Creative Conversations: Varpu Rapeli

Varpu Rapeli works as Associate Knitwear Designer at 3.1 Phillip Lim but has mixed feelings about the New York fashion scene.

You wanted to meet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 5th Avenue. Why is this museum important to you?

I come here often, usually once a month, on days when I have nothing else planned. I never take an audio guide or a guided tour, but learn something new every time I visit the museum. I have always been a history freak, and I love how the Met combines art and history.

We are at the mezzanine level now, looking at sculptures from Ancient Greece. Why is this hall your favorite?

The Greek and Roman Art halls on the mezzanine level are my favorites because it is always so empty and quiet here. It calms me down. I like all the artifacts here, especially the fractured faces. It is fascinating to know that many of them used to be painted but have since faded. And this is a fun story: in 2015 I took a picture of an ancient stone ring with a Medusa face on it and later got it tattooed on my arm.

Why did you want to have it tattooed?

I do not know. I was just drawn to it. I needed it. I have seven tiny tattoos.

You currently work as a knitwear designer at Phillip Lim. Tell us more about your work.

I mainly work on my computer. When I was freelancing, I was more hands-on and that is the reason why I was hired to do this job. I’m able to execute things. At my current job, everything is made in China, so I have to communicate with factories a lot. I select and order yarns, communicate to the factory what we want, order swatches; there are a lot of stages and seasons overlapping.

Varpu Rapeli’s Parsons’ MFA Fashion Design graduate collection, 2015. Photos left and right: Nina Merikallio.

Varpu Rapeli’s Parsons’ MFA Fashion Design graduate collection, 2015. Photos left and right: Nina Merikallio.

How do you feel about everything being produced in China?

Honestly, I don’t mind. The whole ‘made in China’ myth does not exist the same way it did before. China is not cheap anymore, and the quality and the skills there can be pretty good. Sometimes communicating might be a bit difficult because of the time difference. I get my first emails around 7:30 pm, so I often work late.

You have been in New York for over 5 years. How did you end up here?

I came here in 2013 to do my MFA degree at Parsons. I was drawn to the program as it promised academic studies on the side, and I did take courses in Fashion Studies, Design Studies, and Sociology on top of the studio curriculum. I never wanted to stay in Finland; I have known it since I was young. I always liked big cities and wanted to have the world around me. I have three brothers and only one of them lives in Finland. So it is a family thing. In that sense, I’m not rooted in Finland.

So you really love New York then?

I feel more home here than in Helsinki. I have built my life here, and I have friends here. I was always part of the techno and dance music scene in Finland, and I have found a similar community here as well. People here are so nice and open. Sometimes New York is overwhelming but you can't be happy anywhere all the time.

Do you have other favorite places here than the Met?

I also have a MoMa membership; their movie theatre has an amazing selection. I try to go out as much as I can. I like underground parties and specific clubs like Nowadays and Bossa Nova Civic Club. I recently attended a party at a loft where two noise musicians performed live and another party at an abandoned boat in Newtown Creek, which is basically a sewage creek! I follow the people and DJs who throw the best parties. Out of the neighborhoods I like Greenpoint best, it still has that specific sense of otherness like Chinatown in Manhattan. Greenpoint is still very Polish. If I ever have a craving for Finnish home food I can go to Polka Dot Café for stuffed cabbage. It feels almost like being home.

What is your opinion about the New York fashion scene; is there something interesting happening there at the moment?

I feel it is quite boring. New York is not popping at the moment. There is a lack of experimentation that would also be well executed, wearable and beautiful. A large part of the New York fashion scene is experimentation for experimentation’s sake. That is not sustainable business-wise. There is too much referencing of what has already been done before. I think Raf Simons for Calvin Klein is doing the most exciting stuff, even though it's a cliché for me to say that.

There are quite a few young rising labels that are cool but as I tend to pay attention to garment construction, it seems that most of the time these labels are not developing anywhere clothing-wise. Area is an interesting label; there is a genuine creativity in their design and their garments are well produced.

Photo: Nina Merikallio.

Photo: Nina Merikallio.

Is New York still the best place to be if you work in fashion?

There are good and bad sides to working everywhere. Label-wise I would like to work in Paris. New York has the best salary rate of all the big fashion cities. Personally, I think Finnish students are the best. But I’m not sure that you could ever make Helsinki the next Antwerpen location-wise. I doubt there would be enough commercial support for Helsinki-based labels, which is a problem. The reality is that most of the fashion brands are struggling economically everywhere.

Interview and photos of Varpu by Liisa Jokinen, photos of collection by Nina Merikallio for

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