Japan is Louis Vuitton, and Louis Vuitton is Japan. While years of recession have seen domestic fashion brands crash and burn on the home front, the French luxury brand just keeps on expanding its market share. Although LV is less dependent on Japanese customers now than it was in the ’80s, Japan still accounts for more than half of Louis Vuitton’s global sales. Those brown-and-gold trademark leather bags infest the farthest reaches of Tokyo — from the nouveau riche castle of Roppongi Hills to the chintzy supermarkets of train-station suburbia, from the rich princesses at elite universities to the lower class gyaru lumpen eating hamburgers outside of Lotteria. Proportionally speaking, Japan is not Zen, Gothic Lolita, textbook revisionists, sneaker collectors, otaku, or sumo wrestlers: Japan is Louis Vuitton.
The Japanese have been fascinated with the brand for the last several decades, but its social penetration was much more subdued in the past. The super-snobby female protagonist from Tanaka Yasuo’s 1981 work Nantonaku, Crystal refuses to get a Louis Vuitton bag on principle, because — as the comment-writer explains in note #212 — LV bags should only be carried by those who are rich enough to hire a bag-carrying servant.
The brand has always symbolized aristocratic “high-society” for the Japanese, and this made the bags an easy target for those select narikin (成金) families who found unbelievable wealth in the Bubble period. At that point, however, the media still presumed all rising tastes to be “mass,” widespread changes, and so the brand oddly became part of the “middle-class standard.” As a fashion editor told me in 1998, “Where else do you see girls with Louis Vuitton riding the subways?”
In the mid-’90s, high school girls became obsessed with owning the ¥120,000 purses, and as a result, shady, unorganized prostitution flourished among the lower-class segment of gyaru who couldn’t just ask Mom and Dad for the funds. But such sordid stories could not tarnish the image of the brand, which grew bigger and bigger in the following years. Louis Vuitton somehow defies Simmel’s traditional theory of fashion — Japan’s upper classes are supposed to abandon these cultural objects once the dirty proles get their paws on them! But no, Louis Vuitton’s Christ-like powers emanate from Old Europe and nothing that happens in Japan could dent that sacred halo.
In the past, Japanese fashion was about living up to a middle-class standard, but now that most have started to be cognizant of real class differences, everyone is scrambling to prove that they’re on the right side of the fence. The message used to be — “Don’t be left behind!” — but now it’s — “Are you in or are you out?” And there’s nothing more “in” than Louis Vuitton. There seems to be no coincidence that LV sales are rising in parallel to consciousness about class divisions.
There’s a segment of Japanese middle-class women in their 20s who read JJ and ViVi. They dye their hair a rich brown and bronze their skin a shiny gold. I can’t help but think, is owning the bag not enough? Do you really need to look like the Louis Vuitton logo?