Helsinki in the winter is a surreal place; it's almost a ghost town, everything blanketed in snow, the regal right-angled architecture beautifully aligned on every street. The only thing colder than the weather, as I wandered around the city last week, was the cold, blank stares of the very few pedestrians walking the streets, blurs of navy, grey and black overcoats whisking past in their own worlds of 9-5 modesty.
I popped into a nearby mall to find some heat and stumbled on a far more obscure juxtaposition. I watched from a distance on the top floor as maybe 20 or 30 girls giggled, cooed and took pictures of each other, all dressed up in elaborate wigs and costumes. At first,I thought maybe it was some sort of drag-queen fashion shoot and didn't think twice, but then after a closer look I was greeted by a drove of Pipi Longstocking-esque porcelain doll girls, sporting everything from Gretel-Gothic apparel to 60s swinger accessories with their typical ice blue Finnish eyes hidden behind pupil-less black contacts.
As I found out they were 'Gyaru', a subculture of Finnish girls that like to dress up like Japanese girls. Bizarre.
One girl introduced herself as Myrsky Yippö (obviously had her write her name down afterwards) an articulate and intelligent bright eyed girl who speaks in a constant stream of reminiscent consciousness with a posh British/Nordic accent, currently working on her masters. I sat down with her along with some of her Gyaru girlfriends over sushi to find out what the hell it was all about...
Hello Kitty, what's this all about?
Well Gyaru comes from the Japanese word for 'Gal'. Originally the first stages of the style were developed in the 1990s. There were lots of girls who painted their faces dark and it was a way for girls to rebel against society and everyone looking the same and they wanted to look different. They also often were the promiscuous girls who dropped out of school and just sit at home and drink and party. Nowadays it's become more mainstream in Japan and less frowned upon.
Okay, you're all dressed slightly differently to each other...
Well, there's lots of different sub styles of Gyaru. You have this sort of cute and sweet Gyaru style for instance, there's a goth and rock style, and princesses. Me, I wear an Arejo style, which was originally developed by these hostesses in Japan who are basically female escorts.
Why do you like dressing up like Japanese escorts?
In my opinion, I think people are quite bland here maybe. When I found Gyaru I kind of realised 'Oh My God, you can look like this' and feel a bit more sexier and I like the aesthetics. I'm bored of everyone's perception that you all have to look natural. Everyone keeps going on about natural beauty, I look natural all the time so it's so much more fun when you get to put on your make-up and your lashes and look flamboyant. I love the details in Gyaru fashion.
It seems absurd that this subculture has arrived in Finland, how did it come about?
Well I found it through the internet, I went to Japan for the first time in 2009. Our community of Gyar Fionlandf is quite new. I think its only been around for a year but there was interest before with this other style called Lolita in Japanese fashion. It has more fairy tale and Victorian influences (nothing to do with the novel of the man who is into little girls). So we had this community where people can post pictures of themselves in Lolita and this was the first time I saw Finnish girls dressed up in Gyaru. It's quite a new thing that people actually dress up and meet up like we're doing now and that's come from abroad, in the UK, the States and Germany they have big Gyaru meet ups.
What do people on the street here think when they see you?
It's interesting because people are quite aggressive, they sometimes laugh at you and say snide remarks. Sometimes they don't say anything and just look at your very weirdly. People often ask why we're wearing so much make-up and we should be natural which really annoys me. They're missing the point, I'm trying to be different. This is a choice I make.
But you're saying you want to look like something else but you're just dressing up the same as someone else... another culture...
I think it's maybe about the social nature of human beings; we're social creatures, we like to be in groups. All of the people here met through Gyaru.
What kind of people usually end up dressing in Gyaru you think?
Well me, I was a tom boy growing up so maybe it's my chance to sort of dress like a princess! It's a way of getting away from every day stress and such. It's also changed the way I look at myself. It brings a lot more self-esteem and confidence, I don't have very high self-esteem so Gyaru makes me feel like a different person and I gain more courage... grow a thicker skin. It's like a security blanket at times.
What kind of things do you do when you get together?
We mainly just talk and take photos, it's not really that interesting, it's just the feeling of being together with a group.