Over the weekend, designer Teija Eilola’s eponymous brand Teija feted its fifth anniversary. There was additional cause for celebration on this occasion, though—earlier in the week, former first lady and current world traveler Michelle Obama was spotted in the small town of Montalcino, Italy, wearing a blousy, pink, one-shouldered top by Teija, setting off reactions from bloggers, fashion reporters, and Instagrammers across the U.S. and U.K. alike.
The moment—Obama, roaming Montalcino, sampling chocolate gelato—and its subsequent coverage this week found the designer and her label in front of a wider audience than ever before.
“It might be a pretty deciding moment for my label,” she said on Friday, speaking over the phone from London. “It’s been quite exciting, how suddenly her wearing it has such an impact on a label.” During her tenure in the White House, Obama’s stamp of approval helped launch small brands and up-and-coming designers to international notoriety; Brandon Maxwell and Jason Wu especially benefited from the former first lady’s sartorial platform.
Eilola, 38, was working in her design studio in London on Monday morning when the notifications started coming in. The moment caught the designer and her team by surprise; while often designers loan pieces to stylists, who outfit their clients accordingly, Eilola had no idea Obama owned one of her pieces. Obama, or stylist-slash-aide Meredith Koop, selected the piece organically, Eilola suspects. (As Vanessa Friedman wrote in the New York Times earlier this year, many of the designers whose looks Obama wore as first lady did not know when their pieces might appear. She purchased garments for her personal wardrobe, while those for state functions were donated and ultimately archived.)
“When people actually love a piece, then they can really take ownership of a look, how they style it, feel really comfortable in it,” she said.
This could apply equally to Eilola’s approach to her own designs. In the five years since she established her brand, she has settled into an aesthetic that blends her Finnish sensibility—a taste for minimalism and versatility, combining elegance with a utilitarian edge—with a distinctly British feel—she cut her teeth as a designer in London. Playful takes on shirting have dominated street style for a couple seasons now, such that even the former first lady has caught on, but shirting has long been a mainstay of the Teija brand.
The designer describes one of her signature pieces as a shirt with smocking around the neckline, shoulders, and sleeve cuffs, which she has adapted in different colorways for successive seasons.
Eilola had set her sights on a career in fashion from a young age. She now recalls the thrill of designing and sewing a piece as a pre-teen: “I’d get really excited when I had one complete garment like a dungaree made up, and I was like, 'Oh, my god, I just figured out how to make it work,'” she said.
Her interest waned in her teens, but she “remembered the whole passion for it” by 19, when it came time to head to college. She attended the prestigious Royal College of Art and, after graduating, earned a position in the design studio of the London-based Japanese label Michiko Koshino Yen.
But after several years working at studios like Michiko Koshino and Ted Baker around London, Eilola was ready to “design under my own signature,” she said. In 2012, she began conceptualizing her first looks and used them to apply to the city’s Fashion Fringe competition, chaired by Burberry’s Christopher Bailey. Bailey called her shortly after, informing Eilola she was one of 10 finalists for the competition he would coach through three months of appointments and talks with industry professionals, culminating in a showcase at London Fashion Week. (While under Bailey’s mentorship, Eilola also designed a smocked shirt in her first collection, which subsequently became a bestseller—and an essentially Teija look.)
“It was all about generating a moment for a small label,” she said of the competition. “It happened really quickly but that made it exciting because I didn’t really have time to think about it.” It spring-boarded her to the attention of buyers in the U.K. and Japan; her collections have since been picked up by Dover Street Market and Matches Fashion.
In January, Barneys New York featured Teija in a window highlighting British designers. Her label has quietly evolved, she explained, from “a much more Victorian feel” to “more whimsical,” and just as quietly, Teija has landed on several designers-to-watch lists and roundups in European fashion publications. She’s working on her next collection, further developing the brand’s same principles.
But all that doesn’t compare to the attention she garnered this week. “Obviously, it’s not a Michelle Obama moment,” Eilola said, laughing.
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