Context the key at alt fashion fest


Special To The Japan Times

Watching the Fashion Week Tokyo models pounding polished catwalks in the glitzy Hikarie building in shopping-central Shibuya, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Paris.

However, since Mercedes-Benz’s debut as a major sponsor this time last year, now three seasons ago, designers uncomfortable with the rising costs associated with the new FWT venue — and the increasingly restrictive Western catwalk format — have found alternative locations courtesy of the trade-show roomsLINK. Most significant of these is the Shibuya Fashion Festival (SFF) held the day after the last show at Hikarie.

Taking over Miyashita Park in central Shibuya, an area intrinsically linked with Tokyo youth- and skating-culture, SFF was this time thrown open to the public for free. Attendees were able to enjoy the food, live entertainment and market stalls typical of any Japanese festival — but with fashion as the centerpiece.

From the piercing Akihabara pop music that greeted the first show of the day from Mikio Sakabe, it was clear we weren’t in for the usual rigid status-based seating, consistently Caucasian models and throngs of schmoozy industry insiders characteristic of the official week.

Instead, the twin-drum musical duo Bando Jyanai-Mon! whipped their dedicated fan base into a frenzy, leaving those used to a comfortable seat on the front row of a catwalk show to quickly learn the requisite chops to groove with the two idols saturated in pink frills on the stage.

The fashion show itself came in the form of those costumes and foppish Japanese male models who draped themselves over the stage and proceeded to read shōjo (girls) manga as the set reached its conclusion.

Fashion-thematically, these emasculated models whose very leg hair was dyed in pastel colors sported tailoring inspired by Japanese schoolgirls’ uniforms. Consequently, issues of gender, purity and societal pressure were spotlighted and studied on stage there in a manner quite alien to a conventional runway show.

But that’s the point: Without the correct cultural context, this quintessentially Japanese fashion cannot be effectively expressed.

In this case, Mikio Sakabe was drawing on a rapidly booming fashion subculture infused with the spirits of otaku (geekiness), anime and manga — and the cheers the show drew demonstrated that he’s got his finger firmly on a pulse.

If Mikio Sakabe’s cultural approach to fashion was on the avant-garde side, then the show that followed — from his partner’s Jenny Fax label — oozed another facet of Tokyo street fashion. With its sweet pastel shades, ’90s girly embroidery and nightshirts worn as outerwear, the show may have owed a lot to Tokyo’s ever-inventive youth and their adapting and re-purposing of items from vintage-clothes boutiques — but here the clothes were polished and elegant without losing their naive charm.

Mindful to credit the originators of these street trends, the organizers invited a bevy of street-fashion icons and Tokyo-based creators to participate in SFF under the banner of providing a platform to promote girls culture.

Shop-owners such as self-styled Ari, whose vintage boutique The Virgin Mary has given rise to entire fashion tribes, were finally given the oxygen of publicity to celebrate with one and all their guiding hand on Tokyo fashion via an outdoor catwalk in front of Shibuya Parco Part-1.

The show that Ari curated may not have included a single newly designed item, but her styled and reworked vintage sources felt fresher and more representative of the creative diversity of the streets of Tokyo than the vast majority of FWT fare.

Meanwhile, among others mindful of street-fashion’s clout were design duo Ayano Ichige and Shun Nakagawa, who staged a runway show for their Banal Chic Bizarre brand on the Miyashita Bridge parallel to the elevated Yamanote Line tracks in the heart of the hood.

With Banal Chic Bizarre taking the lead, the trains added lights and blurs of color to the setting in which models were spotlit and UV-blacklit in obvious reference to the neon of the city. Further challenging the conventions of a traditional fashion show, the entire menswear collection was packed with military references — but it was modeled by a gang of masked women, their eyes further obscured by baseball-inspired makeup that deftly challenged notions of strength.

Ending proceedings was Yoshizaku Yamagata’s unisex writtenafterwards brand, where the concept of “clothes from chaos” was evident in a 30-minute show presented in three separate parts.

The first part began with a dissection of the all-round saturation of Tokyo culture, with ensembles that referenced fast food featuring hamburger shoes, and then ones that tipped their hats to luxury fashion through headdresses fashioned from Dior carrier bags.

Next came a section in which the outfits were crafted from tatami mats.

And then, in the final, climactic tranche, representations of Japanese gods appeared re-imagined as monuments to popular culture writ so large they barely fitted on the runway.

The thunderous applause that greeted this conclusion to SFF on the day after the night before’s Hikarie finale to FWT will now surely challenge the notion of how the latter must proceed in order to balance its inherent diversity with the importance of presenting creations in their true cultural context.