Style & Design

Japan's cult brands get into character

by Samuel Thomas

Special To The Japan Times

When the topic turns to “Cool Japan” and the various related efforts to capitalize on Japan’s indubitable cultural capital internationally, commendation — or more frequently the lack thereof — is easy to come by. The question of how Japan markets its own culture domestically, however, is a largely forgotten dimension, but one that may play a part in making Cool Japan actually cool. Evidenced by the waves of 19th-century Japonism, the outbreaks of otaku (fanboy and fangirl culture) overseas in the 1980s and even the current crop of inbound shoppers, Japan has historically done remarkably well out of focusing internally and letting the resultant culture speak for itself.

Tokyo’s bi-annual Rooms fashion and lifestyle trade show that ran Feb. 17 to 19 conflicts with New York Fashion Week and is one month away from March’s Tokyo Fashion Week, so it is here that you are more likely to find international exhibitors looking to bait the local market rather than interested journalists from abroad. But aside from the international brands, the show boasts a bevy of domestic talent from its some 500 strong line-up, and this includes the kind of niche technology and serious traditional goods that come packaged with not only a pamphlet, but in many cases a live demonstration. Visitors get to not only see the product but learn where it was made, how it was crafted and by who. This is not a condescending explanation given out of an expectation of ignorance but rather a matter-of-course one for a Japanese potential buyer, with the rare international visitors reportedly well-catered for with translated documents.

Further proof that context is king, you only have to look to the Rooms’ Chara Chara area where brands are the kind unfamiliar to even the average Japanese fashion-industry insider, unless they are particularly plugged into the Tokyo underground. Helmed by ebullient creative director Ichiro Nakazaki, it is in this section you find the extremes and extroverts of the fashion scene peddling fashion quite literally brimming with character.

“Anyone, anywhere, can find these brands — they are all on Instagram, that’s where I found them. The important thing is to give them a space where a buyer or member of the media can walk past and understand them instantly,” says Nakazaki. “Tellingly, when a shop representative shows interest they usually don’t just want the product — they want to show the whole package via an installation or a pop-up shop space. If I showed buyers just the clothes, they may think they wouldn’t sell, but in this (Rooms) space they start to see the potential.”

The Chara Chara collective itself builds on the importance of context by moving beyond the current zeitgeist of infusing fashion directly with pop culture. Instead, these brands distil Japan’s popular culture to its very aesthetics and applies those to fashion. It is the crucial difference between wearing a T-shirt embroidered with Hello Kitty, to identifying the color palette, proportions and aesthetics of her world and building a collection around it.

In the booths are the likes of cult brand Meewee Dinkee, from engineering anarchists Maywa Denki, which represents the mood of the moment in a collaboration with the inducer of many a nightmare, manga artist Suehiro Maruo. Their series of prints on doll-like dresses appear to have walked right off a page from Maruo’s books. Pushing things a little further is Taiwan-based label Dario by Dario Hsieh, who riffs off his own nostalgic memories of Japanese characters in the “Pokemon” series of games and places them in a hellish scenario of his own invention.

“Growing up, I loved the world of ‘Pokemon,’ but as an adult I find the idea of capturing them, making them your slaves and fighting them, kind of evil,” Hsieh says. “I wanted to capture these iconic characters through adult eyes.”

In an all-encompassing approach, young brand Otonatoy — Yukie Kanehiro and Misa Kobayashi — began their creative direction with a series of fairground-carousel-horse art pieces that it produced in partnership with participating booths in the Chara Chara section. The designers’ own booth space was created around those artworks, and concludes with a clothing collection in the image of the imaginary fairground workers’ uniforms.

Likewise, Tokyo-based Lactose by American Brandon Reierson starts with a world populated by his distinctive character illustrations whose aesthetics have been isolated and incorporated into his fashion.

“This season, my theme is ‘allergy,’ so I wanted to draw characters that were allergic to lactose, as I am, and pollen — my flower prints. If you want to create a real place for change, you first need to create that world where people who wear your work can imagine inhabiting”.

This creation of a context where the fashion itself is largely a by-product is key, as director Ichiro explains: “It is vital that these brands are more than just product, they require a world view behind them that people can engage with.”

This approach to business is markedly similar to the traditional offerings a booth away at Rooms, but in its use of created context, it’s a world apart. How efforts to make Japan a “brand” go about harnessing this approach remains to be seen, but oddly enough the answer might well be nothing more than reaching out to international and domestic audiences in the same manner.