottom of your closet, armed with bright new fabric to motivate you.

Or at least, that's what the company hopes. "We provide inspiring tools for people," says Lynn Shanahan, president of Marimekko North America. "It's a brand that makes you feel good."

Marimekko -- which translates from Finnish as "Mary's Dress" or a dress for Everywoman -- is an unusual retail concept. Shoppers can buy its mod-printed fabrics by the yard, or already made into everything from ties to dresses, baby rompers to mugs, pillows to shower curtains. The brand is built not around a product-type such as apparel or housewares, but a single common material, for which it dreams up a range of different uses.

On Wednesday, in the 4,000-square-foot flagship store, shoppers embraced the Utopian mood. One mom -- also a womenswear designer -- was buying "ragrug" print fabric to make a school outfit for her 4-year-old son. A doctor bought a yard of Lumimarja or "snowberry" print that she plans to stretch over a frame and hang in her office.

The idea is that if people like the prints, they can incorporate them into diverse areas of their lives -- and even think of new ways to use them. But do today's sophisticated New Yorkers really want loud, retro florals in their wardrobes? And as the brand plans more outlets around the US, can it really inspire a generation raised in Rooms-to-Go to pick up a needle and thread?

First lady's Favorite

Jackie-O would say yes.

Fifty years ago, the Finnish design house -- first conceived in 1951 a textile-manufacturers' wife with a scheme to perk up post-war Europe with prints -- was made famous by Jackie Kennedy, who wore the company's dresses on her husband's much-photographed presidential campaign.

The mod fabrics and loose dresses, with their liberated, bohemian edge, soon caught on with the masses. In the 1960s and '70s, Marimekko was sold nationwide at 50 retailers, with its own section in many of the big department stores. In 1967, the company formed a partnership with Crate & Barrel, which began selling its fabrics by the yard and using them in designs.

But an aesthetic that defines an era is also quick to lose its appeal. By the time founder Armi Ratia died in 1979, Marimekko's popularity had already begun to wane as its prints became dated. In 1987, the company opened a flagship store on 56th street in New York in an attempt to rebrand. As the New York Times reported in 1988, "[Marimekko] does not want to be clothier to the aging hippies and middle-aged leftist intellectuals who made it famous 20 years ago."

But the effort proved vain, and the store closed two years after opening due to high overhead costs. In the '90s, owners largely stopped pursuing the international market, and Crate & Barrel ceased to sell everything but the fabrics.

A Swinging Comeback

Today, Marimekko is back and ready to sell its hippy past. Since 2000, company has expanded its market in Asia, in particular Japan, where its prints have attained a cult following. Meanwhile, in the U.S., Crate & Barrel has reintroduced some of its Marimekko products, culminating in the opening of seven Marimekko "stores-within-a-store" last year in New York, Florida, Chicago, San Francisco, and L.A.

Since joining the company in 2007, CEO Mika Ihamuotila, a former bank CFO, has pushed for international expansion. New flagship stores are slated to open soon in Boston, Miami, Stockholm, Oslo, London and Copenhagen, as the Finnish newspaper Helsigin Sanomat reported in August. Still a small company, with sales of $150 million in 2010, global sales grew by 23% in the first half of 2011.

A New Nest in the U.S.?

Ihamuotila acknowledges that investing in New York "is a considerable risk." Still, his company suspects that Americans are ready to trade their "heavy, masculine" interior furnishings for "fresher, more simplistic forms," as he told the Helsingin Sanomat in 2010.

But even with its new New York flagship open, Marimekko is a long way from finding its way into Michelle Obama's closet. While the prints are remembered by many, they remain a distinctive, niche look. And even the most crafty, Martha-Stewart-worshiping housewives of today buy less designer fabric than their 1970s-era counterparts.

Shanahan is optimistic about the success of the fabric by the yard component. "There's been a resurgence of nesting," she says. "In this economy, people look at themselves and say, 'I have some creativity in me.' Rather than hiring a decorator, they want to learn how to do things themselves."

Marimekko's fabric line will be competing with large textile and craft stores, which have hundreds of locations across the country and sell a huge number of brands at a range of prices. At Jo-ann Fabric's 750 or so stores, for example, printed cotton fabric can be found for as little as $10 a yard. Meanwhile, the cheapest Marimekko fabric starts at $28 a yard and is only sold through the company's store, its website, its Crate & Barrel's partners, and handful of independently owned "concept" franchises and specialty design stores.

Still, perhaps Marimekko's specialty designs and unique retail strategy will be enough to distinguish it as a shopping destination. Another Nordic retailer -- IKEA -- has succeeded wildly in importing its design aesthetic and unusual shopping model stateside.

IKEA has also done much to raise awareness of Scandinavian design in the U.S., says Mara Devitt, a partner analyst at McMillan Doolittle. This has helped pave the way for a store like Marimekko.

Devitt is optimistic about Marimekko's success, comparing its retail strategy to that of Laura Ashley twenty years ago. "Marimekko sells a curated look," she says. "Which, if you like, you can access in one easy stop, and also have the ability to creatively bring it into your home environment."

Laura Ashley was wildly popular in its time, covering everything from fabrics, to sheets, to clothing with sugary bows and roses. Still, "The look became tired," Devitt says. "This will ultimately be the challenge for Marimekko."