What I wear is who I am is a sentiment arguably most true for New Yorkers. Not because our town is the “fashion capital of the world” – although, we’d agree – but because we walk. To work, to drinks, to shop; dusk to dawn, we are on display to the 8 million others who call this city home. If you were as constantly visible as the average New Yorker, you’d likely take extra care each morning, too. And if you look good enough, maybe you’ll be stopped by photographer Liisa Jokinen.
The Helsinki-born vintage and street style enthusiast is the lens behind the popular Instagram account NYC Looks. While there are several photographers who consider the sidewalks their residency, few capture the emotion behind fashion like Jokinen does. It’s not just what you are wearing, but why. She understands that few things are as personal as style.
Having executed a similar project in her hometown, by the time she arrived in the U.S., she was a pro. She launched SF Looks in 2014 and NYC Looks three years ago. She’s even gone as far as to develop a digital map of all the vintage shops in the city and a vintage search app called Gem.
We spoke with the fashion expert about her process, inspiration, and the state of style today.
When did you start NYC Looks?
In January 2017, after we had moved from San Francisco to New York. But I have been taking street style photos since July 2005, and I haven’t had a break from street photography ever since. I launched my first street style blog Hel Looks then in Helsinki, Finland. I still update Hel Looks every summer when I visit Helsinki. I was inspired by the work of Shoichi Aoki, the founder of Fruits magazine and on a trip to Stockholm, Sweden, realized how unique Helsinki street style was at that time.
You photograph people all over the city – I’m imagining you running around New York, camera in toe, feverishly looking for dope fits. But what does the process actually like?
I always carry my camera with me because you never know when or where you are going to spot someone special! And oftentimes those unexpected encounters are the best ones. Sometimes I attend events just to get photos – for example I love to hang outside the Afropunk Festival, go to popups, indie labels’ sample sales, art openings etc. The more I get to know the city, the better I am at guessing which events will be the most fun! Beacon’s Closet vintage stores are always busy with people with fun looks and so is the Parsons Institute.
How often do you spend, on average, on the street?
Maybe 2-3 times a week I venture our with the sole intention to get fresh photos. NYC Looks just keeps me active and curious and I love it. That is my reason and excuse to attend events, walk around, go to places, discover new things in New York. I need to go where the great outfit is, it won’t come to me [smiles].
What is it about someone’s personal style that makes you stop and photograph them?
This is something people always ask me and there is no definite answer. When I see the outfit I want to photograph, I just know it and I run! I am not that interested in fashionable outfits, I prefer personal style. Style is more interesting than fashion to me. I love outfits that surprise me. It can be a bold color combination or silhouette or a fun mix of old and new. I guess I like to photograph outfits that I haven’t seen before and that I even could not imagine existing.
“Style is something broader than fashion.”
What are some trends, new or dying, that you’ve noticed while doing this work?
I have seen so many come and go: skinny jeans were huge in the late 2000s. Bum bags, tie-dye, tiny bags, over-sized blazers, pastel colors, platform Dr. Martens have been trending [since last year]. Excited to see what 2020 will bring.
Are any of them neighborhood specific – for example, would you say uptown is more designer focused while downtown is more thrift-oriented?
I seldom take pics uptown – not that I would not like to go there (I do visit the museums and Central Park very often), I just seem not to spot looks there lol. But I would say Soho is more designer-oriented and Brooklyn in general is more thrifty!
Do people ever turn you down when you ask to photograph them?
Sometimes. Some people do not like to be photographed and that is OK. I don’t know why they don’t like it though.
Clearly you’re someone deeply interested in style. When did your love affair with fashion begin?
I’m more interested in style than fashion. For me, style is something wider and broader – anything and anyone can be stylish where as only certain things are in fashion at a [particular] time. But I do love fashion, too. I have been interested in clothes since kid. I always loved to choose my own clothes, asked my mom to sew me specific things and loved wearing hand-me-downs and vintage as long as I can remember. There was something specific and unique about vintage clothes and they made me feel secure and loved; there was this inherent connection to a relative whose clothes I was wearing. I loved how soft worn cotton felt on my skin and I loved the vintage prints and colors. When I was a pre-teen I started making my own clothes to get exactly what I wanted. After that I started thrifting and haven’t stopped ever since.
Do you have a day job?
Yes, I’m the founder of the Gem app. It is a search engine for all online vintage clothing. It brings pre-owned fashion into one search, currently over 12 million items. Gem is the first app of its kind in resale market.
As a fashion archivist, do you have any thoughts on the state of style today – think we’re doing OK?
Oh, yes we are doing great! The dissolution of gender norms, the growth of second hand and resale culture and social media make the style scene really fascinating at the moment. It is OK to dress weird nowadays. People have woken up to sustainability and are actively questioning and challenging the current state of the fashion system.