April 3, 2012 by yc
Shoemaker’s Daughter Goes Barefoot
BY YC FELIN
IMAGES by Daniela Talvitie
The Deli&Café Martha, owned and run by the old Finnish home economics organization Martha, is a perfect location to meet the industrious shoe designer Emmi Malmström. Emmi sets an example of the young generation of women today that would make the original hardworking Marthas proud. I come a couple of minute early and order a banana toffee pie. Suddenly Emmi appears next to me, bursting with colors and smiles. Instantly her presence boosts my energy level several bars up. She gets herself an oatmeal brownie and coffee (sadly the brownie turns out to be dry inside).
Emmi Malmström is a footwear design student, the winner of the national shoe competition K.E.N.K.Ä. in 2010 and known for her colorful shoes with a shoe last praised by the satisfied owners. Not forgetting the playful pair of children shoes she designed for the RAWR charity auction.
Emmi dreamed about becoming an architect, but it required scientific knowledge. One summer day while on a picnic, her friend Jesse [more about him later] told her about HAMK University of Applied Sciences and its degree program in footwear design. The epiphany struck her there and then and a new chapter in her life started. While working in the real estate industry, she applied for admission to the university, not believing she would be accepted.
The entrance examination meant full-time drawing, two days of bliss and happiness. She had been drawing her whole life, something that was natural to her. Soon she received not only one piece of happy news, but two. “The day before the school started I found out that I was pregnant. The situation was insane, I was in shock. My spouse left for Oulu to start a new job. I travelled to Hämeenlinna [a seven-hour drive from Oulu], a place I knew nothing about. I only had a lamp and my pillow, I didn’t even know where I would stay that night,” Emmi pauses, looking overwhelmed. “I remember sitting at my parents’ home, I didn’t know what would happen. My brother didn’t know what to say…”
Looking at the quiet Emmi, I can’t help asking whether they congratulated her. Emmi assures me, ”Yes they congratulated me and it was a wonderful thing. I was just in shock. Tatu was going away and I was staying behind. Those were pretty crazy times.” Her spouse is Tatu Mönttinen, a Finnish actor.
Another challenge presented itself during her first year of study. The shoe company Andiamo held the annual footware design competition called K.E.N.K.Ä. in 2010 (kenkä means shoe in Finnish). Emmi won the competition, another dream come true. Gratitude fills her voice when she describes the year with Andiamo, how it was a rare opportunity to be part of creating an entire line. For Emmi, winning the competition balanced the first year as a mother, a bit of work while staying at home with Saaga. “I was pregnant when I entered the competition,” Emmi smiles, “I remember drawing designs in the maternity ward. Saaga was just born and she was asleep while I was sketching. That was the collection that we started to produce [for Andiamo].”
Being a shoe designer presents its challenges. Emmi looks for materials mainly in Finland, but she has ordered heels from Sweden. It is expensive to produce footwear here. “I did this collection because I wanted to. This was not part of anything, not a school project,” she said with determination.
I tell her how I ached for her shoes, a wonderful pair of pink high-heeled sandals with a geometrical block around the ankle. She bursts out laughing,“That is Saaga’s Brio block! I wanted to create a three-dimensional shape, something out of the ordinary that you don’t see in shoes. I pondered, pacing at home, thinking how I could find something solid around the ankle. I saw Saaga’s toys on the floor, I got the blocks, sawed the edges so that they would fit the strap beautifully.” With her eyes sparkling, Emmi says, “I like to commit to projects where you do things differently, even in high fashion, while my collection is quite commercial. Currently I’m working with my friend Jesse [who is a blacksmith] on shoes made of nails. We call the project “Iron High“.”
She shows me the picture of the inside of a nail shoe, which looks like a über-chic Gothic piece from a Tim Burton fantasy world, nails zigzaging into a web. Another picture shows the shoe covered with leather, a delightful platform with no heel. “This is a prototype. Jesse and I are working so that the shoes will be ready in coming weeks. The bottom doesn’t need a heel, because the nails will give enough support. A fun project.”
Designing and making a pair of shoes does seem to take a long time, I comment. “It can be strenuous. I would like to have shoes made of all of my designs [from this year’s collection]. My dream is produce a limited series of my current collection and take off with that. And to see how it is received.”
“The slow pace takes its toll and not everything can be created. I’m an impatient person, “ Emmi becomes even more animated, “I would love to create all the time. On the other hand, I would like to think ecologically. That there is no need to constantly come up with new designs. My shoes will last. They are all leather shoes, handmade, so they should be very durable. The heels are attached with a lot of bolts. You don’t even need that many bolts.”
The future looks exciting for Emmi and her family. They are moving to Helsinki, and her spouse Tatu will be working in the Kouvola theater and Emmi will start her traineeship for the prominent fashion designer Hanna Sarén in autumn. Both of their parents live in the Helsinki region and can provide a support network that enables her to continue the creative work.
We discuss the pros and cons of having parents turned into doting grandparents in our lives. I ask if there are times she hasn’t seen eye to eye with her parents. “My mother is a woman with strong opinions. She has been a great support, I haven’t felt that she has been criticizing me. Both of our parents have been there for us and when we ask for help, they always say yes. I hope they know that they can say no as well, but sometimes they say yes even when they have other plans. Saaga is the first grandchild on both sides.”
Saaga was born at the same time as Emmi started studying shoe designing. Does it feel weird that Saaga has been there ever since your shoe career, I ask? Without hesitation Emmi replies, “It actually feels extremely natural. I didn’t even think about it from that perspective, that there hasn’t been a moment when I haven’t been a shoe designer [since Saaga’s birth]. Everything has gone smoothly, my spouse is backing me up and he believes in my busy work with shoes. Last Sunday I worked from 11am. to 1 am., I started driving home in the middle of the night.”
I ask Emmi if she has changed since embracing her motherhood. She contemplates for a while and answers that she hasn’t noticed anything specific. She admits that the first year with Saaga was intensive, checking on Saaga when she was sleeping, feeling a bit paranoid. The same ordeal all mothers go through during the first year of the first child.
Suddenly remembering the old proverb “Shoemakers’ children go barefoot”, I ask Emmi if she has made any shoes for Saaga. Looking a bit guilty she confesses, “Terrible I know, I should. I have designed slippers for her and would have made them, but the fitting went completely haywire. She kicked them off her feet, so the whole process come to a dead-end. I haven’t made any for Tatu either and not for myself. Well, I did make a pair for myself, after the maternity leave I got started with shoemaking. Now I’m thinking, in my last year [in school], I will “family-orient” myself in shoemaking.”
The whole family moving to Helsinki, Saaga will be three years old and Emmi will graduate next year. Her plate is certainly full. Where do you see yourself in five years, I ask? “I see myself as an entrepreneur. My first thought would not be starting my own store, maybe in the future. I would like to sell my shoes and have retailers and people find my shoes. I like marketing, entrepreneurship. If you decide on to become an entrepreneur, there has to be a spark, the reason behind the desire. [Being an entrepreneur] cannot be forced, otherwise it won’t last.”
Knowing that many Finnish designers go abroad with their collections at the beginning of their careers, I wonder if Emmi will take the same road as well.
“Going international is possible and I’m open to everything. However in the beginning, in order to handle the whole package, it would be Finland. I hope that as people graduating from our school, as designers, we could find a new concept that would enliven and sustain the shoe industry in Finland. We have a great history here.” Not only does Emmi want to make shoes, she also plans to save the Finnish shoe industry. This woman is amazing.
“I love the whole process of designing and making shoes. I want my shoes to be recognizable, with the feel and the usual play with colors. Currenly I’m feeling rebellious against ordinary black shoes. I want to make use of colors, shoes should be colorful.” With a mischievous glint in her eyes she continues, “For men as well. Now that spring is starting, it’s suddenly colorful everywhere. Converses in all colors,” she laughs, ”The black and brown collection is sad. I listen to Tatu, who loves colors, how he almost cries when he cannot find any shoes. I want to make men’s shoes. In my collection there is the shoe with a zipper in front. Many men have said that they would wear it. I want to find a similar shoe last so that I can make a men’s version.”
Leaning forward she continues, “I don’t mind going outside my comfort zone, I must go there. I love ideas. People tell me this or that is not worth the effort. They tell me that it is not worth it [making shoes] in Finland, you need to go abroad. Everything is worth a try. As if all actions need to be worth something,” Emmi shakes her head. I agree with her, perfection doesn’t come at the first try. You need guts to try and fail.
“Trying out new things, that is what is missing in the business world. Guts, craziness, foolishness,” Emmi laughs.
I return her laugh and ask, if she would call herself all that gutsy, crazy and foolish? Laughing heartily, she replies, “Yes, definitely!”
The fashion featured in this article: Emmi wearing jumpsuit by Kaisa Riivari, Saaga wearing dress by Antti Asplund, Lumi wearing dress Poola Kataryna, yellow shirt by Karen Millen & body by Wolford.
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