Home > Highlighting JAPAN >Highlighting Japan April 2016>Subculture Immersion

Highlighting JAPAN

Fundamentally Fashionable Places

Tokyo’s Shibuya and Harajuku districts have given rise to numerous fashion trends, and the totality of Japanese style can be grasped by examining the past and present of these districts and the uniquely Japanese subcultures they have spawned.

“There are other cosmopolitan cities that share their fashions in ways created and approved by the fashion industry. But only in Tokyo are trends born from the general public, the people on the street—and then strike a chord and achieve explosive popularity.” So asserts Tomonori Matsui, former member of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry’s Cool Japan Public-Private Expert Council and famed executive general manager of PR01, which handles PR and events for numerous fashion brands in Japan and abroad.

Shibuya and Harajuku stand as the pillars of Tokyo’s unique fashion culture. They developed into trendsetting fashion hotbeds in the seventies and eighties thanks to “mansion manufacturers”—young designers bursting with talent who created and sold clothing out of their one-room apartments, explains Matsui. From there, Harajuku gained renown as a “fashion village” where designers gathered, and out of that village came the iconic shopping complex Laforet Harajuku, which attracted numerous fashion-conscious customers.

“[The street of] Omotesando became a veritable runway of popular self-expression,” Matsui relates. “Fashionistas swaggered about in their own special styles; their images were captured in on-location photos that were then published in magazines, and the young people who saw those photos flocked to Harajuku, and so a cycle was born.”

Meanwhile, a distinctly different culture was being created right next door to Harajuku in Shibuya. Matsui explains the distinction between the two districts this way: “Since Shibuya boasts a lot of restaurants and schools, which are places where young people gather, the district gave birth to student-led trends focused in places such as Center Gai (a famous shopping arcade of the time). Harajuku became a tourist destination that hinged on fashion, while Shibuya evolved into a magnet for students.”

What makes these two districts such powerhouses in shaping and creating trends? “Japan is skilled at importing Western culture and adapting it to its own,” Matsui responds. “Also, Japanese society being predominantly middle class, and the fact that these areas are relatively safe allowed people to congregate there until late into the night, accelerating the development of street cultures and allowing key personalities—people who are self-expressive and have fashion sense—to lead the fashion scene.”

The sneaker boom took off like a rocket among the youth of Harajuku and Shibuya. The baggy sock look was created by female high school students wearing the white socks so popular in American casual wear; pairing them with their school uniforms and allowing the socks to gather around their ankles gave birth to a trend that could only have originated in Shibuya. And Harajuku’s “gothic Lolita” (gothic and Lolita) style, which fused Europe’s goth aesthetic with Lolita fashion and the band boom, is even imitated abroad.

“The power lies with the consumers on the street—they’re the ones who choose the clothing they buy and wear,” Matsui says. “Combining ethnic flavor and local power, boosted by Japan’s economic prosperity, you see how Japan’s fashion culture has formed in a unique way.”

The rise of social networking services like Instagram and Facebook has led to tons of fashion dispatches from locations in Asia such as Shanghai and Bangkok. Even so, in Tokyo, “there’s an editorial function served by its select boutiques, which find and purchase creative, high-quality items from around the world and mix and match them to suggest fashions,” Matsui notes. The fashion industry is keenly aware of Japan’s propensity for interesting creations; Paris’s leading designers, for example, quietly keep an eye trained on the Shibuya fashion scene.

“I hope the people of Japan become more aware of their unique individuality, express themselves freely and share their creations with the rest of the world,” the talented creative director enthuses, eyes shining behind his stylish spectacles. “Because in twenty to thirty years, it can really give added value to Japan.”