From designer to brand – modular clothing designer Sofia Ilmonen learned patience from entrepreneurship

For the award-winning fashion designer Sofia Ilmonen her company is a channel for sharing her vision of sustainable fashion worldwide. The designer has earned great recognition and is now building her clothing brand in Helsinki. But how challenging is it to create a brand from scratch?

The thing you are most capable of, is what you will be doing the least”, Sofia Ilmonen’s circle friends warned her in a light-hearted manner when she informed them about starting her own company.

After a decade spent in London, Sofia Ilmonen is now based in Helsinki. Her self-titled clothing brand is two and a half years old. Today it is easy for her to recognise the element of truth behind the warning.

– I am a practical sort of person, a doer, and I love to design. I’d love to dedicate all my time doing that, but there are also other important things that need to be taken care of: product development, developing the brand, finding the right kind cooperation partners, and so on.

Becoming an entrepreneur can change your relationship with your passion. It forces you to get a handle on areas of expertise outside your comfort zone. Despite this, the beginning of Ilmonen’s entrepreneurship has been both great and informative.

– Of course you hope everything would be complete immediately. Though tolerating a certain kind of incompleteness is important. Not just operating in the creative industry, but especially as an entrepreneur. That is something that I’ve had to learn.

Reassemblable clothes

The garments Ilmonen’s clothing brand manufactures are not conventional clothes. She is known especially as the trailblazer of modular clothes and modular dressing in Finland.

– All garments I make consist of modules that can be reassembled is different types of forms and combinations. I have sometimes said that they are like Lego blocks in form of clothes.

Enthusiasm and competence in modularity builds especially on Ilmonen’s award-winning Master’s thesis collection in 2021 for her Aalto University Masters’ degree in Fashion, Clothing and Textile Design.

Another underlying factor in her work is the realisation that started to develop already back in London. The idea of the extent of radical changes that are needed to current production models in order for the fashion business and textile production to truly become sustainable.

– I began to pay closer attention to my possibilities of making an impact and how limited they are as part of a bigger company. I wanted to find ways to make a greater impact in matters that are important to me.

One approach is designing modular clothes. Ilmonen wanted clothing that conforms to the lifestyle of the owner and is transformable according to use and need.

– I hope that in the future the owners of modular clothes can themselves transform and reassemble their clothes creating unique combinations. To get more “ownership” over their garment. That is one characteristic that adds to the longevity of clothes.

Sofia Ilmonen X Spinnova, kuva: Anton Sucksdorff

How to grow from a designer to a brand?

Having talent as a designer is not a guarantee for having a commercially successful company or a brand with appeal. Running the business side of one’s own company has been demanding. Sofia Ilmonen has worked a lot and put effort in learning.

– I believe fully in my idea and vision. But moulding the concept into something that sells or communicating the idea of what modular clothing is, has not always felt easy.

Fashion design studies at London College of Fashion and Aalto University were firmly focused around the design work with hardly anything about the business aspect.

– It would have, of course, been useful to have studies in that area. Aalto offers a minor in fashion marketing, but at the time it did not feel relevant since I had no plans of setting up a business of my own.

On the other hand, she would like to challenge the idea that it is sensible for an entrepreneur to be capable of managing all the different areas needed in brand development. Commercial aspects along with marketing demand a skillset of their own ­– just like clothing design.

­– VAIN, for example, has a combination that works. One of them works more on the design, the other concentrates more on the business. I, too, might at some point need a partner in order to be able to concentrate fully on what I do best.

However, for the time being, having a brand of one’s own and marketing it, is something that has evolved “by its own momentum”. The exceptional concept of modular clothing with the distinct stamp of Ilmonen’s strong style is a combination that stands out.

– I’ve never felt the need to build something around that. The world that my brand has created is something I call “Square Module Universe”.

Looking forward to factory-made modules

Sofia Ilmonen has lately been busy with the joint fashion show exhibiting the work of five Finnish designers. It is part of the Fashion in Helsinki event taking place at the end of May.

The show is a continuation to the cooperation between Ilmonen and fibre manufacturer Spinnova, which has already resulted in a collaborative capsule wardrobe collection. The upcoming collection features more than ten Spinnova outfits or pieces of clothing.

– It is outstanding that such a significant brand is open-minded and wants to collaborate with a fairly small company. Our values are very much shared making us a great match.

Ilmonen’s company is now at a stage where priorities lie in the challenges posed by the factory production of the modules. The atypical structure of modular clothes makes them technically demanding. Finding the right partners and manufacturers is critical.

– Hopefully we have soon a situation where the modular structures are fully developed to the point of being factory manufactured and garments are sold on a larger scale.

A promising cooperation is in progress. EU’s WORTH Partnership Project enabled finding a partner in Italy for the manufacturing of the first factory-made modules.

– So far the factories have found the manufacturing of the modules too difficult for their production lines. We have now managed to find a promising factory that also has strong ethical values regarding their production.

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