Ratia, Armi (1912–1979)

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Ratia, Armi (1912–1979)

Finnish entrepreneur who was the co-founder and managing director of the Marimekko fashion firm, which drew worldwide attention to Finnish design in the 1960s. Born in Karelia, Finland, in 1912; died in 1979; graduated from the Art Industry Central School, 1935; married Viljo Ratia (separated 1969); children: Ristomatti Ratia.

Born in Karelia, Finland, in 1912, Armi Ratia graduated from the Art Industry Central School in 1935. She then opened a weaving firm, and also studied for a time in Tübingen, Germany, with a textile manufacturer. The Soviet occupation of Karelia in 1944 forced Ratia to join the four million refugees fleeing the area, and she settled with her husband Viljo Ratia in Helsinki. Viljo purchased an oilcloth factory, and the couple worked together for the next two years.

In 1951, the Ratias founded the clothing firm Marimekko, intending to build on the recovering fashion industry after the devastation of World War II. Indeed, Marimekko's first collection attracted the war-weary eyes of Europeans with its bright colors. Much of the credit for its success went to the young designer that Armi, as managing director, had hired, Maija Isola , who drew on abstract art to create unusual, non-figurative designs. Armi's past experience in advertising gave her a knack for marketing which greatly increased the influence of the fledgling firm.

Despite its early success, Marimekko did not experience ready financial stability. Armi Ratia ran the company according to her ideals of individualism and risk-taking, with little concern for the financial side of the business. In fact, Marimekko existed for four years before clothing production moved out of individual workers' homes to an actual shop. Early clothing models were friends or employees or ordinary people, rather than the ultra-glamorous models fashionable in Paris. Mirroring her minimalist approach to production, Ratia intended Marimekko's designs to reflect purity and simplicity, and in 1953 she hired a woman designer, Vuokko Eskolin-Nurmesniemi , to foster this style, the first time a full-time designer had been employed in the clothing industry in Finland. Most of the designers the company hired were women, and while in the early years none had formal design training, the freshness of their ideas had launched the company into the export business by the end of the decade.

In 1960, first lady and fashion trend-setter Jacqueline Kennedy purchased seven of the company's dresses, thereby making the style a sensation in America. Ratia's genius for marketing—her oft-quoted motto was "design as lifestyle"—led to clothing designs that both reflected and influenced the fashion of the 1960s, with unfussy cuts, brilliant colors, and oversized patterns that meshed well with the pop art that was everywhere. The association between the intellectual-cultural community and Marimekko in the minds of consumers (some called the clothes "a cultural phenomenon") resulted in a boom of production shops to export the products. Throughout this success, Ratia maintained the family atmosphere of the company, and even drew up serious plans to create a community, Marikylä, where all employees and their families would live together, although this never came to fruition due to a lack of money.

In 1968, Marimekko had some 450 employees. That year Ratia was awarded the American Nieman Marcus Award as well as the Order of the Rose, Finland's highest honor. The following year, she and her husband separated, and she stepped down as the company's managing director. However, she returned to the position in 1971, and continued to rework the design line to fit emerging cultural trends, including unisex fashions which proved very popular in the 1970s. With the demise of the "Swinging '60s," Ratia focused on more conservative, practical clothes to match the increasingly busy lifestyles of consumers. She retired from Marimekko in 1976, and died three years later. The company experienced a downturn after her death, so closely was its identity linked to Ratia's personal vision. It nonetheless remained in business under the control of her heirs, and in 1985 was bought by a large business concern, which invested much money but saw it operate at a loss. Bought in 1991 by Kirsti Paakkanen , Marimekko now operates in the black, with three factories, numerous retail stores in Finland, extensive licensing and exporting deals in Scandinavia, Europe, and the United States, and a reputation for high-quality clothing and accessories for all ages.


Pile, John. Dictionary of 20th-Century Design. NY: Facts on File, 1990.

Uglow, Jennifer, ed. and comp. The International Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1982.

Jacqueline Mitchell , freelance writer, Detroit, Michigan