NEW YORK — A t first it was a familiar scene, par for the course in the Tokyo shopping hubs of Harajuku and Omotesando: There was iconic Comme des Garcons, Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto, flanked by a smattering of Gothic Lolitas and punks.
But this wasn’t Tokyo; it was New York City. And it was a snapshot of the looks on display and the revelers on hand at the opening reception of the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s “Japan Fashion Now” exhibit in late September.
It was a full house that night, as Japanese fashion fans poured in to see a “virtual snapshot” of Tokyo fashion, beginning with a review of the 1980s avant-garde revolution and leading into a broad look at Japanese fashion today. “Today” meaning both modern high-end designers such as Undercover and Mihara Yasuhiro, and subcultures such as Lolita, forest girl and bosozoku (biker-gang) punks.
An older woman in an Issey Miyake origami dress wondered aloud, “Where did all the shocking designers go?” But it seemed her thinking was already old hat.
“The young designers told me they don’t feel inclined to be avant-garde like in the ’80s, but rather that they want to design things that are beautiful and modern but also wearable,” said museum curator Valerie Steele, who spent several years choosing about 100 looks for the exhibit.
“Now there is so much more of a multiplicity of looks, and rather than being distant and cerebral, the fashion interacts more with pop culture,” she observed.
It was a great summation of past and current fashion trends, especially because information on the Japanese fashion scene tends to trickle out in small, misinformed gobbets. The gothic and sweet Lolita looks by H.Naoto and Baby, the Stars Shine Bright drew the biggest crowd, while an antique eastern European-style dress depicting the newer forest-girl look had visitors wondering if it will match the global popularity of the Gothic Lolita scene.
Japanese fashion in New York has flatlined over the past several years. High-end Japanese boutiques such as Destination NY and Yohji Yamamoto have closed outposts, but Uniqlo has sprung up in their place as a success story with two shops in Manhattan. Lolitas who dress in full regalia also enjoy a small but vibrant local scene, and the Museum at FIT held a tea party for them in early October.
Now, Japanese menswear has been drawing excited attention.
“I am blown away by the menswear we are seeing from Tokyo like Phenomenon, Factotum and N. Hoolywood,” said Steele. In fact, the latter moved its shows and presentations from Tokyo to New York just this year.
Steele praises the idea of collaborations, saying she believes it is the best way for Japanese designers to get their name known outside of Japan. Successful partnerships so far include Mihara Yasuhiro with Puma, Sacai with Moncler, and Undercover with Nike.
But she also warned that not enough Japanese designers speak the business language of English to really be able to push deep across borders.
“Even just to snag those lucrative collaboration deals, I think English is crucial,” she advised.
However, the next big Japanese export may be something that was actually glaringly omitted from the Museum at FIT exhibit: Shibuya gyaru style with the dyed hair, high heels and loud accessories that accompany the fast-fashion trend. It was sported by a few of the reception attendees and is already becoming popular in Asia. Could it be the next big export in Japanese fashion?
“I think it’s wonderful! I would love to show some of it but it is an insular scene and pieces are difficult to acquire. I really want a Shibuya-boy’s “host” suit. But I may just have to go to Tokyo and buy one off a guy on the street myself to get it.”
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