The Baltic Design Revolution
When our thoughts turn to Latvia, the far North, elks, and wide-open spaces immediately come to mind. But this country of just under 2 million inhabitants is turning into an enclave of the creative, especially in design and fashion. Read More
The 1990s marked the turning point towards modern design in Latvia. Independence ended Soviet occupation, and with it the period in which from a Latvian standpoint, design was exceptionally regulated by industry and the state and used by the powerful as an ideological instrument. The 21st century ushered in an economic boom in the country, and the new political situation changed the relationship between industry and designers into one that was no longer determined by the state. Fashion began playing a representative role as a symbol of prosperity.
After half a century of isolation, Latvia opened its doors to the world, resulting in an initial huge rise in demand for cultural experience from abroad. This reduced demand for artistic production from domestic designers at the beginning of the 21st century. Historically Riga has always served as the fashion capital of the Baltic Region, though at the time only in the elite, creative circles of higher society. Now after 25 years of independence, Latvians are beginning to take notice of their own designers.
Avant-garde fashion and products directly from the designer
The Art Academy of Latvia (LMA) offers a professional degree in design. The connection between fashion and art has also been closely attributed to existence of the Chair for Fashion Design at LMA for over 20 years. In 2010 Aigars Bikše, who holds the Chair for Fashion Design at LMA, headed a search for possible methods of cooperation with young researchers and clothing manufacturers at Riga Technical University and with representatives from the private sector. Simultaneous efforts are underway to balance the daring and experimental ideas of the fashion avant-garde with the practical needs of modern consumers in the design arena.
The search for new, constructive approaches and unusual material combinations are characteristic of fashion designer Artis Štamguts, an adherent to romantic futurism. His exceptional collection follows the motto “the future for today” and represents his efforts to add experimental elements to clothes for everyday wear. During his studies at LMA, young, promising fashion designer rebel Janis Šne – whose numerous talents are reflected in his avant-garde clothing – attracted attention for his fashion sculptures that attempt to blur the line between wearable fashion and art.
While the fashion industry seems very open to these young, rising designers, their fellow students in product design are fighting preconceived notions held by Latvian industry. Although the university is always looking for ways to work with local producers as part of study programs and for thesis work in particular, manufacturers have generally proven sceptical and have reservations about the idea of integrating Latvian designers into the production process.
The prevailing opinion seems to be that domestic designers lack the professional and technical knowledge and the necessary skills to adjust their creative ideas to suit industrial technical capacity and market demand. The majority of Latvian manufacturers work with designers from abroad or simply act as manufactures and do not design their own products. Latvian industry focuses on export markets in which manufacturers of brand-name products, who place great store in the added value of design, prefer to offer products from designers from places like Northern Europe because the names of Scandinavian designers hold much greater commercial potential than those of Latvian designers.
But necessity is the mother of invention: Latvian designers have given up labouring behind the closed doors of domestic industry and are manufacturing their own designs. The digital possibilities of the industry together with the current era in which brand manufacturers combine production instead of entrusting just one factory with one technology offers designers opportunities for producing larger quantities – and selling their own products. (e.g. Aldis Circenis - Rigas Kreslu fabrika, Riga Chair, Rihards Funts, Zane Homka – Rijada, Artis Nimanis – An&Angel)
Ethnography in handcraft and fashion
The quality and skills of traditional artisans were preserved in Latvia into the 20th century and endure to the present day. In most cases artisans assume the role of designer – resulting is high-quality products with huge export potential (e.g. blacksmith Janis Nimans – Autine). The greatest strength of Latvian artisans is the production of objects with close ties to ethnographic traditions. Yet their attempts to adapt their handworking expertise to suit the 21st century aesthetic have generated discussion. The generation of young designers is characterized by an ever increasing interest in working with artisans. The designers hope to profit from artisans’ understanding of the materials and expertise, and employ them in creating contemporary products (e.g. Chudy&Grase). Here ethnographic elements are often used in professional, contemporary designs. These interpretations tend to be of higher quality and more interesting than the designers’ standard work, which supports the assumption that the great strength of Latvian designers lies in interpretation and not the creation of something completely new. The return of Latvian designers to their ethnographic heritage is one of the most fruitful sources of inspiration. It continues to surprise with modern visual references to heritage from the distant past.
One Latvian label, RECYCLED.LV (Anna Aizsilniece [Ingrida Zabere]), follows a reuse philosophy to bring back an old world feeling, the zeitgeist and mood of the past. The label’s clothing also bears witness to inspiration from Latvian ethnography and the aesthetic of Latvian national costumes, acting as descriptive quotes from times past that apply to the present. Their collection “Etnografija” consists of classic lines and woollen articles of clothing reworked to give them new identities. Trousers become skirts or shirts, jackets turn into stoles, and belts serve as headbands
The traditional Latvian leather shoes worn with the national costume can be modernised and adjusted to suit our modern lifestyles. This was confirmed by young fashion designer Simona Veilande in her plan to combine the optical workmanship of leather shoes with the functionality of a sneaker. At the end of 2013, the Kuldiga artist retreat kicked off a cooperative project with students from LMA (including Simona Veilande) aimed at designing unique clothing and accessories. This offers hope that the innovative synthesis of the traditional Latvian leather shoe with a sneaker will soon be on the market.
The international successes of Latvian fashion designers at the beginning of the 21st century are often linked to their aesthetic characterised by natural materials and colours along with elegant and original silhouettes. The collection by Latvian fashion designer Natalija Jansone has drawn attention far beyond Latvia’s border, such as in Japan.
The Mare & Rols designer team is a new European label that originated in Latvia. In 2009, they took second place at the 24th Hyères International Festival of Fashion and Photography in France. The duo‘s “Privatdetektivs“ collection combines inspiration from black-and-white cinema’s detective genre, the cut of rain coats from the 40s and 60s in the 20th century, Japanese detective novels from a range of different decades, and the modern style of the city.
A new, trailblazing trend in contemporary Latvian design draws on the fact that many young Latvians leave to study abroad. This adds diversity to a design atmosphere otherwise influenced by domestic schools. Of course not all students return from abroad for a while or for good and work as designers in Latvia. Yet designers with a Latvian background studying or working abroad and searching for their Latvian identity often seek inspiration in the ethnography or tradition of their country’s handcrafts (e.g. Mara Skujeniece, Shudy&Grase). This tendency has created an odd situation in graphic design, for example. There are no specific training or study programmes for graphic designers in Latvia, which means that the designers who have studied or worked abroad have raised the bar for quality quite high in their homeland.