Friday, June 22, 2012

Interview with Liisa Jokinen of Hel Looks

More than one of the street style bloggers I've talked to for this project so far have told me they were inspired to do what they do by Hel Looks, Helsinki, Finland's top street style blog and one of the most widely read street style blogs anywhere. Below is an edited version of my recent conversation via Skype with Liisa Jokinen, the main photographer and editor of Hel Looks, along with a few of the hundreds of images that have propelled Liisa to a position of significant influence in Finland's budding fashion industry. 

Brent:  So what’s the story behind Hel Looks?

Liisa: We started in 2005. People watching has always been my obsession and my hobby, so to speak. I’ve always been interested in peoples’ clothes, why people wear certain things, and the reasons and stories behind their outfits. So it was kind of natural to also start taking pictures of people. But we (Sampo Karjalainen and myself) got the idea for the blog when we were in Stockholm, Sweden for our vacation at Accelerator music festival. It was crowded with really good-looking people, and I was just watching them and thinking that I should have my camera with me. But then came the second day of that festival, and I started thinking that actually the Swedes were not that interesting. They all dress up in the same way, more into fashion than individual styles, and sharing the same rules of what looks good and what does not. It started to feel a bit boring. And I realized that we have much more variety here in Helsinki. Our street styles are more colorful, more crazy and individual.

One of Hel Looks' images from the early days of the blog in 2005. 
Brent: It certainly seems like it from the blog.

Liisa: Of course it also depends on who is taking the picture. I think Hel Looks looks like me, because I am the one who chooses the people.

Brent: So is that your role on Hel Looks?

Liisa: Yeah. We do it together, me and Sampo, but I’m always the one who says, “Hey, let’s take a picture of him or her.”

Brent: Do you go out on the streets together as well to take pictures?

Liisa: Sometimes, but it’s mostly me who has the camera. I freelance and I’m really flexible, so I’m always carrying the camera with me. Sometimes, however, if there is something special happening, we go together and take pictures. But mostly it’s me who is alone in the streets.

Brent: How would you describe Sampo’s role on the blog?

Liisa: He is responsible for all the technical things, and he also does the layout of our site. Plus, he taught me how to take the pictures in the first place.

Image by Hel Looks, 2012.
Brent: So did you not have any background in photography prior to starting this?

Liisa: No. Not at all. Not really.

Brent: So how do you see blogging? Is it more of a career for you, a hobby, something else?

Liisa: I always say that Hel Looks is a hobby project for us, because we don’t want to have any ads there. It’s good to have it as a hobby so that it’s only me and Sampo who can decide the future of it. That way, no one can say to us, “We need more pictures” or “more this and more that.” And we also want to have a simple, very clean lay out. So that’s why we don’t want to have the ads as well.

But then again, since we started doing Hel Looks my whole life has changed. When we started in 2005, I still had my 9-5 job, but after half a year doing Hel Looks I realized that I didn’t’ need to anymore. Now, Hel Looks is like an online portfolio for me. When I started doing Hel Looks, suddenly people knew me in Helsinki. I was someone. “Oh she’s the one who does Hel Looks,” people would say, so I was asked to do many kinds of things, and I realized that this was a good time quit my day job and start freelancing. So many many things that I do I do because of Hel Looks.

Image by Hel Looks 2011.
Brent: And what kind of freelance work do you do?

Liisa: Its mostly for magazines. Fashion magazines like to have these stories of ordinary people showing their style, so that’s what I do for two magazines. But then I also write about style, fashion, and design.

Brent: What are the magazines you write for?

Liisa:  They are called Trendi and Olivia. They are Finnish magazines, so you probably don’t know them. But I also do some writing, because I love to write in the Finnish language, and then I also do styling and also some casting work. And I run an online travel agency which promotes local travelling. It's called Nopsa Travels.

Brent: So Hel Looks itself is perhaps a hobby, but it’s led to all sorts of professional work.

Liisa: Yeah, you could say that.

Image by Hel Looks, 2011.
Brent: What do you look for in the people you photograph? Do you think that there’s a common characteristic among the people you choose to shoot?

Liisa: Yeah, sure. There’s something that I like about them. But maybe it’s that I try to find in them something that I haven’t seen before, something that surprises me. I try not to take pictures of people who are very very fashionable in the conventional sense. And I also try not to take the same picture over and over again, so that there is something new in every picture that we take.

Image by Hel Looks, 2011. 
Brent: When you say that you avoid people who have too fashionable of a look, that strikes me as interesting, because it seems like there is something of a divide — and I don’t know if you notice the same thing — between bloggers who do something more akin to street fashion photography — that is, they take pictures outside fashion shows — and those who do something more like street style photography proper — that, is, which depicts what’s going on in the city itself among everyday people. Do you see that kind of divide between street fashion and street style?

Liisa: Yeah, definitely. There are, in fact, two kinds of (street style) blogs and photographers. Personally I really enjoy looking at both. It’s interesting to see how people dress up at the big fashion events and fashion shows internationally. But then again, it’s a bit boring when too many street style photographers have started to travel from one fashion week to another. The result tends to be that the blogs look more or less the same. We, in contrast, only do Hel Looks. We only try to give an impression of what Helsinki looks like. I think it’s more interesting to have these local blogs than international fashion blogs. Of course there is space for both of them, but it’s a pity if everyone starts going to fashion shows only.

Image by Hel Looks, 2011.
Brent: So do you tend to avoid fashion shows, or is it just not part of what you do?

Liisa: No. No. Whenever I get a chance to travel of course I go. But as I’m freelancing, and really I don’t have the time or money, that’s not as often as I would like. Finland is a very small country, and there are only a few fashion magazines, so it’s very hard to get someone to pay my travel expenses. When I get the chance, however, of course I go. I really enjoy following fashion, and it’s also part of my work. I would just never change Hel Looks into that kind of international fashion week blog.

Brent: What do you think sets Hel Looks apart from other street style blogs? What is unique about Hel Looks?

Liisa:   Well, of course, it’s the local thing. We only post pictures from Helsinki. And then there is also the fact that our blog is what we call a “slow blog.” We only update the site once a week, on Sundays. We don’t have time to do it other days, whereas, many bloggers update their site once a day, or more than once even to keep their site current. But for us, it’s only once a week, and that’s something that we don’t want to change. Also, we don’t have any advertisements, and there aren’t many blogs that have the interviews like we have, and for us, it’s very important. I mean, I’m just so curious if I meet someone and I take a picture of someone, of course I want to ask them questions. “Hey, what are you wearing? And why are you wearing those clothes?” I think that’s very very interesting, so it would be stupid not to ask those things.

Image by Hel Looks, 2011. 
Brent:  Do you always ask the same questions?

Liisa: It depends. I normally start with the easy one, you know, “What are you wearing now?” Because that’s something that everyone can answer. But then I continue from there, and sometimes I can talk with someone for half an hour if we both have the time. I also like to know what specific things he or she likes at the moment, if there’s some specific colors or patterns or brands, designers, or outfits, or combinations that they’re into. I also like to know about style icons, people, blogs, or magazines that inspire their style.

Brent: Is there a Helsinki style? You mentioned that Helsinki is quite different from Stockholm where style tends to be quite boring, but is there something specific about Helsinki that you can identify?”

Liisa: I think it’s very free. Here you can wear what you want. You can find the fashionista girls, but also other subcultures, like punk rockers, heavy metal rockers, and goths. And you can see a strong influence from Japan as well. There are still many Lolita girls in Helsinki.

Image by Hel Looks, 2012.
Brent: Yeah I noticed that. That’s interesting. Why do you think that Helsinki is that way?

Liisa: Hmm. That’s a good question. Maybe it’s because we are so far away geographically — and also mentally — from the rest of Europe. Trends used to come very slowly to Finland. And also, it could be that we have strong connections to the East, as we are basically on the border. Like Iceland, Finland’s remoteness may have something to do with its strong sense of style.

Helsinki has also changed during these past few years. When we started there weren’t that many fashion stores in Helsinki, but during the seven years now that we’ve been doing Hel Looks, people have become much more fashionable. People that we photograph know so many fashion designers, and they really follow fashion. So there is this growing fashion consciousness.

Image by Hel Looks, 2011.
Brent: Well, that makes sense. Accent tends to be a bit more pronounced in places that are a bit more removed. It also makes sense that style has its own distinct flavor when it’s removed from other places. So how would you describe your own personal style?

Liisa: Well, I of course must be very relaxed. I like second-hand, or vintage, and I also like to wear comfortable clothes, like most Finns. I really like to wear things that I can easily move in as I’m biking around the city, hunting for styles. You cannot wear many complicated outfits when you do what I do. But I also hope that my style is quite colorful. I love floral prints and neon colors and things like that.  For me clothes make my life more fun. It’s like everyday creativity. And it’s a lot of fun too. I don’t want to take myself too seriously.

Brent: How would you describe your relationship with other bloggers?

Liisa: Finland is a really small country. We are all friends. You need to be friends if you’re going to all work in the same field. And the same goes for international bloggers, like Facehunter, who I’ve met several times. I think we are friends and colleagues.

Image by Hel Looks, 2012.
Brent: Do you stay in regular touch with other street style bloggers internationally?

Liisa: Yeah, whenever I go to a new city, I will check to see if there’s someone like me, because it’s nice to meet them and share experiences. But I don’t go to any international bloggers meetings, because I don’t have time for that, unfortunately.

Brent: So how much of your time do you think Hel Looks takes up?

Liisa: It’s like 2 to 3 hours every Sunday when we update the site. Then maybe one-tenth of my working hours. Something like that.

Brent: Why do you think street style blogs have gotten so popular in the last few years?

Liisa: Well maybe it’s because street style is about real people. It’s a real person who is wearing something, so it’s easier to relate to street style photos than fashion editorials. And of course, I think we are all quite curious about other people. When you are walking in the streets, you cannot just start staring at someone. But if you are reading Hel Looks you can stare at someone forever. And it’s not embarrassing.

Image by Hel Looks, 2012.
Brent: You can really analyze their look without them noticing you noticing.

Liisa: I think it’s quite natural, really, that people are interested in Hel Looks and other sites.

Brent: And as far as you can tell, since you’ve been doing this, what kind of role do street style blogs play within today’s fashion industry?

Liisa: Certainly it’s quite a big role, because fashion professionals are following street style sites. But then again I would never say that fashion magazines and blogs are competing. Both have advantages of their own. They complete each other somehow.

Brent: So what other blogs do you read regularly?

Liisa: Of course, Sartorialist and Facehunter. And also Facehunter’s Yvan Rodic’s blog I really enjoy. But there is a changing list of stuff. Sometimes I follow something more and sometimes less. For example, I’m going to Shanghai, China in October, and now I’m trying to make a list of interesting Chinese blogs that I’d like to start following before my trip to get a better idea of how it looks there, and whom to contact there maybe.

Brent: Seems like there’s a lot going on in China.

Liisa: Yeah I’m so really confused, you know, about how to find the most interesting people. But we’ll see.

Brent: What do you know about the readership of Hel Looks?

Liisa: Like the visitors that we have?

Brent: Yeah, like the visitors that you have, where they come from, that sort of thing?

Liisa: Now I haven’t checked the amount of visitors lately, but I think it’s been about the same for a very long time. It’s around 8000 visitors a day. 1/3 of them are from Finland. The rest come from USA, Germany, China, Poland, Canda, UK etc.

Image by Hel Looks, 2005.
Brent: What kind of social media do you use to promote Hel Looks?

Liisa: Facebook and Twitter, but that’s also quite slow and lazy posting. We only post something when we have new pictures on our site.

Brent: So just the update?

Liisa: Or of course if we have an exhibition or something like that, or something more special then we can also post it, but that’s it. Only very few things.

Brent: And do you think that’s been really useful in terms of driving traffic to the site?

Liisa: Mmm hmm. Especially Facebook. It’s a good one, I think. It’s a very efficient way to get new visitors. But then again we are very happy with the amount of visitors now, so we don’t have to get more and more.

Brent: Promoting is no longer a big aspect of what you do.

Liisa: Yeah. It has never been. We have never promoted it.

Brent: How long do you think it took Hel Looks to sort of take off, and start to attract a lot of visitors?

Liisa: It all started very fast, actually. It took only a couple of days and we had many, like tens of thousands of visitors. It was only because I sent a link — at that point we only had like 20 pictures on our site — and I posted a link to my friend. And he posted the link to another guy who posted it to the guy who runs And that’s how we got strong visitors (here's a link to the original post). And I think that’s why we decided to continue. Because in the beginning we were on summer holiday, and we were thinking, hey, let’s go out and let’s take some pictures, but we never really thought about how long we are going to continue. But then we got so many visitors and so much good feedback that we wanted to continue, and now it feels like we can never stop. We’ll see what happens, if I become like Finland’s Bill Cunningham or something. 

Image by Hel Looks, 2012.

1 comment:

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