When people think of the word fashion, they tend to think of eclectic individuals wearing what they deem to be “bizarre.” When they think of Japanese street fashion, that thought is inevitably multiplied. Bright, nearly neon colors come to mind, coupled with eccentric hairstyles and wildly animated prints throughout their seemingly mismatched outfits. Often what also comes to mind is the 「可愛」(read: kawaii) or “cute” look, typically represented by bright colors and pieces heavily influenced by childhood. The kawaii fashion trend is most often associated with Harajuku, a neighborhood that runs from Shibuya to Omotesando in Tokyo, made famous in America with Gwen Stefani’s problematic “Harajuku Girls,” song and music video.
While this may be how Americans view Japanese street fashion, it is, quite literally, outdated. The trend of wild, boundary pushing, Harajuku streetwear began dying before Gwen Stefani even heard of it, and today its only signs of life coming from commercialized tourist locations such as the Kawaii Monster Café.
The source of the Kawaii trend in Harajuku came from a few individuals from said neighborhood who, in the late 90s, pushed the boundaries of fashion to create their own unique style. Photographer Shoichi Aoki’s magazine FRUiTS was the first to capture this, beginning with three girls Aoki saw in Hokosha Tengoku – a long strip closed to cars on Sundays called the “pedestrian paradise.” Aoki explained that these young women had a style that was totally original, an amalgamation of Western and Japanese fashion that created something new and unique. It was this pure originality that prompted Aoki to return to Hokosha Tengoku to take photos of more young, fashionable people out flaunting their latest looks (Quartz).
Their style almost always pushed boundaries, and laid the framework for the rise of the Kawaii trend. However, these people were rocking these outfits before it was mainstream, truly the authentic hipster pioneers of their day, and as the look became commercialized and popular, it became increasingly less “cool.” The same trend can be seen here in the United States, with bizarre out-of-place styles often pioneered by celebrities before becoming commonplace. Those celebrities then change their style to stand out, which starts the cycle over again.
However, the difference with Harajuku trends was that these were simply fashionable people in a public place, not celebrities. The area influenced itself, and by influenced, I mean people pushed one another to be more and more unique. Few people were copying other people, they simply wore what was both representative of their self while also being incredibly different from everyone else.The downfall of the trend came with commercialization. As always, big business came in and set up shop in Harajuku, pushing clothes and accessories clearly designed for these progressive individuals. Such a marketed approach made the authentic and unique aspects of the trend suddenly feel fake and commercial. It was no longer “cool” to wear such wild, “out there” outfits, and the people of Harajuku began to shrink back from their progressive frontier. Around the same time, Uniqlo opened its doors, selling cheap, quality, basic clothes. At a time when people’s incomes were dropping, buying plain quality clothing for less became an increasingly popular option. Additionally, Hokosha Tengoku, the “pedestrian paradise,” was reopened to traffic on Sundays, leaving the people without a gathering place to showcase their artistic outfits even if they had wanted to.
Harajuku is still a fashion center in Japan: Shibuya as a whole is riddled with streetwear essentials. The difference, however, is that now street fashion in Harajuku is far simpler. This is likely in part because of Uniqlo, and while the outfits are clearly well put together, they don’t stand out like they once did, to the point that Aoki is shutting down FRUiTS magazine. The streetwear of Harajuku is more functional than artistic now, and it seems that it will stay that way for a while. However, as is the case with all fashion trends, it will come back around in one way or another.