In 1954 Finnish entrepreneur Esko Laiho founded a clothing business that produced wool hats. On his sales trips across the country, he noticed that there was a clear demand for uniform production as well.
Today E. Laiho has left hats, caps and bathrobes behind, and now focuses on the manufacture and sales of work uniforms. The 30 seamstresses employed by the company currently supply uniforms for the chain of Citymarket retail stores, the City of Lohja and the home economics group, the Martha organization. Last year the company reported 2 million euros in turnover.
“We are just the right size, streamlined to a prime. The fact that our clothes have been created one hundred percent in Finland is seen as an asset, but not always. If price is the only criteria, clothing made elsewhere wins out,” says Liisa Laiho, the plant’s current CEO and daughter of the founder.
“For example, today’s municipalities are legally obliged to carry out a call for bids, and the origin of the product cannot be a decisive factor. The technical and quality characteristics of the product can be defined, but EU government procurement laws stipulate that there can be no discrimination on the basis of national origin,” says the plant’s sales director Jaana Nurminen.
Stitches disappear to China, return to Baltics
Managing Director of the Finnish Textile and Fashion Association Anna-Kaisa Auvinen says the breakdown of Finland’s textile industry began in the mid-1990s, when Swedish and Danish garment chains strengthened their presence on the market. Price wars led to almost all of the Finnish clothing brands outsourcing their sewing work abroad.
The Baltic countries are slowly winning back customers in this front, however, as many Finnish firms now operate plants and employ contract manufacturers in Estonia, for example.
The biggest problem in Finland is the relatively high cost of sewing services. Many clothing businesses still design and cut their fabric domestically, but send their pieces abroad to be sewn. The popular Finnish outdoor and sports clothing brands of Luhta and Reima send their clothes to China because they say the sewers there have the skills for producing technically advanced clothing that can’t be found in the Baltics. Both firms also sell many of their products on the Asian markets.
A second chance for Nanso?
The latest blow to Finland’s waning garment industry was clothing manufacturer Nanso’s recent announcements that it will shut its contract supplier’s plants in the cities of Tornio and Nokia. There is now new hope that the Nokia plant will continue operations, after a cluster of small companies is in negotiations to purchase it. The group tested the waters by making it possible to pre-order a Papu Design knit dress which sold out its first stock of 3,500 items in an instant.
“The future of the Nokia plant is being negotiated as we speak and we hope to reach a decision soon. We have had over 50 company contacts, so there is an interest,” says Nokia Knitwear's CEO Vesa Moisio.
Smell it first
So what are Finland’s ecologically-minded consumers to do if there are no longer locally-made clothes available for purchase? The management of the E. Laiho plant offers some simple advice.
“First you should seriously consider if you need new clothing at all. We are all guilty of buying too many clothes. We should buy fewer items of high quality, but above all, we should ask ourselves if we really need something new,” says sales director Jaana Nurminen.
Managing Director Liisa Laiho advises smelling the clothing first.
“One of my favourite hints is to smell a garment before you purchase it, especially if you are buying it for a child. If it smells strongly of chemicals, there’s something there that shouldn’t be. The smell is often the first indicator that the piece of clothing has come from very far away, as it has to be treated with chemicals to survive the long journey in a humid container.”