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Shopping Without Instagram: It’s Full of Surprises

By Katherine Bernard

Inside Samuji, a Finnish clothing company's first store in New York.
 
Stefania Curto
Inside Samuji, a Finnish clothing company's first store in New York.

Juoksentelisinkohan is a Finnish word that translates to “I wonder if I should run around aimlessly.” Retail is increasingly a space for brand experience more than actual commerce. But brand-as-destination requires established familiarity, a digital history. Foot traffic in successful stores is rarely aimless.

I’m headed to two new stores in NoLIta: Ulla Johnson, a New York label, and Samuji, a Finnish company with its first store in the United States. “They’re everywhere” is the enthusiastic response when I ask friends about the labels.

This is an everywhere I no longer see; I deleted my Instagram almost a year ago. Algorithms connect us quickly to whichever brands align with our preferences, an aesthetic magnetic field that brings to our attention what we have already seen, collecting like pollen on a car’s windshield.

Eventually, those algorithms will be in our heads, an electric fuzz that contains our taste. Sometimes, I think we’re the last people who will be able to put down our devices, who will be able to say, “I wonder if I should run around aimlessly.”

I shop without looking at either brand’s Instagram page, as aimless as I can get with an assigned shopping trip. To enter Samuji, I push on a rough-cut piece of Finnish granite fastened to the door bar. Minimal but beautiful, carefully carved to look organic, somehow more the essence of granite than actual raw granite — this is the crux of the brand, and you can’t enter the store without being in physical contact with it.

Stefania CurtoA sampling of items at Samuji.
A sampling of items at Samuji.

Samuji was founded in 2009 by Samu-Jussi Koski, who previously worked as the creative director of the Finnish textile and design house Marimekko. Textiles are a huge part of the label. Of course, I don’t quite know this when I enter; I just notice that the clothes use a lot of fabric. They’re roomy. Tented with a few well-placed sticks, many of the pieces could easily be actual rooms. I’m tempted to buy a pair of silky rust-coloured cupro trousers ($450), truly the most A-line garment I’ve ever seen, so I can experience wearing them while standing over a subway grate.

I try them on with a matching robe jacket with deep pockets (US$460). I’m dressed to give a lecture on lava flows at the University of Helsinki. I also try on another set: a boxy pale green skirt suit that yawns away from my body. There’s something stoic and trustworthy about this aesthetic — clean lines, cut wide, modest and precise. There’s a saying on the internet that is attributed to the Buddha: “Wear your ego like a loose-fitting garment.” There’s humour in how utterly flappable they are: loosey-goosey.

The store itself is minimal, and lines are key: Smooth birch panels form the ceiling, and large stone tiles cover the floor. A clean straw grid scores the walls. Two shelves in the back of the store are filled with the company’s housewares (called Koti, which means “home” in Finnish). Delicate and handmade, each piece looks special enough to sit alone on a mantel — even a tea towel, a hand-carved wooden spoon or a piece of Kikoi lava stone on a grey rope, which I learn is actually for scrubbing your feet.

Doll-like, curvy ceramics by Finnish artist Jenni Tuominen stare out with black dot eyes (US$800). They have an eerie appeal: If your kindergartner brought one home, you would be creeped out, but here, they look as if they summon the kind of spectres who open your kitchen cabinets, like in “The Sixth Sense,” except they reorganise your glassware and put a flower in each cup.

Stefania CurtoClothes on display at Ulla Johnson in New York.
Clothes on display at Ulla Johnson in New York.

At Ulla Johnson, I enter the store by pushing on a bronze cowrie sculpture (by Rogan Gregory), which serves as the door handle. Whereas the clothes at Samuji are the shape of the dress in the women’s bathroom pictogram, the clothes at Ulla Johnson are scalloped and ruffled. The interior is also full of trimmings: There’s a woolly stool, a knotted rope wall hanging and a sconce in the dressing room trimmed with tiered fringe.

Huge floral arrangements sit in the entryway, and many of the pieces look as if they’re blooming. I try on a hand-crocheted shirt (US$897) with little white flowers in the netting. Like many of the garments in the store, it is handmade.

Stefania CurtoClothes on display at Ulla Johnson in New York.
Clothes on display at Ulla Johnson in New York.

I try on a chambray shirt with a grosgrain ribbon at the collar and cross-stitched flowers (US$230), and pair it with wide-legged overalls (US$380). I look not as much ready to ride a horse as to sit in an expensive chair and tell a writer from a website how much ranch culture inspires me. I also try on a patchwork shirt that swoops and ties (US$357), as well as a white dress with eyelets that looks like one of the many white outfits Miley Cyrus wears in her “Malibu” music video.

I wouldn’t ordinarily wear a dress like this, but for some reason it appeals to me. I stare at my eyelet-lined décolletage. The dress reminds me a little bit of a stack of napkins tied up with a string. I can picture taking them out of a wooden chest and setting a table, possibly in a Finnish kitchen. My mind is running around aimlessly, which I guess means this dress inspires me. This almost only happens when something I normally wouldn’t like surprises me.