Tokyo absolutely is one of the world’s major fashion centers. All one has to do to understand and appreciate this is take a walk around Shibuya, Harajuku, or Shimo-Kitazawa with eyes to the youth street fashions, creative, innovative, sometimes bizarre in the extreme, which have for decades played a major role in influencing fashions around the world. Though it is difficult for an individual like myself to know where a fashion trend begins and where it moves to, I can say from direct experience that, coming home to NY in 2008 after a year in Yokohama/Tokyo, I was struck by what I saw on the streets of New York, emulating or echoing that of Tokyo. Suddenly vests, slim ties, and hats (fedoras? is that the right word?) were all the rage. Young men in New York were suddenly wearing layers of thin shirts with low V-necks, as they had been doing in Tokyo for years. How exactly did this come to New York? I don’t know. I don’t think the average guy on the street in New York is reading Japanese fashion magazines.
It is clear that Japanese fashion – and other aspects of pop culture – have been gaining steam, at least among a niche market, in the West. German bands such as Tokio Hotel and Cinema Bizarre exemplify the conscious & intentional adoption of the fashion styles of the visual kei J-rockers. A maid cafe has opened in LA; Harajuku-style goth-punk boutiques have popped up here and there in major cities, books like the Gothic & Lolita Bible began to be published in English, and are available alongside a multitude of other fashion books & magazines at places like the Kinokuniya in New York. The Jonas Brothers may not have had their eye on Kimura Takuya, but they were certainly dressing like him.
Japanese fashion has been inspiring runway fashion in the West as well, for decades. But, as a brief article in the New York Times today explains, Japanese fashion designers, fragmented and focused upon the domestic market, have hardly participated, nor benefited financially, from the global appreciation of Japanese fashion and the great power it holds.
All of this I know. But the article more explicitly explains how Western fashion designers travel to Tokyo (or send agents in their place), buy up garments, and take them home to be reverse engineered. Resized, resewn, altered, adapted and adopted, with little if any attribution to the original Japanese designer, and certainly very little financial benefit to the Japanese designers, whose work is truly fueling the West’s fashion industry. I for one had not fully appreciated the extent to which this process truly is a parasitic feeding off of the Japanese fashion world, at no benefit to the Japanese designers.
It seems to me a typical story, though. It is not just in fashion that Japanese companies focus almost exclusively on the domestic market. It may seem stupid to commentators in the West, and perhaps it is, financially, for Japanese designers to focus so exclusively on the domestic market. If Japanese fashion companies opened boutiques in the major cities of the West and marketed their clothes there; if Japanese cellphone handsets were available in the West; they could make a fortune, while at the same time doing something really incredible for Western culture/society. But that’s a huge part of what makes Japan so interesting and so special. The fact that Japan is less connected into a true sense of “internationalization” than the major countries of the West – which exchange people and culture so readily that it’s amazing we even still have distinct cultures – is a huge factor in what helps it maintain its distinctive identity in nearly every aspect of contemporary & pop culture (even though traditional culture continues to take a beating, though that’s a separate matter…).
I must admit – and perhaps this is somewhat selfish – I rather prefer that things are they way they are. So long as Japanese companies continue to focus on the domestic market, the experience (as a foreigner) of living in Japan, of being connected to Japanese fashions and other trends, will remain something special, something enviable, something attainable in the West only as part of a semi-exclusive subcultural niche. If, god forbid, it should go mainstream, as, for example, Evisu jeans and Bathing Ape have, it ceases to be “Japanese”, becomes “American street”, takes on new connotations, and loses its appeal to (some of) those of us with an eye for the obscure, exotic, niche pop culture of Japan.