Hiromu Uetake’s muscular physique and distinct side-shaved haircut, not to mention the tattoos peeking from below his T-shirt, make him quite a striking sight. But when talking to him, it is his left eye I can’t keep my own eyes off. Every now and then there’s a flicker of something that makes me stare right into it. When I finally get to see it properly, I realize his iris is blue and there are two bolts of yellow lightning flashing across it.
Uetake, a 34-year-old fashion designer based in Shibuya, Tokyo, is wearing a colored contact lens that he himself designed and that went on the market this summer. Collaborating with Livin Proof, a new contact lens company, Uetake’s designs, he hopes, will become a trend in colored contacts.
Using contacts to enhance or change eye color is not new, but it has seen a rise in popularity globally, with prices getting cheaper and both prescription and purely cosmetic ones available from almost any eyewear store.
Kunihiro Nagai, a top executive of Sincere, one of the rapidly growing number of contact lens manufacturers and retailers in Japan, says the firm has seen a steady increase in business partners over the past few years. He puts some of this down to Japanese youths’ infatuation with colored contacts, which he describes as similar to an addiction, explaining that people will continue to use “circle” lenses, which put a ring around the irises to make them appear larger, because “it’s like wearing makeup.”
“Once people see a bigger version of their eyes, they don’t dare to go back to having them look normal,” he says.
With the predominant eye color in Japan being brown, wearing different colored contacts can be a bit like dyeing hair. They’ve become particularly popular with women, who often desire larger and more prominent irises. And for some, colored contacts have, like false eyelashes, become a part of their daily beauty regime.
But that’s not to say cosmetic lenses are for women only. Livin Proof, the brainchild of entrepreneur Tess Minami, 25, may be a fledgling company, but it’s confidently banking on more men wanting to alter the appearance of their eyes in what Minami describes as a more “manly” fashion.
In August, Livin Proof unveiled a series of lenses which, though the company says they are for women too, are clearly marketed toward men. The brand’s website introduces three rugged male models, all martial arts experts, who, in short video clips, smoke, frown and show off their many tattoos in rebellious, distinctly macho demeanors. Described as garacon — a combination of the Japanese word “gara” (pattern) and the English word “contacts,” the contact lenses that they wear are not only colored but also sport designs.
Adding patterns to lenses is not new; plenty of Halloween costumes have included unusual lenses, as have cosplay outfits. Garacon, however, are specifically aimed to be fashion accessories.
“To my knowledge, other contacts’ designs are too eccentric to be commercially viable, except as party accessories,” says Uetake. “These designs are deliberately downplayed so that they match the fashion sense of Shibuya youths.”
“As a company we want to take the lead in the expanding oraora market,” says Minami, explaining the inspiration behind the contacts’ designs. Oraora is a rebellious punk/rock-like fashion trend inspired by Japanese “yankee” bad-boy culture, and a counter to Japan’s sōshokukei or passive “herbivorous” men. Typically characterized by tattoos, cropped spiky haircuts and artificial tans, oraora men go for a lot of black combined with gothic fonts, crosses, crests and animal print, sometimes embellished with silver, gold, onyx or rhinestones. To get a better idea, take a look at monthly fashion magazine, Soul Japan — its pages are full of brawny male models, all looking a bit menacing.
Uetake, 34, who designed the motifs for the garacon, is perhaps a typical follower of oraora. A former model for men’s magazines such as Men’s Egg, Uetake now runs his own apparel brand called “Good Or Evil.” Also, as a former Shibuya-based DJ, he is familiar with the kind of youths that Livin Proof’s new contact lenses are aimed at.
“These guys have developed penetrating stares, and as unruly teenagers, they act macho all the time,” he says. “I thought they would be a perfect match with the concept of garacon.”
Most of the men, he claims, are not Tokyo natives, but came from surrounding prefectures to find the Japanese equivalent of the American Dream.
“You can just tell from the way they swagger or dress that they are different from Tokyoites, and their message is clear: ‘Don’t underestimate us just because we have rural backgrounds,’ ” explains Uetake, a Saitama native who himself came to Tokyo to debut as a model at age 16. “Their determination is visible — even if they don’t actually say it out loud.”
During the interview for this article, Uetaki was wearing a Lightning garacon, one of the four designs he created for Livin Proof. The others — Lily Emblem, with a gothic petal motif in black or white; Leopard, a dark brown leopard-skin pattern; and Japan Rosary, a black-and-white design printed with the kanji for good, bad, fortune and misfortune — also use colors and motifs typical of the oraora style.
One fan, Ryo Imai — also a former Men’s Egg model, and now a clothing company owner and husband of popular celebrity Jun Komori — was particularly impressed by Lily Emblem, the flower of which Uetake explains is a traditional Japanese symbol of dignity. After trying them out at photo shoots, 27-year-old Imai said he thought wearers of regular colored contact lenses might feel a bit defeated when staring into the eyes of a garacon wearer: “I bet they’d feel they’d lost a battle, because whatever they’re wearing can’t match that kind of impact.”
It’s that kind of intimidating effect that Livin Proof appears to be pursuing, and garacon definitely gives an onlooker cause to pause, but Uetake warns men that the product is not a magical amulet that will instantly boost masculinity. “They are just aimed at accentuating your existing virility,” he says. “You yourself have to become more macho first.”
For more information on garacon, visit garacon.jp