The kids aren’t all right. A cocktail of social uncertainties has provoked the youth culture fashion in Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood to reach a beige fever pitch.
Observers say Instagram selfies have made street peacocking an unnecessary pursuit. Cyberbullying has made young, impressionable style-boppers hesitant to try risky looks. And Olympic construction — where Tokyo-ites are sometimes directed a mile underground to exit major subway stations — has made Japanese avant-garde ephemera (platform shoes, diaphanous skirts) untenable for pedestrian life.
Said designer Mikio Sakabe: “Before the Internet, people felt like they could be special in their own way. They could be a punk or Lolita and do as they wish. Nowadays it’s very difficult to be special. If they want to be themselves, they can’t. Now they have to be with the society.”
Tokyo-based fashion designer Yoshikazu Yamagata, of the brand Writtenafterwards, has noticed the slowdown. “It’s a little bit quiet right now, 10 years ago the street fashion was more energetic,” he said.
Japanese schoolgirls would at one time relish the opportunity to change out of their uniforms and into individualized, eccentric looks. No quantity of necklaces too excessive, no hair color too eccentric, and no petticoat too full. But the counterculture-inclined have now exchanged their colorful outlandish preferences for streamlined looks in neutral tones.
An after-school-hours visit to the Laforet Harajuku youth mall was a study in this more restrained aesthetic — the biggest quirk observed was the Christian rock tunes blaring in each shop. Mall-goers were largely dressed in pared-down clothes that exhibited a globalized sensibility. K-pop-type vinyl miniskirts, sweatshirts purporting Brooklyn roots, and white Adidas sneakers are their new mix.
Trendsetters outside mainstream high school culture layer silver-tone workwear, wide-legged dark denim and music merch Ts for a dark, reflective mood. Makeup has become matte and beige with small red flourishes, further invoking an attitude of restraint.
So why does Tokyo’s reputation as the world capital for youth street fashion hang in the balance? Here, designers, trendsetters and stylists discuss the root of the city’s newfound demure style and speculate about what could come next.
Just a year ago, the 16-year-old style star Mappy preferred brightly colored dirndl skirts, velvet dresses and platform heels, and would jump at the opportunity to shop. She now moseys through stores with an air of boredom, and relies on denim, simple tops, trenchcoats and camouflage cargo pants. “I feel like many more young people in Tokyo have become shy with fashion,” she said, blaming the new simple trend on social conformity. “Young fashionable people now only want to wear the same things as their friends.”
Yamagata feels this is the result of cyberbullying: “Because of social media, if you wear something really flashy, they kind of attack you, so people don’t want to be too flashy anymore. People in general, that’s one of the things we’ve noticed. The Internet bullying.”
A recent study conducted by Osaka University deduced that between 20 and 30 percent of Japanese high school students have been victims of cyberbullying, while another 8 percent admitted to bullying themselves. Those numbers are quickly rising by double-digit percentiles each year, according to multiple studies.
Said Sakabe: “Before, people wanted to be personal and have individual taste. But now, if you walk in Shibuya or Shinjuku wearing individual clothes, you feel ashamed. There is a sense of what’s correct or incorrect fashion.”
The present mood in Tokyo is glum. City centers, including Shibuya, have been ripped up for renewal. Dozens of cranes loom high in the city skyline — working in harried tandem to construct towers, train stations and department stores in preparation for the city’s 2020 Olympics. The Japanese government projects that the sporting event will boost the country’s economy by a total 32.3 trillion yen, or $284 billion, over the course of a decade.
Japan’s exported cute style Kawaii, as reported by WWD in Tokyo last year, is dwindling from the city’s style lexicon after decades of influence. The cultural phenomenon had infected everything from fashion to food and cleaning products. But as Kawaii loses its footing, a new movement has failed to take its place — leaving the city without a fringe cultural movement to push its fashion forward.
At a Kenzo event in May, a performance by the pop singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu was evidence of this shift. The singer — who in 2012 was anointed Kawaii Ambassador of Harajuku by the Mayor of Shibuya — has been in rebranding mode as of late, “searching for her new thing,” according to a source. At the Kenzo event, Kyary wore a streamlined fuchsia dress to perform her Kawaii-era songs — as if held in a holding pattern between restraint and her prior brand of hyper-feminine expression.
Said Ambush cofounder Yoon Ahn: “The political and economic environment, it’s uncomfortable for them, but it’s not chaotic enough to push people to do crazy things. It’s in the middle — so they are doing what feels safe and comfortable.”
Fashion consultant Yusuke Koishi, who works closely with Comme des Garçons, noted of the ongoing shift: “As followers of Kawaii culture get older, and graduate school, the majority of them become absorbed into the conservative fashion mainstream. However, younger generations are following something different. I think Tokyo youth scenes may be in the middle of a chasm of transition.”
ECONOMICS AND SOCIAL MEDIA
The transition Koishi speaks of could be the result of a slowed economy and the quick-change nature of fashion in the social media era.
With annual salaries in Japan either remaining stagnant or decreasing, spending among households of those under 25 years old has dropped by more than 30 percent since 2009, according to government data. More than 60 percent of high school students, university students and twentysomethings feel it more preferable to be viewed as frugal rather than spend-happy, according to a Dentsu Innovation Institute study. Less than 40 percent of Japanese Millennials are positive about their financial future, according to a study conducted by employment agency ManpowerGroup.
Wealth distribution has steadily decreased among the country’s middle class since the implementation of Shinzo Abe’s Abenomics policy, which relies on trickle-down economics as a mode of growth. Economists worry that this trend could see many middle-class households declining to a low-income classification.
The trend extends to consumption, with one source noting its effect on the Japanese fashion system. Explained Ahn: “In Japan, the middle class used to be a lot wider and this gray zone produced a lot of good, Japanese brands. Recently the economy has been going down, and fast fashion has pushed this old model out because of price. Fast fashion means that anyone can buy something and look decent. People got safer and safer, there isn’t as much of an effort to search for new and cool things.”
Social media has afforded the onetime isolated island nation a sense of inclusion — with Tokyo-ites now privy to a global pulse in real-time. The punk movement took a decade to reach the Japanese capital, making Tokyo its final counterculture stopover. But now, the Japanese adapt to visual trends in synchronicity with fashion boppers in London, Berlin or New York.
Ahn feels that this has had a negative effect on the unique fashions for which Japan was once known: “Because we are an island, people used to import ideas and make them better because there was a limited flow of information. Now with Instagram it’s easy to duplicate looks in real-time. People became lazier, and you see that throughout Asia.
“People used to get dressed-up to get noticed and have their photo taken. The Internet killed that — they don’t have to go on the street, now they can take a selfie and get more attention.”
CONSUMPTION AND LUXURY — WHAT’S NEXT?
Social media, as is similar in many other parts of the world, has desensitized the Japanese from luxury and consumption. A scroll through the Internet is a portal to luxury’s widespread distribution.
Said Sakabe: “Yesterday I went to Barneys New York in Roppongi. I didn’t want to buy anything, the clothes were like dead bodies for me. There are so many clothes and so many brands, but it’s always the same. No one wants to buy that, it’s just shop stuff. That’s not fashion.”
Even Kawaii, which started as a do-it-yourself subculture, has proliferated into an easily consumable movement, with shops dedicated to the cutesy aesthetic stationed in each mall — thus neutralizing its individualistic, subculture beginnings.
What comes next, according to fashion designer Noriko Nakazato, is an intellectualized fashion that cannot simply be purchased. As fashion continues to churn out product at a rapid clip, an intelligentsia approach to style has begun to appeal to those who seek a fashion that feels special.