Why Tom of Finland is a fashion phenomenon
Last week, the Tom of Finland license unveiled its new collaboration with JW Anderson, the third of its kind. Over the last 10 years, more than 30 brands, from Comme des Garçons to Diesel, Sweden's CDLP, GmbH, Viktor & Rolf, Walter von Beirendonck, Henrik Vibskov or the French Carne Bollente have been associated with the homoerotic imagery created by Finnish illustrator Touko Valio Laaksonen in the late 1950s. A work that is now distributed in many countries and emblematic of gay and queer culture forever thanks to the Tom of Finland license, owned by the Tom of Finland Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Los Angeles and dedicated to preserving the work of the artist, the erotic arts in general, and to offering a cultural program and hosting artists in residence. A look back at the phenomenon with Joakim Andreasson, who has been director of the Tom of Finland license since 2014.
FashionNetwork.com: What messages and values does the work of Tom of Finland represent today?
Joakim Andreasson: In the most universal terms, Tom’s body of work represents tolerance, acceptance, pride, joy and freedom. His imagery has become symbolic of the advancement of gay rights and sexual freedom.
FNW: The capsule collections signed with fashion brands and houses brought Tom of Finland’s imagery to the streets. Who started to buy these pieces ?
JA: The distribution of Tom of Finland designs has evolved in tandem with human rights and increased visibility of the LGBTQ community around the world. Over the past near ten years, we have worked hard to embed Tom of Finland’s role in popular culture through commercial partnerships across categories, including fashion, the adult sector, spirits, home textiles and lifestyle merchandise. Most of our collaborations have been released in Europe and North America, but we are also doing projects in Asia, including a ready-to-wear collection with the Thai brand Leisure Projects which will be released on the 22nd of July with a special pop-up at Central Original in Bangkok. The online store, CULTUREEDIT / Tom of Finland Store, established in 2017 with a storefront in Hollywood, has been instrumental in making our collaborations available to a worldwide audience and generate interest from partners to collaborate.
FNW: Tom of Finland brought gay arts into fashion. Does this mean that the subject of sex is more uninhibited today? That it is easier to talk about it, to the point of displaying it?
JA: I think there are multiple levels of sexual expression in fashion – be it through shape and form, attitude and personality or references and imagery. Tom’s work influenced countless iconic fashion designers including Jean-Paul Gaultier, Helmut Lang and Tom Ford to name a few. It's only as of late however that the fashion world has embraced and featured actual Tom of Finland imagery on garments through our official partnerships. It required a few brave fashion voices, including our ongoing relationship with Jonathan Anderson (JW Anderson) and past collaborations with Nicola Formichetti (Nicopanda), Hubert Pierre Pouches (Rufskin), Andreas Palm and Christian Larson (CDLP) and Max Schiller (Eytys), to break the mold. The acceptance of the display of erotic art on garments is certainly relative to where you live and to how progressive and an area is. Regardless, I think there will still be limits that are not necessarily contingent on the ability to express, but rather contingent on people’s comfort with “wearing sex”. An example would be the new Tom of Finland x JW Anderson tank top, which features phallic imagery. The beauty of such garments however is that they inspire people to tap into a part of themselves that they otherwise would not through fashion.
FNW: Recently Diesel and Happy Hour Skateboards have signed collaborations with you. How do you explain the enthusiasm of “mainstream” brands for the work of Tom of Finland?
JA: Even within more mainstream brands, it takes brave voices to challenge the status quo and incorporate art that challenges that norm. For Diesel, it was their creative director Glenn Martens who spearheaded the partnership, and for Happy Hour Skateboards it was Jarkko Propudas, an openly gay Finnish skateboarder. I think the enthusiasm is multi-faceted, and beyond the appreciation of Tom’s art and its message, my experience with more mainstream brands is that they choose to work with us to align themselves with the LGBTQ community with a stronger stance – daring to not only have the conversation about love and human rights, but also sex and desire.
FNW : With what direction and philosophy are you directing the Tom of Finland license?
JA: I always try to maintain a mix of high-end and more accessible products, be it a cock ring, a hand-knotted rug or fine fragrance. Together they create a tension that evokes the unexpected. Contrary to other artist estates, we can communicate Tom of Finland’s work on multiple levels, including matters of human rights, fashion, art and sex. In Finland, we have realized projects that are communicated more broadly as Tom is considered a national treasure. That said, I mainly credit the continuous lifecycle of our licensing projects to our collaborative nature and openness to exploring ways of interpreting and working with Tom’s body of work. It is very important that each project has creative integrity and channels not only Tom, but also the voice of the brand we work with.
FNW: How do you choose your collaborations today?
JA: It is a very organic process and dialogue – especially for more creative partnerships in fashion, where it is much more important to be aligned in terms of vision and execution. Some take years to come into fruition, and others a week, so with that said, there is no strategy. Partnerships happen when the gay fashion stars are aligned. Many partnerships are based on my personal relationships and dynamics I established in the near 20 years of working with Mr. Helmut Lang and via brands we carry at CULTUREEDIT / Tom of Finland Store. Collaborating with designers we also sell allows for a more honest conversation that is based on an established relationship that goes beyond the capsule at hand – leading to a more authentic outcome that could only have been achieved with time and regular engagement.
FNW: JW Anderson has just released his third capsule collection with Tom of Finland. What does this collaboration mean to you?
JA: Jonathan Anderson's methodology in incorporating Tom’s work into the world of JW Anderson is different from others in the sense that he only features works that he acquires for his personal art collection. Collecting art is immensely personal, so this equation in determining imagery becomes much more intimate. And sheds further insight into Jonathan’s appreciation for Tom’s work.
FNW: Has fashion's new spotlight on Tom of Finland's work sparked any negative reactions from anti-gay organizations or similar?
JA: Not from organizations or media per se, but if you look at social media comments at times, we are very well aware that there is still a long way to go and that outside of what appears as a queer bubble, there is an immense amount of work to do.
FNW: Finally, Tom of Finland, is it a message of freedom?
JA: Yes, absolutely. And what is more freeing than uninhibited sex?
FNW: What are the next developments for the Tom of Finland license?
JA: We are continuing to develop new partnerships, most notably in Finland in anticipation of an upcoming exhibition there. In fashion we will next see our collection with Honey Fucking Dijon hit stores this fall. In general, I am an advocate of ongoing relationships rather than funneling Tom’s work through a never-ending list of brands, so I look forward to continuing and furthering those we have in place and look forward to exploring what other facets of Tom’ work they want to encapsulate. But there will for sure be surprises along the way! And if anyone in the skincare world reads this – call me!
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