Japanese youth fashion

7th September 2001 at 01:00
(Photograph) - Like the teenagers featured here, Karin Sato, 19, a student beauty therapist in Tokyo, loves cafes and shopping at A Bathing Ape, the iconoclastic fashion brand whose look has thrown the image of a staid nation into turmoil.

Karin, as members of the older generation like to say, is a "new human being" to whom a head of hair is a canvas and whose compulsion is to trample on every code of fashion etiquette beloved in Japan since the death of the kimono. She is not alone. Following years of slavishly copying Western styles, Japanese youngsters have conjured up an original style all their own called Ura-Harajuku.

A drab suburb of Tokyo, Harajuku is a parade ground for some of the most outlandish fashions on the planet, making European youth look staid by comparison. Undeterred that their favourite stomping ground has shrunk alarmingly - the authorities have returned the once pedestrianised roads of Harajuku to traffic at the weekends - these eclectic butterflies have brought a whiff of vivid Japan back to the street.

Photographer Shoichi Aoki has made it his mission for the past six years to document these dizzying styles of Japan's street youth on camera. His magazine, and now the book Fruits, from which these pictures are taken, are an oracle for teens in search of a new ID. A manual for inspiration, Fruits shows that those who can afford it buy their image by the brand label - Gothic Lolita from Moi-Meme-Moite, zany American high school "uniform" from Super Lovers. Others make up their own style - from Chinese angels complete with wings to baby doll space cadets - by knitting, sewing or mixing and matching second-hand clothes with plastic toy accessories, then flaunting them.

It leaves their elders perplexed. Post-war Japan was supremely conformist, a trait that has made it the world's most brand-hungry nation. "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down" was every teacher's favourite admonishment to rebellious youth. Now, Karin and her ilk have turned the mantra on its head. The ethos is simple: be as daringly original as you can.

"On the weekends you have to queue for ages at Hollywood Ranch Market to get in," says Karin. "But it's worth it as they have great T-shirts and original denim jackets you just can't get anywhere else."

Given that five years ago Japan's youth was all Levi's and bland brands, could this volte-face be a poke in the eye for Japan's notoriously straightjacketed school system? Some think so. Others say recently relaxed attitudes at schools and a new emphasis on individuality are behind this self-expression.

Similarities have been drawn with the explosion of punk fashion in Britain in the late 1970s, but unlike punk there is no political ideology behind these clothes. Ura-Harajuku has no street tribe connotations. It's about positive energy and happy vibes. Anarchists they are not.

Karin spends up to pound;360 a month on clothes. For many this is a very Japanese rebellion - consumerism gone slightly off its shopping trolley.

Michael Fitzpatrick. Photograph by SHOICHI AOKI

Weblinks www.nytimes.comlibrarystyle052300tokyo.html.

British catwalk archive: www.widemedia.comfashionukfashioncatwalk archiveindex.html

Fruits is published by Phaidon Press (www.phaidonpress.co.uk), price pound;19.95. TES readers can get their copy at the special discount price of pound;17.96 with free pamp;p. Tel: 0207 843 1231.

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