Everything is connected.

Blurring the lines of performance-art, fashion design, and guerrilla-marketing, the My Lost Uncle project is a its core a personal quest that takes a man as far as Tatooine in search of creative freedom and personal development.

Hello! Who are you?
I am Jani Maunula, and I live in Kallio with my husky.

Are you originally from Helsinki?
I am from Nivala, but I was born and spent my first ten years in Kokkola, a small town in northern Ostrobothnia, in the west coast of Finland. Nivala is a land of wide spaces, and lakes. I moved from there to Helsinki around ’93.

Why did you come over?
Well, Nivala was a small, religious town in the middle of nowhere, so I guess I was restless… But as I got older I came to love the place, now I visit as often as I can. I still wouldn’t live there permanently, though… But the main reason I came to Helsinki was that I wanted to study at the University of Art and Design (Aalto University).

Did you manage to get in upon arrival?
No. It took me many years to enter. I did my civil service first, then I studied sewing, and did many other things. But finally I applied to the University of Art and Design and got in on the second try. I studied fashion, and graduated in 2002. I then worked for several Finnish companies, like the Luhta Group (owners of several brands) in Lahti for two years, doing denim, knits, and jackets. Then I was moved back to Helsinki (Fashion Forum) where I worked on sportswear, for almost five years. Then I joined Golla for a couple of years, working on a special line of bags called ‘black line’. It was a more expensive line of products, business-oriented. But then I began to feel I wanted to do something else…

What were you searching for?
I was trying to come up with something original. You see, what usually happens in Finland is that you end up copy-pasting your own ideas all the time, there’s no innovation after a while. If you happen to design something good, you cling to that success and stop thinking of new ideas to make it better. I fell into that professional trap for a long time, and was tired of it. For me, I believe in backgrounds and stories behind art, fashion, and design. There has to be something there. So I began to work as a freelancer. I participated in a Finnish design project for Paris Fashion Week in autumn 2011, doing the art direction, the visual imagery, the atmosphere. It was then when I realized what I wanted to do: imagery, graphics, websites, videos. I was still doing freelance work, designing clothes, but I went back to school to study Innovation Studies at Aalto University. I applied there with my ‘Lost Uncle’ project.

Considering all your experience, why did you choose to study again?
I guess I was looking for outlets for my creative work, I felt I had something to express, and I needed guidance with that. I was also tired of the computer, sitting in front of a screen all day, all on my own. It seems our whole designing routine today is to look for ready-made images and ideas, and then inject them into our work. I didn’t want to fall into that trap. And I wanted to be with people, to interact.

Was it easy to go back to school?
I was scared at first. I feared I was going to be surrounded by youngsters and I’d be overwhelmed. But it turned out we were all more or less of the same age, so everything was fine. I made new friends and good connections, and the experience was like as a launching pad for my project. I got great feedback -positive and negative- and made me re-think it from perspectives I hadn’t considered before.

So, let’s get into your Lost Uncle project. What is it?
The project is centered on the disappearance, in 1979, of an uncle of mine.

But is this a real person we are talking about?
Yes, he is real. My father has a sister (my aunt) and a brother named Andreas (my uncle). This is the uncle that went missing. It happened for real, but I have changed many things. The project is a combination of my own reality and my own fantasies. During all those years of work and study, something was missing. And my uncle is missing too. So I use elements of sci-fi from the 60s, 70s and 80s, and fashion from those years too, to create a quasi-fictional narrative based on a real event.

Would you like to travel back in time to any of those periods?
No, I don’t think so. I use the past for the future’s sake, because we only have the future in front of us. We all have a past, but I believe you need to create for the future.

But if Doc Brown offered you a loaded DeLorean with a one-way trip to a decade, which one would you choose? The 60s, with Warhol & Co?
I’m not that much into Warhol, but their factory community thing was cool. The Studio 54 scene… But for time-travel I would probably pick the late 70s. Punk, fashion revolution in England, electronics (those cool red LED digital numbers)… And all the bad stuff from the seventies was coming to an end. Yeah, I would go there. But I would stay there for only six months. I would check out the fashion period, and then I would come back (laughs).

So what was your uncle doing when he disappeared?
He was a merchant sailor, traveling for many years before he vanished. But his being a sailor is not relevant, because I don’t want people to think I’m making sailor’s clothes, with anchors and stuff.

Can you tell a bit more about the circumstances?
The trip began in Kokkola, went on to Turku, Stockholm… And then, in the middle of the transatlantic voyage from London to New York, my family lost contact with him completely. Then they began a search, tried to contact the merchant companies, fellow sailors… But little information was found. And as the years went by, there were hints that he may still be alive. For example, in 1982 I got a postcard showing a starry sky, and saying “I’M ALIVE. A.”

Wow. So what happened, does anybody know?
The family has certain ideas of what may have happened, but it’s important to stress these things are private. Even though I use a real event as a starting point for my (fictional) narrative, there definitely is a threshold at which the event begins to be a private family matter, and is not openly disclosed.

How old were you when this happened?
I was born in ‘74, so about five years old.

Would you say the event affected you back then, or you grew up and one day you thought “an uncle of mine is missing, that’s really interesting…”
I remember being shocked then, at his sudden absence. But the real interest, the fascination, began as I grew older.

So you created a fashion line that has at its core a disappearance.
Yes. And for each new item or product I release, it is important for me that they have an internal logic and a background story to it. For example, now I’m releasing this Souvenir Tees from Somewhere items, and they continue to explore this thriller vibe. The label reads ‘With Love’, the package includes a postcard, and the whole thing is wrapped in metallic foil… It’s all very mysterious and exciting.

According to your imagination, what do you think happened to him?
I think he is alive somewhere.

The fashion products that you make in the context of this project, are they for the man who got lost, or for the man looking for the man who got lost?
For anyone who dares to go on a quest. Men who seek adventure, like Han Solo, or Indiana Jones.

Is your uncle a hero to you, then?
Not exactly. I’m not a fan of my uncle, but more about the fascination of the voyage. I admire the courage to go and do something different. But we must keep in mind that the missing uncle -in this context- is just a starting point for a project that allows me to express my own ideas and themes.

This project has you traveling around the world.
Yes, when I have money (laughs). I have traveled mostly in Finland, checking out the places my uncle used to dwell in. I’ve browsed through the family collection of photos, and interviewing relatives. And last month I went to Tunisia. I was also planning to travel to Pripyat and Chernobyl this spring, but the current situation in Ukraine prevented it. I hope peace is re-established soon in the region.

Why did you pick Tunisia to visit?
My aunt got a strange phone call that suggested my uncle may be there.

He was calling to collect the royalties…
(laughs) Yeah, I should be scared of that! But yes, I went there.

You were at the Star Wars Tatooine location. What was that like?
That was… amazing. I guess for anybody who’s seen the original Star Wars when it was released it’s incredibly powerful to see these locations, both in terms of storytelling and movie-making history. It was really moving for me to be standing there, in Owen Lars’s homestead, and see the sun go down…

But was the Star Wars location related to your uncle’s whereabouts?
No, but yes. When I was there I left one of my ‘missing’ posters (laughs). That’s how I interweave the fictional and the real into my project. My aunt got a real call related to Tunisia and I went there to do some investigation (which I choose to keep private) and also visited the iconic Tatooine location.

Is it difficult to get to the site?
There are two sites, one more touristic and accessible, and the other -the one I wanted- was farther away and more difficult to access. The driver, in spite of my request, first took us to the wrong place. And I was really mad because we wanted to see that sunset, to get the Luke-Skywalker-sunset moment. With only one hour to go to the right place, we found it. It was in the middle of Chott-el-Djerid, the biggest salt lake in the Sahara. And we got to see the sunset and take the photo. For me, it felt like being at the Golgotha…

Regarding the pseudo missing-person posters you paste around -especially in areas where locals may not immediately spot the subtlety of an art project- do you think someone could be offended by the fake plea for help? Who would be the target audience?
With the posters I wanted to make my own unrestricted guerilla-style promotion, like Bill Drummond or Invader do, for example, and to get imagery from my road trips. I also want to leave something of myself in the places I visit. The target of the poster is the one who sees it; I can’t control that in any way. Of course the aesthetics on my websites is fully under my control, and is directed at 25 to 45 years-old men.

I think “fake” is not the right word in this case, as there is a truth behind all the things. But sometimes the truth can’t be the whole truth. As I explained, I deal with quite personal things, and I need to select what to show without disclosing everything from my family background. Even though I use authentic photos in many cases, they only describe the past, not this moment, nor the future. The man in the picture is in dark shadows, he has a beard and looks a bit like my uncle. He reminds me somehow of Jesus and the apocalyptic “Jesus Comes” posters (which is a funny coincidence). But I did want to provoke a “what the heck is this?” reaction. Almost everybody has seen Missing posters, but mine are different, there isn’t a phone number to call, or names, only a website link. I think this would be enough to alert viewers that this is an art stunt. If somebody is offended I would say there is so much worse happening in the world than my design projects. Everyone dislikes stuff in every case, you can’t please everybody, and that’s a good thing. But when I received several emails asking “hey, what is this about?” and world-famous men’s style blogger Nick Wooster began following my Tumblr, I knew I was on the right track. And after all, my uncle continues to be missing, and this campaign keeps the water running.

Regarding the design of the garments, how many people are involved?
We started with underwear, together with Antti Meriluoto (he designed the prints). He also did the design of the Souvenir from Somewhere t-shirts. He stays on as a consultant and a good friend, but basically I’m doing all this on my own.

The disappearance of a person is a rather… sinister event. And you employ a graphic style that recalls 70s and 80s horror movies (JAWS, The Exorcist, and Evil Dead come to mind). Are you consciously using this dark imagery?
I am attracted to dark imagery; the unknown, the paranormal. I love 70s and 80s sci-fi and horror movies. So yes, the exciting elements of horror and the thriller are there on purpose. The ALIVE font is inspired by covers of books by Asimov, who takes a lot of space in my bookshelf. The real photographs from Kokkola (Andreas’ hometown) are heavily edited to look very mysterious. The eyes on the t-shirt are mine. The t-shirt project is based on souvenir tees produced in the late 70s (Antti Meriluoto designed the print based on my ideas and photographs). I am very happy with the dark feeling achieved, compared to the sunny souvenir tees uncle Andreas brought me from his trips. And the slogan ALIVE can have many meanings and connotations. By the way, JAWS, The Exorcist and Evil Dead are at the top of the best known films worldwide. Darkness sells (laughs).

I’ve heard people commenting on the “horror” vibe, but I want to keep it like that. In a way it echoes the darkness of Finnish Ostrobothnia, and it is my approach to explore the unknown. There aren’t any traumatic experiences in my past, I’m a good-humored guy; I just like darker and uncommon things, in art, style or places (in fact I flee from flowers, cheesy people, and happy fashion lifestyles). I believe that turning things upside down can sometimes bring out interesting, challenging things to think about.

What style are you aiming for, fashion-wise? Where are the items made?
Everyday style. Scandinavian, minimalist (contrasting with flamboyant and futuristic), simple and comfortable; with a little twist in the details. Everything is done here in Finland. More pricey, but they are made to last, like those souvenir tees from the 70s.

When visiting your site, it’s not apparently clear that fashion items are being sold, or where can they be bought. Why is this?
Since my uncle is missing, you have to explore a little to find the links (laughs). The project began more as an art project, rather than a commercial venture, so I could keep things more on the artistic side.

Will you want to go fully commercial at some point?
Probably yes. I have a plan of action for next year. I want to go abroad and (hopefully) participate in several fairs. And I also want to design a bigger collection, with items that can be combined…

How do you keep your creative juices flowing?
Besides my design activities, I work with people afflicted with CP (Cerebral Palsy). It’s a group of some fifteen people, and I coach them on art and activities. They express themselves by drawing and painting, for example. They are so wonderfully talented and make me so glad. I must say they have given me the best ideas. And working with them I realized I can’t just work on design only. Maybe I’m a bad designer because I don’t devote all my time to projects, but I really need to do this to feel satisfied.

Probably the good energy you put into that service fuels your creativity.
Absolutely, everything is connected. That’s how I feel it.

This is My Lost Uncle’s website. Also on Tumblr and Instagram. Shops that carry My Lost Uncle items are Design Shop Outlet and Musta Höyhen.