Picture and pity this: A woman holds up a sweet pair of the latest jeans in a shop mirror . . . only to see the reflection of her own thighs bulging out from behind.
Tokyo is one of the world’s major fashion centers, no question about it. But in the quest for a stylish wardrobe, Western women are often faced with a nightmarish reality: Those clothes look so good — on the rack, that is, but not on their bodies.
“Bottoms are hard to find because I have hips and an ass,” said Anna, an English teacher from Australia. “And at stores for larger women, pants are too big in the waist so you have to bunch it up with a belt and it looks ridiculous.”
We’re not talking necessarily about the big butts that Sir Mix-a-Lot loves so much. We’re talking about posteriors that are, um, simply larger than the local sizes.
Same goes for panties, Anna added. “My bum eats Japanese underwear, so I have to order everything online from Victoria’s Secret.”
At the end of the day, the truth is that Western women come in different packages, and we simply require differently sized wrapping paper.
The local shops of international chains don’t always offer one-stop solutions. The styles are the same as the ones sold in, say, the United States or Britain, but the range of sizes (usually from 00 to 2) and shapes tend toward the small end.
“We have all the same styles as available in America, but made for Japanese bodies,” said a clerk at the recently opened Banana Republic store in Roppongi. “The largest size is M, and that’s a Japanese M [about a size 4].”
The best bets for Western women who want to buy reasonably priced international brands are at Gap (with pants sizes up to U.S. size 10), FCUK (which carries the same cuts as made in the United Kingdom, and up to a U.S. size 14) and Zara (also with the same cuts as carried in Spain, and up to U.S. size 12).
As for local clothing outlets, Isetan department stores include a “big and tall” section with most international brands, though the cuts and costs are more custom-fit to Japanese women.
“Almost everything on this floor is made to fit a large Japanese body, not a foreigner’s,” said Hiromi Katagiri, who works on the second floor of Isetan in Shinjuku.
The exception is Isetan’s Young Clover, a mix-and-match shop of imports for foreign bodies. “We really welcome foreign women, but they might be disappointed because of the price, size and variety. Clover is very casual, mainly jeans. If you’d need to find clothes for a wedding or special occasion, you won’t find anything to wear here.”
Marui department stores offer Marui Model, a limited and somewhat pricey section with a few imports of larger-size items. And it’s not for everyone.
“My friend and I were walking in the Marui the other day and I thought, ‘Oh wow! I’m a model size!’ and then I held up a pair of underwear and thought again,” said Lisa, a teacher from Canada. She is an average-size girl, who is by no means overweight. “They were all lacy and they looked like they wouldn’t even fit on my right leg.”
Shoe on the other foot
Of course, the same complaints about size range can be made by Japanese women who live abroad.
“In England, especially in the countryside, finding underwear or jeans was a big problem. I had to go to the girl’s corner in the children’s clothing section,” said Namie Iwata, from Tokyo. “I worked for a hotel and the uniform was too big and the manager couldn’t find one that fit. So I used the clip on a ball-point pen to taper my waistcoat at the back. I’d write down an order and then the chef would help me clip the pen back.”
Whether in Japan or out, women living abroad often find improvisation, adaptation and a good sense of humor are the keys to survival.
“Bras here are too lacy so you feel like a cake. And they’re cone-shaped. It’s like ‘femme-bot,’ ” said Cherie, a teacher from Canada, with her hands extended straight out from her breasts, doing a rendition of a robot.
Often, it’s more down to taste than size. Most foreign women complain that local bras have too much lace, underwiring and padding — and obviously that’s the local market wants.
“When I went to Hawaii I couldn’t find any clothes that fit because everything was too big and had no padding,” said Haruka from Tokyo. “Japanese don’t want to show off shape or nipples so they want padding. They don’t like the natural look. And Japanese men think lace is important. That’s typical.”
Frustrated with an overabundance of frills, pleats or thick, textured fabric to create volume, Australian Jennifer Lim took matters into her own hands and made herself president of LiMLEE, a women’s fashion line designed by her husband, Hidetaka Lee Fukuzaki.
“I urged Hide to start designing clothes for women because I was tired of spending hours looking for stuff that fit and he was tired of me dragging him shopping all over the city all day,” said Lim. “The armpit is tight, bust-line is high and length is too short. Westerners also have broader shoulders and their upper arms tend to be more voluptuous. As for pants, we’re just rounded in general. That’s the crux of why we started this business.”
Fukuzaki created a versatile concept for working women by using innovative design features so business-style clothes can be transformed into sexy and sophisticated evening wear with a simple alteration.
On the slightly higher end are the plus-size creations of Marina Rinaldi in Omotesando, or the world-famaous designs of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto or comme des garcons. The latter offer larger cuts, made with the Western market in mind, but, naturally, not everyone is willing and able to fork out the big bucks for such high fashion.
Budget-conscious Western women have the option of ditching the stores and supporting themselves. The annual charity bazaar organized by the Tokyo Union Church Women’s Society, for example, is a good place to find foreigner-friendly secondhand clothes.
On a more intimate scale is Canadian Laura Coulter’s clothing swap, which was started just over a year ago. The last one was held at the Maple Leaf Canadian Sports Bar & Grill in Shibuya. The entrance fee is2,500 yen, which gets you one drink and a mountain of clothes.
“You can change your style and build up your professional wardrobe at a bargain,” said Coulter. “Several women bring suitcases, dump their old clothes and fill them up with ‘new’ ones.
The swap, which is usually held when the season changes, can be a warm, fuzzy reminder of the true shopping expereince, as opposed to the dreaded feeling of being like a bull walking around in a China shop.
“There’s women chatting, giggling, drinking cocktails and clothes flying. There are always several items with the tags still on that have never been worn. Several designer labels, European brands, T-shirts for the gym or tops for going out,” Coulter said. “And everyone has an opinion of what looks good.”