Style & Design

When street style eclipses the runway

by Samuel Thomas

Contributing Writer

The dust has settled after the final show of Tokyo’s fashion week on Oct. 19, with Rakuten being the new official sponsor taking up the mantle after fellow online retail giant Amazon, who followed Mercedes-Benz. Featuring 42 brands on the official schedule, and a handful more off it, the week ran from Oct.14 to 20. And as it jostled with the Rugby World Cup for attention, it brought with it a familiar question: How should the week pitch itself to attract the global audience it deserves?

Balmung's models pose with the runway centerpiece. | © JAPAN FASHION WEEK ORGANIZATION
Balmung’s models pose with the runway centerpiece. | © JAPAN FASHION WEEK ORGANIZATION

Tokyo fashion week’s battle for identity has always been between that of the runway versus the fashion on streets and it’s happened on all fronts. Online, collection coverage has been eclipsed by TokyoFashion.com and Vogue’s excellently curated street-style reports, while runway front rows buzzed with talk of up-and-coming street stars instead of runway looks.

The week’s biggest competitor isn’t foreign fashion capitals, but rather its own attendees. It’s not high-fashion cocktail dresses that are garnering the online clicks, but rather the street-level style seen waltzing through the backstreets of Harajuku.

A Jennyfax ensemble, complete with arm cast | © JAPAN FASHION WEEK ORGANIZATION
A Jennyfax ensemble, complete with arm cast | © JAPAN FASHION WEEK ORGANIZATION

It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that street-ready shows dominated this season. The Rakuten-sponsored week had its feet on the ground with showcases of street-level clothes at an accessible price point ready to order direct via its recently re-branded Rakuten Brand Avenue fashion shopping site.

There were some exceptions — most notably Tomo Koizumi from designer Tomotaka Koizumi, which made its Tokyo runway debut with stunning made-to-order conceptual tulle creations that would impede access through the average doorway.

Koizumi’s work, of course, has its place, but when looking to expand fashion week, it is the streets that must lead.

In the past, international buyers could be heard enthusing over street ensembles and asking “Where can I get that?” far more frequently than they were seen getting excited about well-presented trade-show racks. This in itself creates a sense that the “real Tokyo fashion” is just out of reach, a fashion sakoku (isolation policy) even in the global age.

Mikio Sakabe for women | © JAPAN FASHION WEEK ORGANIZATION
Mikio Sakabe for women | © JAPAN FASHION WEEK ORGANIZATION

But then fashion is as much the clothes as it is the context, and in the same way the first wave of punks needed the gentry crafted streets of London to rebel against in the 1970s, you can’t take the “Tokyo” out of Tokyo fashion. While certain themes that emerge at the most clickworthy end of the style spectrum do resonate worldwide (group membership in the age of atomization, a big “no” to traditional societal roles and the cult of “self,” to name but three), much of today’s Japanese fashion appeal lies in its otherness — the gift and curse of a slightly stereotypical “wacky Japan.”

Such “only in Japan” street-style snaps have won social media approval worldwide, but the same impact can’t be said for Japanese fashion shows themselves, despite the best efforts of the online portal Tokyo Fashion Film, which does a noble job of bringing entire runway shows to a global audience.

Sadly, it’s not necessarily because the runway shows lack good stories — it’s just that you need to pay an awful lot of attention to understand them.

The complicated narratives of both Mikio Sakabe’s brand and his wife Shueh Jen-Fang’s Jennyfax, were held as separate shows in the same location of Takadanobaba’s Mikado arcade, an area known for its exceptionally high level of competitive video gaming. Both shows screamed in-the-know pop-culture references sure to appeal to fans of brand Japan.

Bodysong's street-style look for women | © JAPAN FASHION WEEK ORGANIZATION
Bodysong’s street-style look for women | © JAPAN FASHION WEEK ORGANIZATION

However, Jennyfax’s collection of orthopedic cast-wearing models in infantilizing ensembles had more than a hint of paraphilia than it perhaps should. For a subculturally inclined audience raised on the nuances of such depictions in Japanese popular culture, such subversion is a home run, but it would be a shame if others reduced it to just an edgy Instagram post.

Mikio Sakabe was clearly leaning in a similar direction with his collection. But while he maintained a Japanese pop zest, he toned down the sexual overtones to the point of neutrality that may prove an easier sale.

Rising up from the streets, Balmung, from designer Hachi, made its runway debut this season. Accompanied by a centerpiece of Nintendo Famicom systems and other pop-culture relics encased in concrete, Hachi made sure you knew what inspired his oeuvre. His concise collection, too, felt like a version of street fashion tailored for the world market, a feature shared with anonymous brand Bodysong, a frequent collaborator of Balmung. Both these shows were a good advert for what the Rakuten-ready mid-market could look like without compromising on Tokyo street fashion roots or the tone of fashion week.

Children of the Discordance's menswear edgy look | © JAPAN FASHION WEEK ORGANIZATION
Children of the Discordance’s menswear edgy look | © JAPAN FASHION WEEK ORGANIZATION

One brand that was presenting something quite different was Hideaki Shikama’s Children of the Discordance, which opted for a heavily tattooed, body-modified and international cast of models — a rare look for even the deepest darkest corner of the Tokyo underground. It was something that will no doubt play well abroad, but could be potentially off-putting for the home crowd who may not have felt represented on the runway.

Where we go from here in Rakuten’s Tokyo fashion week tenure remains to be seen, but the first steps have been taken to put the week’s most enticing assets front and center and improve Tokyo street style’s standing both on the runway and at retail

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