A tattoo parlour in Helsinki isn’t an unusual place to find Tiia Vanhatapio, one of Finland’s leading fashion designers. She likes tattoos and in less than an hour her latest ink will have spread across her left forearm. I stand up to shake hands and right away she starts telling me about her new clothing line. ”Desert Storm” is the next step in the metamorphosis of her brand, and is all about “surviving your own emotional sand desert”, she says with enthusiasm.

Tiia eases herself up onto the bed and casually offers the tattoo artist her left arm. ”Feminine yet hauntingly provocative” is how she would describe her designs to those who haven’t seen them – she particularly enjoys designing clothes for “headstrong women who don’t take themselves too seriously.” Thanks to famous clients including burlesque star Dita von Teese, Tiia has deservedly earned herself the “Queen of the Cocktail Dresses” title. And her “fjeld” bags are just as appealing (she still gloats about one of her trendy lamb fur designs being picked up by Katie Holmes’ stylist, at the 2010 New York Fashion week, used in the film The Romantics). International success has continued with Vanhatapio Bebes, a collection of children’s clothes that takes normal unisex baby garments and combines them with interesting methods of folding, wrapping and fastening and fuses them with bold colours and patterns. Clients include HRH Princess Isabella of Denmark and Ignatius Martin, the youngest son of Cate Blanchett.

Tiia’s creative process has been largely shaped by a mixture of surreal imagery, her father’s expansive music collection and strong Lappish roots. She may be seen as part of the new contemporary Finnish design school, but her attitude and approach to life do not so comfortably fit that mould. She cites Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal as having had a profound effect on her approach to design. How so? ”It embedded death and darkness within me and I became morbidly fascinated with the visual from a very early age”, she told me. This fascination with visuals continues to influence her feel for the “darker glamour, high end gothic, Victorian and Russian vibes”, that make her designs instantly recognisable. The more she tells me, the more her position as a talented strange fruit amongst the clean cut Scandinavian design culture seems to make sense.

Tiia’s background in design, combined with education in business studies has enabled her to form a solid foundation and build an international design company. This combination is also key to her future plans that will “take the company to the next level”, she tells me with confidence. By this she means “a concentrated focus on international growth and sales, and to further strengthen the Vanhatapio brand.”

When I asked her what one thing she was excited most about, I had almost forgotten about the raven now inked across her forearm. “The possibility that Roger will soon be living with me,” she tells me. I would never have guessed Roger to be a five year old house trained Dachshund had Tiia not have filled me in…

Words: Gareth Rice