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AITI – Pop Up Review

28-01-2021   


‘Twas the fortnight before Christmas…and a pro-active Nordic Pop Up appeared.’

What is that empty retail space suddenly being transformed on my daily walk to Turnham Green? Surely a mid-pandemic retail aberration in the two weeks before Xmas? Full marks for bravery in this economic climate I thought.

The Pop Up refit taking shape however was totally compelling regardless of commercial intent. Not only inviting, but prepossessing interior design. Staying as long as it felt like. Chic retro, minimalist, cultivated style attitude to die for. Bare, white walls, draped with expensive-looking lace white curtains. Their double height offset with clever, subdued chromed-finish lighting, created the sense of retail theatre, drawing me and the intended customers magnetically in. A plain black carpet (obtained apparently for a steal by asking a long term supplier) and two parallel rails carrying the fast selling knitwear, provided the finishing touches that said contemporary, urban. Buy me.

As I got my bearings and connected with the blacks and navy knitwear palette on display in that setting, it could only really be Nordic. Welcome to Aiti (‘mother’ in Finish), a Nordic style knitwear brand from the Finnish designer hosting the pop-up, Ritva Kariniemi. The charming, down to earth Ritva, a designer of some 30-years, originally moved from Finland in the 1970s to study at the London College of Fashion.

Her apprenticeship included stints with Bill Gibb and Benny Ong, and her experience grounded by designing for popular high street brands. Eventually her own signature brand was launched, Extrovert in 1984, specialising in repurposing the use of Lycra across stretch, drape separates and knits for women. This led to Extrovert being awarded the highly acclaimed Queen’s Award for Export Achievement in 1991. The success of Extrovert culminated for Ritva in two eponymously named stores in Japan. An impressive credentials track record in an industry not famous for longevity.

Ritva’s design career sojourned briefly in the adjacent world of interior design (a more ‘obvious’ customer loyalty segue these days with established fashion brands, vis, Zara and Gucci now in interiors) before returning to her Nordic fashion roots, specifically knitwear for women in 2016.  The style influences for Aiti’s mainly cashmere knitwear on display in black, navy, grey and white, many with animal prints, are the countryside and nature – the environment Ritva grew up in. Her target audience is, “thirty plus, people who know their own tastes.” She recently switched to cotton and wool and has always been a fashion designer. “Ethics and sustainability play a very important part of Aiti’s aesthetic, with a factory sourced in China and a family run business in Nepal, carefully selected for their ethics and handling of the cashmere yarn.”

Ritva designs and carefully curates two collections of knitwear and accessories per year from her west London office. The scarves on display were from £35 and sweaters priced up to £120, with the accent on timeless and sustainable design for women of all ages. The website reveals a variety of easy-on-the-eye, classy, autumn styling for jumpers and tops and accessory scarves at very affordable prices. www.aitilondon.com

Great to see Ritva creating her own sales by working the landlord relationship. It’s a simple premise and available to all pro-active designers. In the right location (designers say that to yourself a thousand times to imprint it) find out who the commercial landlord is, for the coveted retail spot and ask them if they would rather have no rent on their blacked out, ‘to let’ store, or your negotiated rent for 1-2 weeks or more?

Aiti has developed as a brand for 5-years and Ritva explained that the Pop-Up was an entrepreneurial response to the wave of trade show cancellations that had been her key sales positioning events, including: Country Living Spring Fair, Badminton Spirit of Summer, Olympia, and the Christmas Fair at Business Design Centre. Sadly, it’s an all too-familiar tale of Covid rug-pulled sales opportunities for designer-led brands reliant on the specialist seasonal trade show target buyer. And pre-committed financially to their collection production also. I believe designers (particularly new designers establishing their brand) should finesse the Pop-Up retail opportunity as a smarter alternative than the overhead-laden, traditional retail outlet route. Their cash-bleeding leasing requirements simply don’t sit well with the vagaries of a fashion industry imploding, global pandemics and concomitant recession and consumer uncertainties, not to mention e-commerce fuelled retail capitulation.

Ritva’s direct retail experience running her stores in Japan will have been useful leverage in her approach to the Pop Up, matched with her slick, urban interior styling skills. Valuable experiential additions to help shape a designer’s instinct or trim unchecked sales optimism. But Onnittelut as they say in Finland, for not sitting at home whingeing about warehouse stock going mouldy and for proactively positioning her knitwear for sale, in the most challenging fashion industry period imaginable. As a small enterprise Ritva is all too aware that “design and business acumen don’t always go hand-in-hand. When you are completely self-financed as a sole trader, you need to be smart. And grow your customer database.” People were coming in, buying while we spoke, and happily leaving their contact details for future collection notification, with just the slightest Nordic professional persuasion from Ritva.

We concluded with a tacit agreement that Pop-Ups were indeed a clever, guerrilla style alternative to combat the difficulties facing the retail market and trade show uncertainty. In her hands, I certainly think so. Ritva is thinking to get a collaborative Pop-Up going in west London with other designers sometime in the New Year possibly, pandemic permitting. In the meantime, check out her website for great designs: www.aitilondon.com

By Paul Markevicius




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