Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Tokyo Teen Spirit: fashion piece

Fashion: Tokyo teen spirit
Meet the Harajuku girls: they dress like Lolitas and love their labels — and now is their moment. Mark O’Flaherty travels to Japan’s hippest district in search of a fashion phenomenon.

Aiko is a 20-year-old student and part-time boutique assistant who wants to start her own fashion magazine. Today, she is wearing a polka-dot scarf and Chloé denim jacket, accessorised with ermine earmuffs, ethnic jewellery, stripy tights and the sort of directional approach to beauty that would make an avant-garde make-up artist blush. "My parents want me to miraculously transform into an office lady when I graduate," says Aiko, who spends 90% of her income on clothes. "But it's just not going to happen."

Like the other girls who hang out in Tokyo's Harajuku district, Aiko's dedication to fashion is total. It's true that nobody can put together a look quite like the Japanese, but Harajuku's fashion victims are in a league of their own — more outlandish, more fabulous, more plain bonkers than all the rest. If they have a flaw, it is that they seem incapable of walking in high heels. But who knows? They're so contrived in every other respect, it could just be another quirky affectation.

What is certain is that now is their moment. From being virtually unknown outside Japan, the Harajuku scene has suddenly found itself thrust onto the world stage. "What’s that you got on? Is it Comme des Garçons?" hollers Gwen Stefani on Harajuku Girls, a track from her new album. "Vivienne Westwood can't go wrong ... Let’s not forget about John Galliano, no!" Not since RuPaul briefly ruled the dancefloor has so much homage been paid to fashion in the pursuit of beats and rhymes. So what's so special about Harajuku, the playground of the girls who, as Stefani puts it, "work it, express it, live it, command your style!"? According to Paul James, who runs the electroclash night Vanity, currently Tokyo’s hippest club, the district is the city’s "fashion melting pot." "Harajuku girls are fashion addicts and shoppers," he explains. "They're fashion students, hairdressers or work in fashion PR, and come to the area to be seen, to check out the latest looks, or wait for a fashion journalist to spot them. There is a whole culture of fashion groupies hanging out there, waiting for the cameras to snap."

Harajuku stretches from Tokyo's Yoyogi Park all the way down to Aoyama, home to the new space-age Prada store as well as Comme, Issey, Yohji and Undercover, Japan's dark, edgy answer to Alexander McQueen. The area is crisscrossed by fashion boundaries that are invisible to the uninitiated.

Right by Harajuku station, in front of Yoyogi Park, is the least hip place to hang out. Here is what Chiaki Tanabe, of the Louis Vuitton private members' salon Celux, calls "the gothic Lolita scene," the Tokyo equivalent of the King's Road punks. They blend Victorian lace with Bo Peep bonnets and video-game gore — fake blood on surgical smocks was last year’s big story for the Harajuku teens. The real cutting-edge style scene is a five-minute walk away, in Omotesando — not so much Harajuku as off-Harajuku. It's these girls that Stefani is singing about.

Ruri is a student who has already graduated from Yoyogi Park to Omotesando. "When I was 13, I looked like a vampire, but now I have a different look," she says. Despite being part of a generation with an ultra-conservative reputation, Ruri's parents have never tried to make her tone anything down. "They've always been cool with the way I dress," she says, "though when I was doing my vampire/goth look, they did say they wished I'd wear something with colour in it."

Celux is at the epicentre of the Omotesando scene. To get in, you need a swipe card for the lift — and to get one of those, you need to be proposed and seconded by a member. All that, just to shop? Well, not quite. Celux is a 21st-century salon, where you can sip pink champagne, eat "happy shopper" cakes with smiley faces on, hang out with other Celux members and, most importantly, buy things that non-members can’t get their hands on.

Exclusivity is everything in Tokyo, and a few years ago, if it didn't have a brand name with a multibillion-yen ad campaign, it wouldn’t sell. Now, though, cult underground London labels such as Ziad Ghanem, famous for his raw seams, and Unconditional have been fed into the scene.

The crowd at Vanity, and the other off-Harajuku hang-outs Ageha and Womb, is mixing and matching its fashion like never before. Says Roxy Harris, a Vanity regular and archetypal off-Harajuku girl: "It's still all about Jeremy Scott, Comme des Garçons and APC, but it's also about old Rod Stewart tour T-shirts and flea-market finds. It's like all our favourite style icons shoved their wardrobes into one big bag and we had to get dressed randomly from the result," she says. "Since our style icons range from Japanese film stars to Billy Idol, you get the best mix. The Harajuku crowd shops everywhere, from Comme to 109."

Every self-respecting fashion girl under 25 in Tokyo owns something from 109, a multi-story mall full of tiny boutiques selling everything from customised punky T-shirts to spray-on tights and saucy jewellery. However, the off-Harajuku set blend it with Dior, Buddhist Punk and Westwood.

Why, though, when the rest of the world’s youth is emerging slowly from the "Gap years" and the mass conservatism of the 1990s, is Tokyo taking the Hoxton ideal of high-end bohemia so dramatically into overdrive? Paul from Vanity points to the root of the Harajuku girls' love of style: "Kids here have a seven-day school week and go to tutoring classes after school. Fashion is an avenue for kids to express themselves. Japan is a very rigid society. Every year, about 30,000 people commit suicide, and most of those are either middle-aged businessmen or, tragically, young teens. Fashion is their liberation."

All of which explains the gothic twist of the Harajuku Lolitas and the fantasy dressing-up-box antics of the off-Harajuku club kids. Fashion for these girls isn't just a modern take on punk and messy bedroom rebellion, it's a way of life. As Aiko says, it’s all about a positive state of mind. "I never feel self-conscious in anything I wear. If I did, I’d look terrible. When I'm in my look, I'm telling the world that I like feeling beautiful and that '’m not going to just go and work in an office for the rest of my life."

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