Helsinki experiment seeks to revitalise shopping centres

A problem that must be making shopping centre operators scratch their heads the world over might be solved in Helsinki by fashion. Not run-of-the-mill high street retailers, but locally-grown emerging and established labels.

The experiment is taking place on the 2500m2 first floor of Kämp Galleria, a 1990s mall in a 19th century romantic-style building by Eliel Saarinen standing in Finland’s busiest shopping area. Footfall up the escalators was falling, so owner Ilmarinen Mutual Pension Insurance brought in local strategy consultancy Juni Communication and Production to rethink the space.

“We thought a shopping mall was difficult,” says Juni creative director Martta Louekari. “Shopping or over-consuming are not the coolest things anymore.” Nowadays, she believes, a mall “needs to present certain values, gather like-minded people together, be a venue and platform for different events, be open to adapt to current trends or bigger changes in society”.

Juni proposed turning the top floor of the centre into Garden, a ‘living room’ that champions the country’s fashion industry.

Finnish fashion design is making a splash internationally, says Louekari, citing the Aalto University graduates who work at houses such as Kenzo, Chanel, Lanvin and Balenciaga, and the brands gaining attention beyond Finland like Samuji, Paris-based womenswear brand Aalto International, and Vyner Articles in London’s East End. Added to that, in 2018 Finland was the theme country for menswear trade fair Pitti Uomo in Florence.

The interiors for Garden were created by local firm Futudesign and Lindroos Architects (based in Basel and Helsinki), which are run by two brothers. Their task was to interpret Louekari’s suggestion of “making it more like an indoor piazza than a shopping mall”.

“We wanted to avoid typical shopping mall design,” says Auvo Lindroos of Futudesign. Existing corridors were removed and Alvar Aalto bricks were laid on the floor in a grid pattern, to mimic street market stalls. Each of the 11 shops has oak-framed glass walls, some of which pivot open. And merchandising units are millennial pink wire mesh stacked boxes. “We wanted to use garden-type materials,” Lindroos adds.

The shops are positioned around the periphery, and light is brought in via an existing large domed skylight in the centre. Beneath this sits a small open plan bookshop.

For many of these tenants, Garden is their first retail outlet, and rent is low – though Juni declined to give details. The smallest space is taken by felt hat brand éN Hats.

Arela, an established cashmere and cotton knitwear brand, has one of the bigger spaces, as does minimalist unisex label Nomen Nescio, which did its own fit-out using floor to ceiling brass rods and big paper lanterns. One unit is dubbed the fashion gallery, and hosts monthly pop-up events.

The Garden floor also has three new food outlets to the right of the escalators: Sprout Deli, coffee house Kuuma, and Haiku Sushi.

Since Garden opened November 2018, visitor numbers for the entire Kämp Galleria shopping centre has increased by 20 per cent.

“If you have only a couple of hours to spend in Helsinki city centre, Garden will offer the possibility to get to know at least ten Finnish fashion brands,” believes Miia Koski of Juni.

The intention is that if Garden’s retailers prosper they may be able to take bigger spaces in Ilmarinen’s other shopping centres.