[Credit: Stellaire campaign by Graham Dunn]
STYLEGUIDE sits down with Finnish Top Model Saara Sihvonen, recently in Singapore producing a Fashion Show for Finland’s centennial year, to find out what it’s really like being a fashion model – including both the glamorous and not-so-glamorous sides.
How did you get started initially and what inspired you to do what you do?
I think I was fifteen when my mother agent discovered me through a local “Facebook” page. I wasn’t interested in modeling back then so I just ignored his message. However, after finishing my studies, I got pushed by my friends and family to try modeling and I ended up joining the Finland Next Top Model competition. It was an amazing experience and I met a lot of people that are still in my life through the show.
After the show my mother agent, the same person who reached out to me when I was fifteen, found a way to reach out to me again. He had a clear vision and management plan for me and I was very impressed by it so I decided to take the plunge and see what came of it. I am happy I took the chance. He has been managing me since then and he’s been signing me with great agencies all over the world. Modeling was never really on my plans but one thing led to another and here I am!
What is life like as a model?
Modelling is a very special type of job, so there has always been interest in hearing about how it works and how it is like. For people who are not in the industry, they have this extremely glamorous picture of what models do. But it actually means that I’m carrying a 32 kilo luggage all over the world by myself. [Laughs] But yes, fashion industry is a very fast moving business. Jobs come up really last minute and it is tricky to plan anything long in advance. It is a lot of travelling which is one of the best parts of it. The work itself, photoshoots and runway shows, is very physical. I can honestly say that I think modelling gets better the older you get. You learn to know your body and become more comfortable in it and naturally become better in front of camera. The experience makes you more self-confident and you just simply enjoy working much more because you are not doubting yourself constantly.
Elle Finland by Olivia Malone
Is modelling as glamorous as what people think?
I don't think it's as glamorous as what people think it is. To me modelling was always a job with its pros and cons. It is quite a lonely job. This was something I didn't realise when I started, I'm travelling all the time but alone. Luckily I have grown to be very independent and as a Finn I appreciate the quiet times a lot so being alone is not a problem for me. I get lot of energy from it.
The pros are indeed the locations that clients take you to shoot or to do a show. I’ve been to such amazing hotels and locations which I would have probably never end up if I wasn’t a model. It is very easy to post behind-the-scenes material on social media from places like that so I get why people think it’s a glamorous job. And the truth is who wouldn’t want to have her or his office by the beach in Hayman island or at a gorgeous chateau in France? [Laughs]
How do you stay at the top of your game?
I am very persistent and gritty. My career wasn’t built overnight. People outside the fashion world may often think that models become stars overnight. It is a wrong assumption to think that every model just simply lands a Gucci campaign and boom you’re a star!
Sure this happens at times but this is mostly not the case. In order to build a long-term career you need strong agents/managers that push for you. There are thousands of beautiful girls but without strong managers it is hard to succeed.
Modeling is a business like any other business and without clear direction and management skills your career won’t develop. It might take time to find the right agency to represent you but it is worth the effort. Obviously you need to maintain a healthy figure as well, because a high-fashion model still requires certain physical requirements.
Can you tell us more about being persistent?
Basically nothing happens overnight. There are some girls that expect that things will happen overnight, because we usually don't see the work that's behind one girl's success.
Let’s say a new face walks one of the top designer shows in Paris, people often think “Wow, she made it just like that!”, but what people don’t understand is how much work has been done before that. She may have done countless hours of test shoots and castings in Australia and Japan in order to build her portfolio. All those things together with careful planning and a bit of luck led her to the show. The same work continues after the show just on a different level.
So from a new model’s perspective, if you enter the industry and you believe that something is going to happen overnight, you will get more discouraged and disappointed and that makes you give up eventually. Stay committed and stay persistent, learn to trust the process.
I've never worked so much as I do now, and I'm much older than when I first started. This is all about staying persistent. There were really bad times, there were good times – but going through those bad times with the persistence I had was worth it.
Lee Jeans Campaign
What were some of the biggest challenges you've faced?
When I started travelling, my English was pretty poor. [Laughs] Finland does an amazing job with education, so we know English pretty well, but it's very different when you have to speak with people from America or Australia. So this was something I will never forget but on the other hand it is now rewarding to see the improvement.
In the beginning I had a lot of up and downs with agencies for several reasons. It sometimes takes a while to find the right agency for you – it can be quite draining. You have to be on the same level with your agent who represents you because if you're not, it just won’t work. So it's really something that was challenging at the beginning. Now I'm at the perfect place with all my agencies and pretty happy about it.
What is your main driving force?
I think there has to be some kind of meaning behind everything that I do including work. For any job that I am booked, I'm like "Why am I doing it? Am I doing it because it's really good financially, or is it to build up my image and/or personal brand?"
It’s very easy to not think about this because the agency is in charge of your bookings. But to me it has always been very important to discuss bookings with my agents beforehand so I know my career is on the right track. So I feel it is important to question a bit, “Is this something good or bad for me to do? Is this magazine something that’s going to make sense in my career plan?” That’s how I gained a lot of valuable information that has helped me to understand the industry much better.
Can you share your greatest inspiration in life?
Ohhh… there are so many things. My mum inspires me a lot on a personal level. Very driven and fearless women in general inspire me a lot too.
Also this might seem a bit funny but dogs are a big inspiration for me [Laughs]. They’re so easygoing. They don't overthink anything, they're just happy. Finding the joy in little things is quite inspirational.
What is the change that you want to make in the fashion industry?
It would be really beneficial to create a platform where young models could be guided in the beginning of their career. There are so many questions when you start. Agencies are really busy and don’t always have the time and experience to guide these new models through the first steps, and yet the industry is filled with expectations of them. Someone who could be with them and really explain things – “Hey, why are you doing casting? What’s a lookbook? Why are you doing looks? Why are you working with this stylist or creative director? Why do you have to do this show? Why do you have to do fashion weeks?”
I think in order to be successful you have to understand why you’re doing certain things and why you’re working with certain people. So this is something I would like to change…There is so much potential but the potential dies if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Topshop Boutique by Pascal Gambarte
What does success mean to you and what is the greatest success you’ve experienced?
My greatest success has been for sure the long term career I was able to build. It has been almost seven years of modelling and every year has been better.
On another level, my personal victory was really the production and casting of Finland’s Fashion Frontier fashion show last December in Singapore which was held in part of the celebration of Finland’s centennial year. The show was organised by Helsinki New and it was the first time Finnish fashion was showcased in Singapore. I was humbled by the Helsinki New team, Miia Koski and Martta Louekari, for their great trust in me. They have done amazing work promoting Finnish fashion design all over the world and I was excited to work with them. As a very patriotic Finn and fashion show lover, this was my dream gig. We worked closely with the Embassy of Finland in Singapore as well since the show was also presented in the official 100th year party organised by the Embassy. The day was so memorable and I think we left Singapore hungry for more Finnish design. It was just so great to realise that I managed to take all the experience from my modelling years and turn it into practice, it was a big moment of success to me personally.
Can you share about the mentors in your life and how they’ve helped to shape and guide you over the years?
Definitely my mother agent. He's definitely been the key factor of everything. I still ask for his advice on certain matters as he's a very strong agent who knows the details of what’s happening in the industry. He travels a lot and meets with people, so he knows all the updates in New York, London and Paris. I think that’s part of the success of him and his models. He’s 24/7 available and I think that’s very unique. He would always be there for me.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Don't doubt yourself, just do it. Don't think so much what other people think. Just do it and trust that you do the right thing.
What are your hopes and aspirations for the future regarding fashion/production aspirations?
For modeling, I'll definitely do it for as long as I can. I'm going to Australia then back to New York. I see myself moving towards production - I felt very natural doing it so that’s where I want to focus.
What do you think the future of fashion will be like?
Well, I will be very curious to see what will happen with social media, and where it's going to go. It's so hyped now, and I'm wondering if this is just a passing phase, whether it will stay like this forever, be even crazier or fade down in the future.
I hope the fashion world will keep on inspiring people. Fashion should be about dreams and making these beautiful shows or photoshoots possible in order to make people get inspired and dream. I think this is the big part of why the creatives are in the industry, not because they want more followers on Instagram, but because they want to express their creativeness and in that way inspire people.