ILONA PELLI: naturally born from materials

Ilona Pelli Drama (tunique) spring-summer 2011
Ilona Pelli's Moleskine sketch notebook

Ilona Pelli's Moleskine sketch notebook

I arrived in Helsinki from Brussels/Paris more than ten years ago, the mind full of Belgian/Parisian fashion. At the time, there were very few boutiques in the Finnish capital where I

Ilona Pelli Sali "tunique" 10th anniversary this year

Ilona Pelli Sali "tunique" 10th anniversary this year

could find wow factor clothes or accessories but for one exception: Ilona Pelli’s. The pureness of her cuts and colours, her branded asymmetrical treatment of volumes and her modular approach using her clothes’ tails to reinvent them according to her fans’ taste all caught my eye – and they still do. Ilona Pelli’s real signature is however in the absolute comfort and pleasure of wearing her clothes – and this is no edvertisement!  It is thus a privilege for me to discuss her iconic fashion work in the context of the emergence of Finnish design on the international scene – with the venue of Helsinki as World Design capital 2012 ( – and the celebration of the 10th anniversary of her mythical “Sali model” – that sold during years on Fifth Avenue.

Ilona Pelli Drama (tunique) spring-summer 2011

Ilona Pelli - Drama tunique, 2011


Ilona Pelli Asola (tunique - wing) - (spring-summer 2011)

Ilona Pelli - Asola tunique (with wing), 2011

You launched your collection in 1995 coming from the interior design world. What was your motivation?

In 1995, Finland was hit by a serious economical downturn and getting interior design contracts was more difficult than it used to be. I had always dreamt of designing clothes and was designing as a freelancer for various brands already -(author’s note: among others worldwide distributed Marimekko). I felt it was the moment to launch my own collection.

Your treatment of volumes and asymmetries makes your clothes immediately recognizable. Do you design your collections starting from an idea for a model in the form of sketches or do you start from materials?

Ilona Pelli Hellas (top) and Borbori (trousers) spring-summer 2011

ILONA PELLI - HELLAS top, BORBORI trousers, 2011

My work always starts with the choice of materials. I look for good quality textiles (generally from Germany or Italy and sometimes from Finland too) and I need to touch them, feel them, be touched by their texture and colours to start figuring out the models I could derive from them. There are two equally important requirements on the top of my falling in love with them: these materials should be comfortable to wear and easy to take care of. It is essential for me that the women wearing my clothes feel not only beautified by them but also simply enjoy their comfort.

I have to admit however that the current economic downturn has complicated this initial design process in that textile providers do not necessarily produce everything on their catalogue anymore or do not sell quantities consistent with the sales of an independent designer – they rather prefer big quantity sales to fashion industrialists. Designing a full collection each season therefore demands a lot of adaptation as some models have to be redesigned based on other materials than the initial ones.

This year’s collection was inspired by Ancient Greece and Rome and their drapes…

I really enjoyed working with drapes: they make asymmetry easy and even light to wear. From the designing point of view, I loved playing with the fluidity of some materials in drapes, as well as the challenge of those presenting more of a resistance to the folding and falling process.

Ilona Pelli Arto (boléro), Malo (top), Hellas (skirt) (spring-summer 2011)

Ilona Pelli - Arto bolero, Malo top, Hellas skirt, spring-summer 2011

If had to summarize Ilona’s work with two words they will be: simplicity and…sophistication.Let me pick up two items from her spring-summer and revisited in  her autumn-winter collection to illustrate my purpose. A simple bolero with inspiration (Arto model) and an elegant tunique inspired by the Antique Roman toga. Simple cuts, plain colours, asymmetries

Ilona Pelli: how to use dress tails and folds

Ilona Pelli: how to use dress tails and folds

with a purpose, and these little touches of infinite elegance, we French people at times also call sophistication.


Ilona Pelli Liro (dress) 2011

ILONA PELLI, LIRO dress, 2011

Every women should have a little black dress (LBD) and a great white shirt (GWS) as part of her wardrobe. In French, we call them the “indispensables”, ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY items of your wardrobe. Why? Because, properly accessorized, those two basics can transport you from the formal to the casual chic in one movement.

Ilona’s “little black dresses”  are by definition “elegant, longlasting,

Ilona Pelli white shirt

Great white shirt by Ilona Pelli

versatile, affordable, accessible and as simple as possible” ( Even more so when they are “modular” meaning that the dress folds into various equally wearable models according to your moods, age or taste.

“I like dresses to have adjustable folds or tails that you can knot in many ways so that each woman can stress her femininity in own way. The model remains the same but it adapts better to each woman wearing my clothes”.


ILONA PELLI kimono jacket with Markku Susimäki prints

ILONA PELLI kimono jacket with Markku Susimäki prints

A few years ago, I entered into Ilona’s boutique and bumped into her late husband, artist and sculptor Markku Susimäki: he was bringing some lengths of veil with own prints to display in Ilona’ s boutique. I became fascinated by the contrast of their works – and even more by the depth of their relationship. Markku told me: “Ilona works with black and pure forms and I work with vivid colours and curves”. It struck me how the juxtaposition of their works could create harmony from opposites. After a few exhibitions marked by an exhilarating combination of their art and love, many of Markku Susimäki’s works are nowadays on display in Ilona’s design district shop .

Markku Susimäki sculpture on display in Ilona Pelli's boutique
Markku Susimäki sculpture on display in Ilona Pelli’s boutique

“I miss my husband dearly and I am planning to use some of his most colourful prints in the fabrics of my upcoming collection. I have always privileged plain colours and used black extensively – mainly because of the demand for dark colours in Scandinavian countries. People tend to forget the models I created in flashy pink, cherry red, ultramarine blue, etc.”


ILONA PELLI checking her materials catalogue

ILONA PELLI checking her materials catalogue

No fashion collection without the grande finale: the bridal dress. Ilona Pelli creates those – and other

ILONA PELLI material catalogue

ILONA PELLI material catalogue

special occasion clothes – on demand only. “I first meet the client and then from the discussion I start sketching. As I mentioned, I usually like to start from materials. Depending on the model, it can even take several weeks to implement a design after the initial meeting”.

Fashionable summary in French:

Lorsque je suis arrivée de Bruxelles/Paris à Helsinki, j’ai immédiatement flashé sur les modèles d’Ilona Pelli: coupes asymétriques, couleurs pures, pans modulables, il n’y avait rien de plus scandinave dans mon esprit – et cette appréciation est encore valable aujourd’hui. Ses vêtements ont une qualité rare: ils sont conçus pour être portés avec ce sentiment mélangeant le confort à une volupté très féminine de se sentir habillée en toute simplicité avec… une petite touche de sophistication.

Inspiration antique pour la collection printemps-été et automne-hiver 2011: “les drapés allègent mes modèles qui restent essentiellement construits sur des asymétries et les rendent plus agréables à porter” 

Ilona Pelli: utilisation des pans de robe et chemise pour les adapter à ses humeurs

Ilona Pelli: utilisation des pans de robe et de chemise pour moduler les vêtements

L’amour naît souvent de contrastes et se nourrit de complémentarités. A l’évidence les palettes d’Ilona Pelli et de feu son mari Markku Susimäki sont en opposition: les formes épurées de l’une répondant aux courbes fantaisistes de l’autre, couleurs unies et le plus souvent sobres d’Ilona tempèrent le délire de couleurs de Markku. De nombreuses oeuvres de Markku sont visibles dans la boutique d’Ilona poursuivant un dialogue amoureux d’une rare intensité dans le monde des arts et du design. « Nous sommes l’un à l’autre / comme des étoiles très lointaines / Qui s’envoient leur lumière… / Vous en souvenez-vous ? / Mon cœur allait / de porte en porte / comme un mendiant / Et vous m’avez fait l’aumône / qui m’enrichit à jamais. »

Text by Ruxandra Balboa-Pöysti, English text review: Diana Kaley


Ghostlike pictures of Ilona Pelli's August 2011 fashion show

Ghostlike pictures of Ilona Pelli's August 2011 fashion show


on Facebook: Ilona Pelli collection


3 Responses to “ILONA PELLI: naturally born from materials”
  1. Ruxandra says:

    Read a very nice article about the 50th anniversary of the LBD in the Financial Times issue dated 7th October 2011 “Looking black” In between the mythical breakfast at Tiffany’s and the newest trends, the LBD should nowadays be defined as “easy to wear and for many events”. If you are in Helsinki have a look at Ilona Pelli’s LBD’s! Comfort to wear is her main focus…!

  2. Ruxandra says:

    Ilona received a state award for her entire work as a fashion designer! Congratulations!!!!! I am so pleased for her

  3. Ruxandra says:

    An interview on Finnish national radio YLE to the occasion of Ilona’s State Prize (aired 1st November 2011)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

  • Ruxandra

  • A few weeks ago we met with…

%d bloggers like this: