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All-conquering cute

It is hard to believe that we are approaching a decade since Kyary Pamyu Pamyu reignited international interest in Japanese kawaii with her 2011 hit song “Ponponpon.” Perhaps “reignited” is an inappropriate word for something that has never stopped smoldering, but it is hard to deny that the song, or more accurately the arresting video by art director Sebastian Masuda, kicked up some sparks.

Since then, kawaii street culture in Japan may have become a little less flamboyant, much to the disappointment of pre-COVID-19 tourists out on safari in Harajuku, but no less culturally relevant. Present-day youth fashion for both men and women remains decidedly on the boyish and girlish end of the spectrum, pushing back everyone’s graduation into “grown-up” fashion.

Peche is a magazine for adults who still want to embrace kawaii fashion. | PECHE
Peche is a magazine for adults who still want to embrace kawaii fashion. | PECHE

Enter Peche, the adult-orientated version of teen girls fashion magazine Larme, whose second issue went on sale in print and via download on April 21. From the visuals, it might be hard to guess that the readership is assumed to be over 25, but the self-proclaimed mission statement is clear — this is for adults who want to choose youthful kawaii over kirei (“pretty,” but the nuance suggests adult beauty).

The magazine functions as an interesting balance between entering adulthood while remaining cute, a bible for approaching the buffet of responsibility and picking and choosing just what kind of adult you want to be. For all the infantile frills and blushing models, articles in the magazine on “Feminism for the Reiwa Generation” and “Femtech” (devoted to the latest birth control and feminine hygiene innovations) present the uninitiated with something of a contradiction between the perceived subservient appearance and empowerment.

This is nothing new in the grand scheme of things; the exact same line was walked (in different fashion) by the Lolita generation that gained traction in the early 1990s. The decision to opt out of society by not growing up to become “part of it” is as punk as it goes, even if styled as a polite and elegant middle finger.

It is easy to imagine the kawaii, yet sensual, fashion and makeup of a magazine like Peche finding an effortless audience in parts of East Asia, but the overall youthfulness of the look is more of an issue when it comes to the West.

The connotations of child sexualization, and of young women in particular, has always been a cultural stumbling block, beyond the physical problem of clothing sizes, that has kept Western appreciation of kawaii largely remote. Still, you would have to have had your head in the sand to not see a version of this adult kawaii manifest in online culture in the West, particularly when wielded by subcultural “e-girl” icons.

This subversive subcultural element is the necessary sweetener needed to make the already saccharine couture cocktail work for Western consumption. Honest cute won’t do: It must be ironic. For a case study, one can look to fashion brand Rurumu from designer Kanae Higashi, who held her first ever runway show in the Tokyo Tower Media Center on April 20. Her debut was a literal witches’ pyre for her own grunge-tinged gang of magical girls to march around.

As a stylist and film director, Higashi is no stranger to working with the kinds of idols and models who brought kawaii fashion to the Japanese mainstream. But Higashi has always had loftier ambitions as a designer, cutting her teeth working for Mikio Sakabe and standing in her own right since 2019.

Rurumu’s brand of grown-up kawaii is tinged with ’90s Courtney Love-esque “kinderwhore,” but with Japanese subcultural flavor. At a glance, the collection was like a teenage girl’s scrapbook or present-day Tumblr made flesh, but on closer inspection Rurumu’s technical proficiency in knitwear, tulle and other adornments made it one of the more memorable collections to come out of the spring.

View the full runway show from Tokyo Fashion Film at bit.ly/TFF-rurumu.

At home on the street

Heya Wear aims to make clothing that lets you go from bedroom to office without changing your jacket. | THE SUIT COMPANY
Heya Wear aims to make clothing that lets you go from bedroom to office. | THE SUIT COMPANY

One of the subversive ways kawaii has found itself seeping into men’s wardrobes is in the overall sense of boyishness and lack of conventionally masculine silhouettes on the racks. Sneakers, not sturdy boots; loose, flowing silhouettes that avoid defining the shoulder; playful, not aggressive.

It has led to a lot of casual menswear resembling pajamas, something that has worked rather well in preparing the majority of the population for an increasingly at-home lifestyle.

Seizing this zeitgeist is new brand Heya Wear from The Suit Company, which launched on April 20. The brand aims to make clothes that function in all settings, meaning you could go from bedroom to office without changing your jacket.

Embodying the spirit of the collection are anti-crease, washable and waterproof drawstring suit trousers (¥6,600 including tax) that definitely fit the bill, nicely paired with a louche tailored jacket (¥9,900 including tax).

Heya Wear’s collection can be ordered from the comfort of your own home at bit.ly/heyawear.

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