Juho Pihlajala, owner of Variety Vintage,
talks about living in society on your own terms.

Howdy! Tell a bit about yourself, please.
My name is Juho Pihlajala, and I’m the owner of the Variety Second-Hand & Vintage shop. I was born here, in downtown Helsinki, but I grew up in different places. My family moved to Marseille when I was young, for a year or so. Then I went overseas a lot, did a lot of Europe, Australia… On my own and with bands, kinda like a roadie. Then I went to New York and got into a relationship, and we together decided to come to Helsinki for a change.

What’s your background?
My original trade -what I studied in college- was filmmaking, specifically how to set up the lights for movies. Artistically, I grew up in a family that traveled, that enjoyed art -my dad is a painter- so it’s engraved in me. To think out of the box, to see what other people are doing and do it in my own way.

Did you ever study fashion?
No, I never studied fashion. My personal interest is in the marginal cultures, skateboarding and music such as punk and hip-hop. When I was growing up these elements were very much underground, and tied together, and that’s important for understanding culture in general, this idea of opposition to societal norms. For me inspirational people are those who take something out of the context, and make it their own. And that’s one of the reasons why I love what I’m doing, because all this stuff in the shop isn’t really a part of the Finnish culture; we as Finns take it and make it whatever we believe it is. People know the products through movies, through TV shows, through music, but it’s not directly tied to us. And I’ve always been interested, not in fashion, but in style. I think the most fashionable people don’t care about fashion.

Such people invent style.
Yeah. And even though materials and colors are important at the moment of making the fit look good on yourself, I think the most stylish people are those who are very comfortable in their own skin. The way they carry themselves, the way they talk, it’s the whole aura they give off themselves. To me, that is beauty. People can sometimes get into these molds of “this is what I should be wearing right now” like a uniform, and I’ve never been interested in uniforms. But, that being said, every single clique has its own uniform: heavy metal dudes don’t grow their hair by accident, and so on. We’re always sending a message.

How did Variety Vintage come to be?
It was something I got accustomed to, as a shopper in New York, which is a very large part, to this day, of Variety Vintage. I draw my inspiration from that, the culture and the style of the city. So I had thought about it for a long time. In the beginning I was not like “oh, I’m gonna do it,” I was just hoping for a shop like it, one that I and the people I hang out with would be interested in.I truly believed there was a demand for a quality vintage boutique. And I’ve always been on a hunt, I’ve always looked for stuff for myself, and then I couldn’t find them on my size, but I found stuff on other people’s sizes so I used to trade, and it was like I was already doing it, and then… Maybe like six months before opening, I was like “I’m gonna do it, now it’s the time; I’m gonna open a shop in Helsinki”.

How often were you in NY?
I was there in cycles. Like three months there, then back to Helsinki. Spring there, late summer here…

Do you ever feel constricted in Finland sometimes?
For sure. But probably everybody feels that way, in any place. I can’t speak for others, but yeah, I do need to leave every once in a while. But I always end up coming back, for some reason. Every place has its good and bad things; with time you try to figure out which are the important ones and which are not.

For how long has the shop been open?
A year and a half, but we moved in to this new location six months ago.

Do you feel like running away some days?
No, ‘cos otherwise I wouldn’t come here every day. If I wanted to run I would, nothing’s stopping me. Like, I could just not open the store and just leave. Of course it’s a hard adjustment, for someone who’s used to travel a lot, but at the same time having a link, an anchor to something, makes you think differently about things. You have to re-evaluate your life and everything, so… I don’t see it as a negative thing. Otherwise I would’t do it.

You brought a girlfriend from the U.S. How’s she adapting to bucolic Finland?
She likes it. It’s very different from New York, and it’s a very good change, because it’s a slow pace, a very clean environment, very safe. You can walk along the shoreline for an hour, looking at the sea, and you’ll meet just a couple walking their dog. It has its perks like that, but of course you miss what big cities like NY or London have, like getting anything you want at any given time of the day, for example.

The huge U.S. flag here, what does it mean to you?
It’s something I grew up with. Movies, music, playing basketball, skateboarding, it’s all American culture. It’s not Finnish culture, which I never grew up with.

Why not? Was it a conscious decision?
I don’t think so. When you’re a kid, you don’t think about that stuff. It just happens unintentionally. Like, when you’re five or six, and you begin choosing the music you like, and you do what you want to do.

Let’s talk content. What can be found here?
Everything from brand-name stuff, like Polo Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Barbour, Alpha… Brooks Brothers is big, Stone Island… And then old sneakers and jerseys, more sporty stuff. Also t-shirts, army clothes -actual US navy clothes, not replicas- field jackets, M65s, and so on… Like the name indicates, it’s a variety of things, and I’m the curator in a way, I am the buyer. Even though we’re talking about vintage clothes, the idea is to show that all we see in today’s fashion comes from somewhere. Everybody makes bomber jackets nowadays, Filippa K, Supreme, and so on; they borrow and recycle, not the actual product but the idea of it. And that’s mainly what I’m exploring: here we’ve got the real, original thing.

Where does all the stuff come from?
It comes from a lot of places. Mostly from my travels, because I continue to travel for work, so I bring back a lot of stuff. I also go and buy stock from stores that have closed; somebody tips me and I go through storage units. I go to people’s houses… I meet up with collectors and buy stuff from them… It’s a constant treasure hunt, and it’s one of the reasons why I love this job: it’s in my nature to be constantly on the move, keeping my eyes open, going out and meeting people you don’t know. It’s fun.

It seems you found a niche for your creativity.
Yeah. I guess everybody hopes for that, to be in a position to do whatever they are good at, and make it their job, to make it work. That’s true freedom, in a way; to live in a society but on your own terms. That’s what artists do, they build their world around them.

Does this make sense commercially for you?
It’s not easy. It’s a small store, in a small city, with a small customer base. At the end of the day it’s about how many people can come in and find something they are interested in, in their own size. So it’s definitely interesting, but I’m always looking for ways to make it better.

VARIETY VINTAGE is located in Kalevankatu 33, Helsinki. This is their website and this is their Facebook page.