The Future Is On Our Side: A Conversation With Evelyn Mora About Creating A Disruptive New Vision For Fashion Weeks
In 2015, producer and fashion photographer Evelyn Mora launched the first edition of Helsinki Fashion Week at only 22 years of age. Four years later, her vision has flourished, and Helsinki Fashion Week has become an international talking point. From July 20 to 25 of this year, designers presented their ideas to the world, and Evelyn and her team proved how a fashion week based on sustainability and a circular economy (as well as creativity and a strong aesthetic direction) can be a new reality.
Photography by Romy Maxime, Interview by Dörte Lange
I am in awe of how young you were when you started Helsinki Fashion Week four years ago. How did you know about how to set up a fashion week?
I didn’t have any clue of how to put on a fashion week. But I had been going to international fashion weeks, I had seen fashion shows, and I had been to the fashion week parties. Initially, I just started researching why there wasn’t a fashion week in Finland. The fashion industry is a large global industry and is economically important, so it was strange that Finland didn’t have a fashion week.
I started off with trial and error. I threw a first event to see how people would react and then used their reactions as a starting point. “What do people want? What could be Finland’s theme? What kind of fashion week concept would fit here? And is there even a space in the global fashion calendar to make it happen?” These were the questions I would ask myself.
I always say that I have crazy ideas, and then they become reality. I tell people that the future is on my side. I’m going to confess it right now, for the first time: I am an artist. I am able to let my imagination fly widely and I understand the business side of things which helps me to take my ideas to a concrete level. So maybe that is the combination that works.
The way that you started Helsinki Fashion Week sounds straight out of a detective novel. I read that you tracked down the woman who organised the initial Helsinki Fashion Week that existed up until the late 1980s and bought the trademark from her. How was your encounter? Did she tell you about how Helsinki Fashion Week used to be like back in the day?
Yes, I met her. She was shy, but she gave me a lot of information. She told me that it was going to be difficult, and she warned me that people here in Finland don’t understand what a fashion week is (nor the potential of it). She said it would be difficult to get funding, not to mention sponsorships. The designers would be skeptical because they wouldn’t believe that anyone would be interested in such a small market or that any press and any buyers would ever come.
And was it true? Did you encounter these difficulties?
Yes, for sure. I had to explain to some people what Vogue is! There was a lot of resistance — there still is. I said to some industry people that I am going to bring international designers to Finland to create valuable cultural interaction, inspiration, and collaboration, which caused some irritation. There was this idea that a fashion week in Paris would only showcase French designers, in Sweden they would only show Swedish designers and in Finland only Finnish ones, which is obviously not true. These are very old school ideas that people hold on to. But I think they are now seeing that our platform makes sense because there wasn’t anything like it before, working for the greater good.
How did you find a team to help you with this challenging task?
The first event, I basically created by myself and with the help of a couple of assistants. One thing that I’ve learned about entrepreneurship is that finding good people is the most difficult part. It can make or break you. Really, I’ve met so many disappointing people that I am super careful now who I work with. I require 102,000,000% commitment, trust, and mutual respect. You can easily see if someone is not committed or someone is not really respecting the project or the people working on it.
The thing is that this kind of event is not just any event. It’s really a revolution, especially here in Finland. It’s a big thing and it can and has already created a lot of change. I didn’t expect it to become what it is today. I really didn’t.
Did you have a distinct vision for the fashion week right from the start, and if so, how did your personal values shape that vision?
I think, we decided some majorly important points right away. We are a fashion week that is open to consumers because we want to widen the industry, we want to bring together people, create a buzz and networking opportunities for society at large.
Helsinki Fashion Week takes place in July. July is also the main vacation time here in Finland and everything is quite dead during the month. It has been taken some time for our partners to adapt to the fact that we run this big event in July. But we had to make it fit the international market. And July is just the best time to do it. We couldn’t do it any other time because there are other international events that we don’t want to compete with. Besides, July also works the best weather-wise.
Of course, a lot of things are similar to other fashion weeks but still, here in Helsinki, you can see a real change in behaviours. During this year’s fashion week, we did some behavioural research; we looked into how people’s behaviour changed over the course of the five days and how they adapted to the environment. For example, we collaborated with AI companies and measured the happiness of people by scanning their faces, including the dimensions of age and gender in the study. We have some really interesting data and a report coming up at the end of October.
You worked as a producer and fashion photographer in the fashion industry. How would you describe your relationship with fashion and clothing, and has your attitude toward fashion changed in the recent years?
Funnily enough, even though we are doing some quite out-of-the-box things with our fashion week, I am becoming more and more conservative in terms of fashion. I like to see good tailoring and good materials. I don’t understand the value of a blue dress that doesn’t fit in any way. It’s presented on a beautiful girl and, of course, it looks nice — the color on the skin, the fabric looks comfortable. But why is it being shown on a catwalk? It’s not creative enough. The material, the cut, the idea, the vision, there is nothing special to it.
So you’re looking for design excellence?
Exactly, design excellence. A dress by Maison Margiela can just be a black dress, but when you turn it around, you see the technique, you see the real work behind it. I think silhouette is something that modern-day designers are forgetting about. I get the artistic and the unisex stuff but I am becoming more traditional. I love a good suit that complements you, that complements who you are.
What influences your personal style?
When I was nine or ten, I used to watch old movies with my family and I would see something like a denim jumpsuit that I then desperately wanted. As there wouldn’t be a denim jumpsuit anywhere in the shops, I would go to a secondhand store and buy one there. But then, a month later, the denim jumpsuits would come to the stores. This would happen all the time. I would be so confused until I understood that trend forecasting also develops naturally through pictures, memories, and information.
Before I got to know and love Yohji Yamamoto, I was a total Chanel girl. I still use Chanel perfumes, and I have Chanel shoes and clothes (which I barely get to use because I’m working all the time). Now I am into the Mark Zuckerberg style. I am wearing jeans and a t-shirt, which is terrible. I used to be so colour coordinated. I used to iron my socks, I was obsessed with everything I’d wear. Every day, I would get so many compliments for my outfits. These days, I’m all about punctuality, and I prefer to wear a suit. I think suits are beautiful, they are sharp and comfortable.
Where does your explorer spirit and energy come from? Do you have a mentor or a role model?
I am very curious, and I’ve always had this energy and this enthusiasm. I’ve had some really difficult moments in my life; like when I lost my dad to cancer, I lost myself for a moment. But there is this strong internal energy that arises, and it makes me really strong. Creatively, I am sensitive, but at the same time, I am very passionate. I can come across as aggressive, but I am just really, really passionate. There is this energy from within that just carries me, it’s beautiful. I wake up in the morning and I’m super excited. The happiness comes from there, the joy of life, it’s just there.
I remember that I used to watch the Victoria’s Secret shows when I was a really young girl. Adriana Lima was my favourite Victoria’s Secret model — she still is. I would get really close in front of the TV and look at her. Then I would go in front of a mirror and I would put on my sister’s makeup. I would sit in front of the mirror and look at myself for hours, trying to decide whether I would change my face for hers. But I didn’t want to give up my face; I didn’t want to trade it. I learned to really like my face and who I am. As a photographer, I admire people and I love beautiful and weird things. But I would not change myself for anyone else.
What is your definition of sustainable?
We have criteria that are quite difficult to fulfill. We aim for 100% sustainability, and we think it’s possible, but it’s still too expensive or not commercially viable enough yet. There’s still work to do, but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
What does sustainable mean for us? I think it’s a mindset. It’s a mindset that combines many things and we select our designers accordingly. It’s not just about the materials the designers are using. It’s not only about the design process, the manufacturing process, or any other part of the supply chain. It’s about everything; it’s in the personality and the agenda of the designers, it’s in their daily lives, their contributions to humanity.
How do you choose your designers for the fashion week? Do you find your designers, or do they apply to you?
Both. Like this season, we’ve had Tiziano Guardini from Italy. I went to his show in Milan, and I was sitting in his show, and I was thinking, “Great clothes, pretty skirt, great tailoring, nice collection.” But then I met the designer, and he told me about how many different materials he had been sourcing in the background and how he looked into every material from scratch. It’s a nice collection; it’s functional it’s funky, it’s funny, it’s feminine yet playful. But more importantly for me, it’s made by someone who took great effort to deeply understand the materials he was working with.
My point is that the designers themselves as people must be really curious and have an innovative mindset. It is really inspiring to give these people a platform because they present, as human beings and as creative designers, something extraordinary. They apply things differently. They think about things differently. I think it’s interesting that people who come from different cultural backgrounds share this mindset, but they have different techniques of applying that mindset to their work. And when you put all these people in one place, it’s awesome. You can feel their vibes and energies and you create and support a community of emerging designers. I hope that this strengthens from season to season and that we see even more of these people coming together and learning from each other and from our event and developing further into who they are. See? I told you I’m an artist.
Do you have any personal favourites that you would like to mention?
In 2017, we literally showed the “blue dresses”. Everything was very wearable. This year, I wanted to bring creativity into the scene, and I believe we succeeded.
There were some amazing surprises, like Ellinor Brännström from Sweden, or Carl Jan Cruz, an emerging designer from the Philippines. You can see a sense of his culture in his designs, yet they are still very much modern. He does such simple pieces, but they are recognisable. It’s a talent to create things that are recognisable; I think it’s difficult nowadays. But he has this own signature.
You can also see it in Elllinor’s designs. There is that Scandinavian sport vibe, there is this energy and tempo to it, and she’s a very cosmopolitan person, which shines through. I always say that designs are not born, they are created. It doesn’t matter where you are from. It matters what you do — your creations matter.
The Helsinki Fashion Week managed by the Nordic Fashion Week Association operates as a non-profit organisation. Do the designers pay to take part?
No, Helsinki Fashion Week is free of charge for the selected designers.
What is your business model? What finances the event?
We mostly do strategic collaborations. We cover a lot of our costs by creating partnerships and collaborating with like-minded partners. This year, Tesla was my favourite partner; they were so good to work with because their attitude is exemplary of the whole Tesla ecosystem. I’m a fan of Tesla, and Elon Musk is a hero. I’m not saying that I agree with his every move. But he’s someone I look up to in many ways. He has a big vision and he follows it through.
Of course, it takes a lot of work to find the people that are in the right mindset because I also like to apply sustainability to our partnerships. I mostly do this work voluntarily, so I want to work with people who I enjoy working with and who share the same vision. When we aim for the same goal, we achieve a good collaboration. Working with the people from Tesla has been like a dance.
We know who we want to work with. And then we are persistent. We don’t go and find the second-best option. I certainly don’t take no for an answer and sometimes people like that because they might not always get the vision immediately. When it comes to cameras, Leica is amazing, and they are another of our partners. They produce really high-quality cameras, amazing products that don’t let you down and that you can use for ages. And they are beautiful. So, if you go for sustainability, you have to go with quality. Quality in terms of functionality, durability and aesthetics — everything.
Where do you see Helsinki Fashion Week in the big picture of fashion?
I think that it’s inspiring to look at a problem from different angles. I did not mean to create the most sustainable fashion week, that wasn’t my purpose. I wanted to create a circular environment because I thought that it didn’t exist anywhere yet. And, apparently, it was a big deal, which is great. I love stimulated conversations. And that is among the things that we want to create.
I have to say that I take things very seriously: people’s opinions, their feedback (whether it’s good or bad). It inspires me to do things differently. Last season, in 2017, it was Vogue Italy’s article about Helsinki Fashion Week that left an impression on me. They wrote that they are looking forward to seeing “Evelyn Mora’s revolution.” Which made me think, “What is a revolution? And what is my revolution?”
In 2018, the Eco Village was my revolution. And my highlight were the people. The people that I met this year were inspiring and kind and loving and real. I am blessed to be able to work with these beautiful visionaries.
The “Eco Village” is the name of the utopian venue that you built for this year’s Helsinki Fashion Week. Do you believe that sustainability must be linked to innovation, and how can the Eco Village be seen as proof of concept?
“Imagine if humanity another chance to design the built environment. What would it look like?” That’s how our Eco Village concept was born. We were using solar energy, electric cars for transportation, drinking purified sea water, eating amazing vegetarian food produced from industry waste, and there was a sauna on the grounds and yoga lessons between the shows.
Yes, the Eco Village was a proof of the concept, and it functioned well. But was it the exact vision that I had? No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t the perfect dress. It was a good dress, and people liked it. But it wasn’t the perfect dress yet. We will definitely be doing a lot of improvements. Problems are the best; we love solving industry problems, that has become our thing.
You’ve just decided to ban leather from Helsinki Fashion Week. What prompted you to make that decision?
Our decision to showcase fashion without the use of animal leather results from a long and ongoing dialogue between consumers, fashion designers and manufacturers. Since the beginning, Helsinki Fashion Week has stood for progress through innovation, development, and transparency. We stand for freedom of choice and open information, and most importantly for sustainability across all industries. There are different policies one can adopt when it comes to actively addressing and solving concerns surrounding sustainability in the fashion industry, and the decision to showcase collections that do not contain animal is not only to take an active stand against its environmental effects and animal cruelty but focus on available innovations and alternatives.
By dedicating the Fashion Week platform solely to new material innovations, we are aiming to reveal the truth of these materials’ life cycles and their effects on both the environment and economy in order to set the right methods for the future. Finding the innovations’ and tech-based initiatives’ weaknesses in order to find solutions cross-industry is a key focal point.
Where do you see the fashion industry going in the next decade?
I think we will see more appreciation for high quality and good design. It’s going to go back a little bit to where we will clap after every look at a fashion show.
I am super interested to see how artificial intelligence is going to change everything and how we will collaborate across industries. I think that's going to be very revolutionary.
Fashion at its best can change lives and attitudes and I think we saw a glimpse of that this year at Helsinki Fashion Week. I always say that the future is on our side because the future will be sustainable and work for the greater good. We should just go towards what we think is right because we have a sustainable mindset. If we follow what makes us and the people around us happy, more people will support what we do, they will join us, and the movement will grow. And the bigger it grows, the bigger noise it makes, the bigger attention it brings, the more it will inspire people.
What are your precious places in Helsinki that I should visit when I come to the fashion week next year?
My precious places in Helsinki? Come to my office! My precious place is my office, it really is. I love my office. It’s where the magic happens.
Thank you, Evelyn!
Leonie Gerner @Bigoudi
Hair & Makeup:
A big thank you to Lena’s Lovely Vintage.
Picture One: Blouse by Belize, vintage pants by Together (via Lena’s Lovely Vintage), hairband by Yargici Accessories // Picture Two: Vintage blazer by Escada (via Lena’s Lovely Vintage), shirt by Blanche, jeans by Blanche, shoes stylist’s own.