Mari Martin, the founder of the famous Estonian fashion brand Tallinn Dolls, is a recognised expert on the local fashion landscape, who is able to hold her own with equal elegance in business and art. Tallinn Dolls recently presented a special collection named ‘Wear Art’, which aims to popularise art by bringing it into our everyday clothing – in this way you can ‘wear’ your favourite artists each dy and become nothing less than a living art gallery! Life in Estonia Magazine asked Mari about Tallinn Dolls.
Tallinn Dolls is undoubtedly one of the best known and loved fashion brands in Estonia. Speaking personally, it feels like the brand has always existed. But in fact the history of the brand is not all that long.
Funnily enough, I have the same feeling! But in reality Tallinn Dolls is only seven years old – quite young in fact.
You have designed most of the recent collections yourself. But this wasn’t so in the beginning?
When I first got started, I invited the fashion designer Karolin Kuusik along and a year later designer Liisi Eesmaa joined us. The idea was to involve various fashion designers to create a kind of a spectrum, but with different angles. To have something different.
How did you arrive at fashion design — did fashion pick you or the other way around?
Actually I have never really chosen things directly in my life, but things have just come to me instead. My mother is a seamstress, my grandmother also does handicrafts, so fashion has always engulfed me. My former classmates still recall laughing at the idea that I wanted to be a fashion manager as a child!
Many of my girlfriends were also involved in fashion, and my best friend’s mother was also a seamstress, so it was kind of a natural choice. Since school I have really just sewn and created fashion.
Before Tallinn Dolls I understand you founded the company Kalamari?
Yes, together with my friend Alis Kala we founded the company Kalamari, which was active in organising fashion events and marketing; we also organised the Fashion Market. The Fashion Market came to life as an outlet for our own designs. Those were really interesting times and Alis and I are still very close, although we do not really cooperate anymore as she has moved to London. But Alis is still linked with fashion and it is really interesting to exchange impressions with each other.
How was the name Tallinn Dolls born?
I thought the name should be fun and easy to remember. We sat down with a few people and proposed some different ideas, but it was Karolin Kuusik’s idea to call the brand Tallinn Dolls. At the time we were with the fashion designer Oksana Tandit who said it encapsulated exactly who we are, what we are. So there was an instant recognition and when I hear the name Tallinn Dolls today and reflect on the whole local theme, it seems more fitting than ever.
What was your primary mission back then?
It was very important for us that the company would have a local character. This is why I had the idea to utilise various fashion designers, in order to offer local designers an outlet where to realise their ideas. But by locality, I do not mean some purely ethnic theme, but a younger and fresher approach.
It has always seemed to me that Tallinn Dolls is primarily aimed at young people.
I guess it was a bit like that when we started. Even when we think of foreign designers, it is somewhat inevitable that if you are young yourself, your creations reflect that – your ideas will have a more youthful style. If I look at the first designs that Karolin Kuusik created for Tallinn Dolls, then it is obvious that they are much more youthful than the things she creates today. After all you put your whole self, your soul and your thoughts into your creations.
Today I can say with certainty that the consumers of our brand are no longer so young; they tend to be women of 30 plus. Women who like to take life with a degree of fun, and not that seriously. Clothes after all should make us enjoy life, to help us release our creativity and sometimes to allow us to play different roles. Generally, people shouldn’t take fashion so seriously, what is in and what is out and what is right and what not. Serious things should be some other things in life – values, worldview, achievements.
At the moment you are mainly designing yourself?
Yes, as it seems to me that I know the soul of the brand the best. But we still have guest designers and we plan to continue with that.
Does Tallinn Dolls have any ambition to break into the international fashion arena?
So many brands want to get famous and make it abroad, but I think things develop the way they are supposed to. It is very often the case that you have an idea in the beginning, but then life takes you through some winding roads and in the end you still end up exactly where you wanted. Of course it is difficult to do your thing solely in Estonia as it is a small country, the volumes are small, the local customer base is similarly small… At the same time, if you want to run a global business, things become more anonymous.
Europe as a whole is small in terms of the entire globe, but there are still so many different cultural spaces here that if you wanted to appeal to all of them, you would have to create only black tops, for instance, as these suit just about everyone. That’s not what I want to do. My aim is still to discover the unique nuances of local design and to go deeper. To expand and to create for example London Dolls, Riga Dolls, Budapest Dolls, etc.
From the outset I have really wanted to celebrate local uniqueness. Perhaps I need to make the world a better place, but I simply do not like it when everything becomes similar and united. I like that people can be proud about who they are. To go proudly into the big world and say that they are from Estonia for example. I am disturbed when people feel ‘small’ because they come from Estonia. It is just wrong and I feel sorry for them. They should be proud that they are from Estonia as small places are so cool!
Are you already working on the Dolls in other cities?
Yes, tentative steps have already been made.
Recently Tallinn Dolls presented a new and very special collection called ‘Wear Art’ – please tell us more about it.
It seemed like a really inspiring and interesting challenge to bring something special and unique to the collections. In reality it turned out to be a really complicated operation with the whole rights issues and everything else, which slowed us down. But it is my motto that challenges are there to be overcome, and the most pointless activity is complaining. I participated in various training programs in London, in structures meant for creative people. There were teachers and mentors who discussed and analysed the participants’ things and my art project also came up. I got the chance to talk to many artists, and this is when the idea started to develop again.
What made the project so complicated?
The different legal aspects and IT solutions, how the printing technology should work, plus all the different design solutions. It was like a very complex spider’s web! Bringing artists along was the easiest part of it all; they were all happy that such a project was undertaken. The more so that the project undoubtedly also helps to promote Estonian artists abroad.
On what basis did you choose the artists for the collection?
We carried out several surveys and also a little poll in Estonia. We also worked with the Centre of Contemporary Art, the KUMU Art Museum, Unions of Graphic Designers and Painters who all made their suggestions. Everyone could vote freely, but we offered a selection of names to also choose from, because we didn’t want people to just name the most well-known artists like Navitrolla or Viiralt.
The results were surprisingly impressive. Several thousand people voted and the most votes went to the artist Toomas Kuusing. This was not really expected, so obviously a great result. When we introduced the collection, together with the artists on Estonian Independence Day, the items with his things attracted the most interest – that was really positive. Of course Viiralt is also very popular but I like it that people are also interested in contemporary art.
Where are the clothes of Tallinn Dolls made?
We have our own small sewing workshop, which is where we also do private orders and develop new models. Some items are made outside as well, but always in Estonia. The fabric comes from Italy and Belgium, bamboo fabric which we used in the ‘Wear Art’ collection comes from Pärnu, in Estonia.
You are a designer, but also a businesswoman. How do you reconcile these two facets of your character?
This question has long been hanging around but I do not know how to draw this dividing line anywhere precise. I am not a Gemini by horoscope sign for one thing, but an Aries – with two horns. I don’t know … I need the contrast. But I am definitely more a creative kind of entrepreneur. I am not attracted to simple solutions, and when I see that everyone does things one way, then I want to do the opposite. Ideas with a little twist as well as out-of-the-box thinking are what inspire me and get my engine revving. Furthermore in terms of design I value the concept and the entire approach. Details then often just flow into place.
But you are equally interested in both fields?
Yes, absolutely! If I do something, I need to approach it in depth. And I really like it when I have exhausted myself with one topic, I can take up another one. It balances things out. I think there are often dissonances between the business- and art world as the one side does not understand the other. But I do both and I will always find a compromise.
I don’t consider myself to be a superb businesswoman by any means, but I do believe I can see the whole picture. It has been like that since I was a child – I will not carry out a single detail without being able to see the complete picture and where I need to get to, where the different bits have to fit and so on. But sometimes I have felt like a strange hybrid, although it seems that in the fashion world there are more and more people like me these days who are active both in business and art.
Who are your favourite designers?
My biggest favourite from brands is Mark Jacobs, because he has managed to find a great balance between good design and wearability. Many designers create clothes which look gorgeous on the catwalk, but which do not have that much practical value. I have a high respect for designers like Jacobs who manage to combine successfully practicality with design.
Is there room for other things besides fashion in your life?
Naturally I am a big fan of travelling – the world is such an exciting place. I really love to travel, to keep my eyes open and sense everything. I am more and more interested in human psychology, being to move around in people’s thoughts. To discover behavioural patterns and to recognise them within different cultural spaces. I can just observe people anywhere in the world. But yes, I am inspired by many things and I am also very curious. I want to try everything myself, not just to read about other people doing things, for example.