Helsinki-based photographer, Leena Aro, is one of the few who has seen through her lens the changing fashion seasons in Milan, Paris, New York and London for decades.
The first show
”I got to shoot my first fashion show by pure luck. In the 1970’s the shoe industry was huge in Finland and there were many factories. I worked as a shoe and leather engineer and my job was to make reports for the industry about the upcoming trends. I was in Paris and saw a crowd queueing in the street to see Christian Dior‘s fashion show. I realized that I should see it too, since my job was to know about trends. I insisted my visiting card on the security guard and eventually he took pity on me and let me in. In the mid-80’s, I started to shoot for Finnish magazines. I didn’t have a formal education for this occupation, all you really need are sharp elbows and a pair of good feet.”
Shrewdness pays off
”Following the first show, I learned quickly how to forge invitations and sneak into other shows since the showrooms and catwalks were next to each other in those days. I accredited myself as the photographer of Finnish Kenkälusikka (Shoehorn) Magazine since nobody knew what the name meant. In those days you could still stand by the runway and the job itself wasn’t terribly difficult. I had clear line of sight because the Italian photographers were so short and I’m 174 cm tall. One time the shows were held in Louvre and I discovered many photographers hiding inside the museum during the day so that they could get into the evening shows without invitations. There was another Finn who tried to shoot the shows but he was too nice and polite, so he vanished after his first gig.”
Finnish chewing gum got me in places
”Photographers don’t get invitations easily, but I managed to get good connections to luxorious Hong Kong B’ International fashion magazine, because the editor-of-chief was from Finland. Through that I started to get the invitations for shows.
People do all kinds of tricks to get in. Some try to bribe their way in with chocolate. But fashion people don’t want to get fat. I’m famous for giving Finnish sugar-free chewing gum. I tape a set of five on the back of my visiting card. Everybody is really thirsty since they serve only champagne in the shows but not enough water. You can’t drink alcohol because it makes you tired and unfocused. But Finnish innovation, xylitol chewing gum, tastes like a glass of water, so it became my ticket to get in if I didn’t have an invitation. It was a really succesful idea. Everybody, including people like Armani‘s head of press department Isabella Clavarino used to ask if I had the chewing gum. I used to order huge amounts of xylitol chewing gum straight from the factory and have it delivered to Milan.”
Leena Aro had no time to admire the clothes
”The best shows are like theater spectacles. In Chanel’s show few years back they had made a 20 metres tall mountain from ice that was dragged there all the way from Sweden. It was unbelievable experience! During the show there’s such a rush that I get to see the clothes only afterwards when I’m editing the photos. In the show all my energy goes to watch that the model has both of her feet on the floor, and that her position is good and that the camera works. When we were still shooting for film I had to make sure every Finnish magazine got their own original shot of every cloth.”
Six shows in one day
”I work with several other photographers, so we divide the shows between us. I shoot five or six shows a day. I go to fashion show an hour before it starts to reserve my place. My work space is small, sometimes only 30×30 cm. We old ones know each other and always take few extra places around us. There are always some newbies and some of them disturb others by taking picture in the wrong rythm. That’s really annoying.
Back in the good old days, changing a film roll was a nightmare. It took four seconds to roll it in, then 6-8 seconds to load a new one, that was a really long time. Of course the film roll was almost full every time someone important showed up on stage. It was heavy to drag all the hundreds of film rolls around, but the beauty of the old technique was that when the shows were over, my job was done for the day. Nowadays I have to touch up and edit thousands of photos in my hotel before I fall asleep.”
Cleaning toilet with perfume
”We used to get nice gifts in the 90’s and early 2000, lot’s of perfumes and cosmetics. Once I got a nice white leather bag. I had it in my closet for months before I saw it in the store and realized how expensive it was. After that it was my favourite bag! A couple of decades ago we used to get so many perfumes as gifts that my bags were full of them when I got back home. I had so many of them that I used the least favourite ones to clean my toilet! Now all the gifts are gone. The invitations are usually very nice. Fresh Lilly of the Valeys on a vase full of water and hand-written note from Tom Ford for example or it could be printed on a balloon like Moschino once did.”
Angel like Linda and Nasty Naomi
”There are no super models anymore like in the 90’s. From Finnish models I liked Suvi Koponen, she walked really nice and so does Kirsi Pyrhönen. Linda Evangelista is my favourite of all the top models. She never gave a bad expression. Naomi Campbell sometimes had a unpleasant look on her face if she didn’t like the clothes she’s wearing. She also gets photographers mad by turning deliberately too quickly so we can’t have a decent shot on her face.
No golf for me
”I’m semi-retired now, and I’ve given up shooting in London and New York. In June during the midsummer celebration nothing can drag me to Milan anymore. My new hobby is to repair and modify old leather boots and make leather clothes. Some old ladies start to play golf when they retire. Shooting fashion is my hobby I get paid for.”