A couple of weeks back I found myself with a few hours to spare in the Finnish town Helsinki. Now this may sound like a case of waking up in a foreign place, sore of head, empty of wallet and no recollection of how I got there. This was nothing of that nature though, I did actually willingly fly there, as my job required it. This may surprise you a little, as Helsinki, or even Finland itself, haven’t been anywhere near the top 500 entries on my hot travel destination list. Finland is one of those places that sends mixed messages, I guess, in summary: world leading mobile phone company, winters, saunas, vodka, angry birds, thousand lakes, suicidal depression and the worlds most spectacularly failed mobile phone company.
In any case, I was heading there, I would have some hours to spare and I wanted to see if I could find some relevant stuff to see there. I figured I was sure to have some followers that knew, so I asked on Instagram:
With 5 destinations loaded into Google Maps I was ready to explore. I arrived at Helsinki airport on a typically miserable nu-winter day, around zero, scraps of dirty snow and overcast. I lucked out when I ordered an Uber-cab though, and the driver, who swore his name was Elvis, was cheerful and provided excellent conversation. Not a word about any of my hot topics either. Then again he did claim to be half Croatian and half Romanian, so perhaps he wasn’t fully integrated in to the Finnish mindset yet.
Elvis transported me safely to the centre of Helsinki and I could start looking for the destinations I’d loaded into Google Maps. Oddly I was getting quite the Eastern European vibe when walking around. Most of the buildings are functional concrete and devoid of charm. Naturally the weather wasn’t helping at all and there was a chilly wind to contend with.
I set out to find location one though, Pinkomo. This turned out to be the first of several tricky to find places, as it’s situated in the basement of nondescript building in a street that looks quite non-commercial. I can safely say that if you were just mooching about Helsinki on the lookout for an interesting shop, you could very easily have walked straight past without noticing it. As it was, when I finally located Pinkomo it was closed, so I strolled onward.
My second recommended port of call was Swon. A narrow shop front, located on a side street, this proved to be a delightful shop. Swon has the largest selection of Stetson hats I’ve ever seen, anywhere. In addition to the two walls of hats, the tiny shop also has a selection of clothing brands that I rarely see in shops, namely the German brand Pike Brothers and American Round House denim. Add in other interesting accessories from the likes of Pendleton and you have a very well rounded selection. I didn’t catch the name of the girl I spoke to, but both she and the shop dog were very friendly.
Heading onward and into the chilly wind I next came to My O My
. This is more the typical hip clothing shop, with a sparse and trendy layout where it takes 117 seconds to get an overview of the selection. Of interest to me were a couple of brands, namely Hansen Garments and Universal Works. Universal Works is fairly widely carried now, but since most shops have quite different ideas of what they like, the selection tends to be quite different. In this case the selection was workwear tending towards streetwear, if I was to hazard a definition!
My oh My, the men’s version. Not to be confused with it’s female variant.
The Hansen selection was pretty low when I was in, but again a brand that varies between superb and mundane, where most shops tend to go for the mundane. Here I did find a superb pair of trousers though, so credit to My O My there. What extended my visit though was the chap in charge, Tuomas. We must have been chatting for a good hour or so, before the need for coffee drove me into the cold again.
For a country apparently obsessed by coffee, it was surprisingly difficult to actually come by a cup of anything resembling coffee. While Oslo is infested by artisan style coffee shops, Helsinki appeared more into sushi and grotty cafes. Granted, I may have been in the wrong side of town, but it was strange to not find anywhere. I ended up in the design museum though, which proved pleasantly warm and visually stimulating.
Pinkomo, to find it, you need to know it’s there.
With a fire in my belly it was out into the bleakness again for the walk back to Pinkomo
and thankfully this time I’d judged their opening time correctly. And what a pleasure it proved to be! Pinkomo proved to be one of the finest shops of it’s kind I’ve ever come across and a testament to the principle of more definitely being more, and if you have the space then fill it twice. For starters, Pinkomo has the widest range of Red Wings I’ve seen (possibly with the exception of Red Wings own shops, though I’ve not really been too impressed by the ones I’ve visited), but not to be judged only as a dealer in American work-boots, they also have a fine selection of British Loakes.
And this philosophy of completeness carries through the entire store, providing both the obvious and the less obvious. Take jeans as an example, where Edwin, Levis Vintage and Lee 101 might be your standard denim fayre, but where the selection is nicely rounded out by adding Filson, Deus Ex Machine, Naked & Famous, Indigofera and Iron Heart. And not piecemeal either, we’re talking racks and stacks here. Plus all sorts of accessories, from bags to moustache wax, from shoe care to sunglasses. And the chap working there was very friendly and knowledgeable, which is always appreciated. In fact, it’s as if Pinkomo was planning out their shop, considering their retail profile and brand strategy, and just decided to go all in. I’ve no idea how it works for them, but as a customer I found the shop to be terrific.
I did find a fresh pair of Red Wing Ice Cutters in Pinkomo and it was interesting to see how mine had changed in 4 years of use!
Onwards and outwards, I had also been recommended visiting another shop, Beam Hill, but that turned out to be very much the standard streetwear type of place, so was quickly passed by. There was a coffee place next door though, so not a total loss.
Statue in the town centre. No doubt deeply symbolic of the struggles in coming up with a new version of Angry Birds? Just kidding!
The Helsinki hipster may possibly be a dying breed.
Colourful backpacks for sale at the design museum.
What was my overall expression of Helsinki you ask? Well, based on my brief sampling I would say that while the city itself was pretty dire (though most places are on a bleak Thursday in February), the people lifted the impression massively. I won’t say I was disappointed not to be attempted enticed into some sauna-driven suicide pact, but I was genuinely surprised at how talkative and friendly everyone I spoke to was. And how good their English was. So while Finnish in itself is entirely unfathomable, in either spoken or written form, you can survive Helsinki with no language issues at all.
PS: I know I suggested that Finnish design might limited to retailable and carriable items, but while walking to my meeting the next day I did notice some nice details on an otherwise nondescript building of flats. I suspect this may also generally be the case and that the bleakness comes from an era when Finland was very much bleaker in general.