Harajuku is the Disneyland of global youth culture. Just as the Magic Kingdom has spacially-divided “Lands” to represent different parts of the human imagination (Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, etc.), Harajuku has Punks browsing at Vivienne Westwood, Mods shopping for authentic surplus army parkas, Skinheads scuffing up their red Docs on the curb in front of Londsdale, clean-cut 21st C. Hip Hoppers laying down Fukuzawas for some Ice Cream, Skaters at Stüssy, college Preps bouncing between Lacoste and Ralph Lauren, ’60s girls with decal eyes storming Courrèges, and Paris-dreaming Art Students in deconstructed garb floating down the hill from Comme des Garçons. This one Tokyo neighborhood has more stores dedicated to youth street fashion than anywhere else in the entire world. And not only does Harajuku singlehandedly preserve dead subcultures, the district has created some of the most unique fashion looks of the last two decades: namely, Decora-chan/Hyper-Cutie Punk (as seen in FRUiTS) and Gothic Lolita. No matter how much attendance declines in the next decade due to anemic Japanese birth rates, Harajuku has secured an almost-permanent place as one of the Seven Wonders of the Pop Culture World.
In light of this, an entire book on the Harajuku neighborhood is almost criminally overdue, and we are blessed that fashion writer and editor Tiffany Godoy finally delivered with her colorful new work Style Deficit Disorder. Godoy — probably one of the very few Westerners to ever have worked as a real-deal editor for a real-deal Japanese art or style magazine — hits all the most critical points for understanding the historical development of this youth culture sanctuary. Japanese fashion critic Hirakawa Take, KERA editor Suzuki Mariko, and Honeyee.com boss Suzuki Tetsuya pop up to provide short essays of macro-level analysis, but the book mostly tells the story of Harajuku through photographs and short profiles. Godoy offers introductions to the most important people, places, and brands — from the Central Apartments (locus for the birth of young independent brands in 1970s), Yacco Takahashi (Japan’s first stylist), brand Bigi, An•An‘s original model Kaneko Yuri, seminal high-fashion magazine Ryuko Tsushin, New Wave band The Plastics, Comme des Garçons, iconic Takarajima magazine CUTiE, stylist Sonya Park, hyper-cute brand Super Lovers, beyond-weird street couture label 20471120, original A Bathing Ape graphic designer Skatething, and over-hyped, under-stocked Ura-Harajuku brand Bounty Hunter. SDD somewhat lacks an overarching narrative to link together these encyclopedic references, but redeems itself by addressing topics that have never seen the daylight of English: in particular, Rockabilly brand Cream Soda and iconic punkish designer and Godmother to Ura-Harajuku, Ohkawa Hitomi from Milk. For anyone who wants to know the whos and whats of the neighborhood, I highly recommend the book. (Reactions will be divided on the in-your-face graphic design.)
Style Deficit Disorder greatly succeeds at its goal of laying out the facts behind Harajuku’s development. The subtext, however, may be even more interesting. By taking a step back and doing a meta-reading, the book allows us to glimpse into the organizing myths the West has built up around this sacred fashion neighborhood. The Harajuku of SDD‘s introductory chapter is quite literally the most amazing place on earth: masses of youth successfully fighting to create their own trends at a “grass-roots” level in the face of an increasingly-irrelevant global fashion market pushing industry-decided clothing on a rigid seasonal basis.
This “Harajuku Myth,” as I understand it, is comprised of five statements:
(1) Harajuku-born styles are beyond rationalization or comprehension.
Ex.: “You walk into Harajuku and—bam!—you are in outer space” (10).
(2) Harajuku is a “bottom-up” fashion ecosystem where “elite” organizations like the media or giant manufacturers have only a small impact on trend creation and flow.
Ex.: “Since the emergence of the Harajuku scene, numerous magazines have reported on and helped steer its trends, but their impact is minor compared to the influence of the action on the streets themselves” (10).
(3) Harajuku styles change much more rapidly than standard seasonal fashion cycles.
Ex.: “So immediate and rapid is the turnover of trends, and so attenuated the attention of the fashion-forward, that subtle difference make dramatic statements” (10).
(4) The world needs Harajuku more than Harajuku needs the world.
“Couture and high fashion had previously been considered solely the province of Europe and America, so for Japanese designers, the prospect of showing a collection in Paris was equivalent to playing in the major league. With the advent of the Harajuku scene, this was no longer the case. Suddenly the established fashion world was on the outside looking in, and the Western fashion establishment no wwants to work with the Harajuku avant-garde. … Marc Jacobs works with art impresario Takashi Murakami. Pop star Gwen Stefani professes her love for the Harajuku girl” (10).
(5) Harajuku consumers love “democratic” idols like hairdressers and store clerks rather than demagogic popstars and Hollywood celebrities.
Ex.: “There is a strange sort of democratic idolatry found there. Celebrities are not the only fashion icons, but all those tangentially involved in the business —designers, stylists, shop staff, hair stylists, and even publicists — enjoy a great deal of notoriety within the scene” (13).
Overall, our Harajuku Myth gives us grass-roots democracy, consumer-driven markets, an almost anarcho-syndicalist model of opinion leadership, Japanese influence on global culture, a sense of fashion liberty, Japanese cultural independence, and a freedom from dogmatic ideologies that tend to ruin sub-cultural style. If Harajuku stands for all of these things, what’s not to adore and exalt?
Unfortunately, this myth is based on a highly-edited reading of Harajuku. Without getting too bogged down in a full-out debunking, I will simply say that any micro-level examination into the actual mechanics of Harajuku cultural flow will kick up enough dirt to gainsay the myth. Just from the pages of Style Deficit Disorder alone, we find some statements that oddly contradict with the idealized Harajuku laid out in the introduction. For example, the editor of street/goth-loli fashion bible KERA writes:
“KERA started out in 1997 as a publication that aimed to introduce the richly individualistic fashions seen in Harajuku. Each month we spent ten days gathering images and information on the latest fashion trends” (136).
So far so good: media covers trends instead of manufacturing them. But what do I make of the fact that KERA is now mostly a vehicle for advertorial from core Goth-Loli brands like h.NAOTO and Baby, the Stars Shine Bright? What does KERA‘s transformation into a top-down information disseminator say about the level of innovation on the streets? Why is the medium supposed to be covering grass-roots fashion on the street now spending all of its time letting advertisers set the editorial agenda?
I also learned from SDD that advertorial is not particularly new in the Japanese fashion world. Critic and scholar Hirakawa Take explains,
By exhibiting new collections four to five times per year for several years, [brands] might begin to see a profit, which they might then use to buy editorial coverage in a fashion magazine — a form of advertising known as a “tie-up.” Once a designer’s clothes became known through the power of the magazine’s image, the designer could “talk up” (or even fabricate) his or her history and background to further promote the designs, which would help drive sales. (24)
If the media cannot manage to influence and guide Harajuku fashion, why would fashion magazines be so bent on producing a monthly catalog dedicated to pushing advertiser messages on readers? And why would brands pay so much money for advertorial and hire PR agents to win free editorial coverage? From my personal understanding of how things work, brands and magazines play a massive role in setting Harajuku trends, and while the best parts of Harajuku youth culture show how the trend creation process can be a triangular three-sided affair between the parties involved, I wonder if anyone in the Japanese fashion world would tell you that the media and brands play only a “minor” role in creating trends or pushing new products.
I find it most interesting, however, that we pop culture fans so desperately want to ignore the fact that almost all pop culture comes to us in the form of products created by companies and distributed to us through wholesalers. There is an incredibly-complex market system at the heart of Harajuku, and while we tend to celebrate the cool brands and select-shops that reiterate the “creative genius” narrative of fashion, we generally forget about the massively large companies that make everything possible. Not to say that Godoy should have wasted pages on apparel giant FIVE FOXes or Mori Building to make SDD more “accurate”: but what is so fundamentally disappointing about the idea that corporations with profit motive may possibly be a big player in creating Harajuku’s culture?
Harajuku, of course, is not the only youth culture mecca owning its power to capitalist transaction and artificial need-creation. The greater question, however, is whether Harajuku is still an incredible place, worthy of lionization, if the myth unravels: if we knew that the media works with the larger industry to set all the trends and guide consumers into “proper” fashion styles, that most of the customers are fashion zombies coming in from the outlying prefectures on the weekends, that the yakuza is the main source of capital for independent brands, that Japanese consumers rely on “petit authorities” like store clerks and “reader models” to make their fashion decisions for them, that women mainly dress to win boyfriends or alter their bodies in a rejection of social-sexual relations, or that there is massive horizontal pressure within peer groups to conform to fashion standards. None of these realities fit neatly into our utopian Harajuku, but ironically, they all could come together to create the same end result: an inimitable fashion ecosystem that produces wardrobe extremism. This more cynical “real” version of Harajuku may be fascinating at a certain level, but I admit, hardly inspiring.
I do not mean this essay to be a dig at macro-analysis “inaccuracies” in Style Deficit Disorder, because I think this Harajuku myth permeates almost every other work about Japanese fashion ( Tokyo Look Book‘s Japanese subtitle was something like “Global trends are born in Tokyo.”) As much as I like seeing Harajuku get the recognition it deserves, I wonder whether we can learn to talk about and appreciate its street fashion without projecting our own politically-rooted aspirations of democratic capitalism upon this very complex and very Japanese neighborhood. Jeremy Scott and Paul Smith are still allowed to come here and marvel, but while they are doing that, I’d be interested in seeing everyone else working on detailed explanations of how “grass-roots” and “bottom-up” work in the face of massive media-commercial pressure instead of just editing out the evil market from our understanding.