Nine years ago the now-defunct website Mekas posted a fascinating interview with the brilliant Japanese fashion critic Takeji Hirakawa, in which he held forth on the state of fashion, Japanese youth culture, Undercover, Number (N)ine, and Comme des Garcons, among other topics. The original link is now gone, but luckily this interview was reposted on our forum in its entirety. We wanted to resurrect it here, with all due credit to the original publisher. Unlike most of what’s out there today regarding fashion, this interview deserves to be widely read.
Photography by Julien Boudet
Journalist Takeji Hirakawa is one of Japan’s leading fashion critics and now teaches fashion criticism at universities in both Japan and Europe. Although Hirakawa has 25 years of experience in traditional collection coverage, he has now turned his eye towards looking at fashion as a way to peek into the social fabric.
How much time do you spend in Tokyo every year?
I spend half a year in Tokyo and half a year in Paris. I go back and forth between the two once a month. I’ve been doing that for 23 years now. Originally, I was working freelance, just trying to keep my eye on interesting fashion. But now that’s turned into 23 years going back and forth.
I am a fashion critic, but I also teach at fashion colleges in Tokyo and in Europe, based on my experiences as a fashion critic. I don’t teach what the current trends are. Instead, when I see a show, I start collecting clues to the entire trend structure, almost like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Then I bring together those pieces, and I can see how the new “fashion scenery” next year will unfurl.
For example, at the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century, I came up with the fashion concept “protect/protection” as a keyword. This meant underwear, sportswear, and bondage gear found at sex shops. I predicted that these items would be brought into the fashion system and made into casual wear, because I saw evidence for this in the shows.
I first started paying attention to fashion, because I thought that “mode” was the best way to view the “surface” of our era. From viewing the latest fashion, you can understand the upcoming values of our era and of our society.
How would you define what is and what isn’t a “trend”?
First of all, I believe that fashion is not an “art.” Aesthetic ideas and techniques are used in its production, but the final product — a jacket, for example, is a jacket. Companies make consumer goods, meant to be consumed. So obviously fashion brands want to sell a lot rather than a little.
Second, fashion designers do not create trends. Fashion designers only “design” trends.
So who makes the trends? There are a few big syndicates of textile and material makers, who get together a year before the designers make collections, and decide what they should make for the next year. For example, the Paris textile show Premiere Vision that they do twice a year. University professors, cooks, and artists are contracted to Premiere Vision and come together to talk and brainstorm about things like where they vacationed over the last six months, what they think is visually attractive, what films they liked, what exhibitions were interesting. They talk about these things and put them up on the blackboard. They then organize these words into blocks and look for keywords within those blocks. Then they try to imagine particular colors from those blocks. In this process, the textile makers create trends as a “frame” for what to produce the next year.The textile makers make the frame, and within that frame, fashion designers go and purchase fabric from those manufacturers and then design trends that reflect their individual personalities. So designers design trends, but fabric manufacturers make the trends.
Then the media turns the fashion shows into an informational resource. And from that, everyday people start recognizing the trends: the colors, prints, or jacket sleeve for next season.
Last autumn, color tights were a huge trend for young women in Japan, and all the magazines — almost on cue — provided information about color tights at the exact same time. Where did the magazines get this unified information?
Magazines picked that up from the collections in Paris, Milan, London, and New York. Recently, there are also shows in Barcelona and Tokyo. Fashion journalists and magazine fashion editors go to Paris, Milan, London, and New York, and they see shows where designers have designed personal takes on the trends, within the frame created by the material makers.
After everyone goes to the shows, they start to categorize everything they’ve seen. So for that season, lots of designers used color tights in the Paris collection, which means they starting showing up in magazines.
Looking at the latest collections, the trend of using gradation coloring will probably start showing up in Japan about a year from now. This may not become a mass trend, but the magazine people — those at the top or those at the cutting edge — always are taking up the next next trends. There are mass trends, and then as a “second trend,” there will be mass trends that have continued from the previous season. The newest trends exist as a “second trend” that will continue within the mega trends and become the next mega trend. There are also always a few trends that create an opposition to the spirit of the mega trends.
Next season, I think there will be amazing play with the idea of modernism: I call it “new mechanism” — like a machinist ethic that 30 year-olds will take on. But there’s also an “ecology” trend in opposition to that.
There is always opposition: small trends that fight against the big trends. Concurrently, however, there is revenue competition between the big trends in decline and the sub-trends that become the second trends of the next season. But all of the competition happens within the fashion system. The fashion industry makes a frame of multiple trends within which they basically can’t lose: “Hey, if you don’t like that, try this!”
Seeing a show makes it easiest to grasp the trends. Those who can’t see the actual shows can now see them at Style.com.
I was really surprised to see high-fashion magazines like Spur and Ginza pick up the same trends as low fashion magazines like CanCam, and it’s not like the CanCam editors are going to the European shows.
Yes, editors at the CanCam level are not going to the foreign shows. The main source of “Japanese fashion” comes from the street. Post-war fashion for men started with Ivy league casual wear like the brand Van. Even now, casual is the mainstream, and the roots of casual are on the street. So “Japanese fashion” has the organic-growth from the streets rubbing against the luxury goods made in Paris. But essentially, the Japanese fashion ethic is street casual. The big source for that is the American sports casual wear that came into Japan after the war: sporty, every-day wear.
CanCam-like magazines are street fashion, basically.
But Spur and the low fashion magazines are picking up the same trends like color tights.
That’s because media are all starting to homogenize.
They weren’t doing the same trends ten years ago?
No, there was a gap. The fashion world, along with the economy, has become globalized. Look at production: in the past, if Dior wasn’t made in France, it wasn’t Dior. Now all the French factory does is make the “aesthetics” for Dior. Dior goods have such media power that products made in Hong Kong, China, and Africa all sell well just by attaching the Dior brand.
The way of looking at fashion after globalization in the 21st century is what I think of as “fashion DJs.” There is no way to make anything new, in a creative sense. I think that “creation” completely ended in the 15-20 years I have been watching fashion since 1985. As long as the human body does not change, there are no more ways to create anything new. If we started to have three or four arms, then creations would change. But that’s not going to happen.
In our era, the designers’ job is just “sampling” of the past or “remixing” or “remodeling.”
I believe that there used to be “fashion creators” who lived in their own world and made their own creations. Then when Tom Ford showed up in 1992, we got a new category of “fashion directors,” who do merchandising for brands based on an specific image. Tom Ford has never studied fashion himself, but he doesn’t need to know anything about fashion design. He can say, “This is what’s right for our era” and direct the creation of cool things and work towards a “Gucci” flavor. That is what a fashion director does.
Now we have Raf Simons. He works for Jil Sander just as a fashion director. A year before he worked for Jil Sander, he was a visiting fashion professor at the University of Applied Arts at Vienna. When he got the Jil Sander job, he brought together all the young students and teachers around him and formed a team to send things to Jil Sander. The directors now sit in between those actually sew the clothes and the designers.
Last, you have those working at Japanese apparel companies doing merchandising. I call the young designers who came up from the streets “fashion DJs.” When they think about what to design, they design the “atmosphere” of the times or sample or remix. The archetype for a “fashion DJ” is the designer Jun Takahashi of the brand Undercover.
In the past, you have sometimes been critical of Undercover and designer Jun Takahashi.
When he first came out, he was a very typical “fashion DJ” of the new generation. The Ura-Harajuku movement centered around Hiroshi Fujiwara, Nigo (of A Bathing Ape), and Jun Takahashi. But even though they came out of the same Ura-Harajuku neighborhood, Takahashi started to seperate himself from the others. He had come out of the proper fashion school Bunka Fashion College. Nigo studied with him there, but did the “editor” course, so Nigo’s always been a complete “businessman.”
When Jun Takahashi debuted, he was a fashion DJ, but lately, his style has changed, and he has decided to take the burden of risks and costs of showing in Paris in order to challenge himself.
He’s not trying to “wear two hats.” What I mean by that is, in the past, most Japanese designers would show at Tokyo Collection, sell their name in Japan, get exposure in the media, design for a big apparel companies, do collaborations, work with sports manufacturers, and make fashion goods and bags. They would start a license-based business. Then with the money they earned, would debut in Paris.
Once they showed their goods in Paris, they would make a lot of money by bringing back to Japan the fact that they are a “Paris collection designer.” This has been the model for Japanese designers over the last 30 years.
This is true of Kenzo Takada and Issey Miyake?
In Kenzo and Miyake’s time, “fashion design” meant “license business.”
When Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons appeared, they mostly obsessed over their own image, and because of that, their image became part of their corporate “holdings.” They wanted to direct their own business, and so they created distance from the license business. And they took all the risk themselves when they went to Paris.
Jun Takahashi is similar. He only runs his own brand. He is risking the whole game on one bet. It takes a lot of money every year to show in Paris twice. He is always working hard to find his own originality.
For example, there is a big difference between the brands Number Nine and Undercover. They are both of the same fashion DJ generation, where there are no possibilities of “new” creations. Designers make three types of clothes: things they want to make, things they want to sell, and things that they think will sell well. So when I see a show, I judge the proportion of these three categories in the show’s clothing. For Comme des Garçons, 80% is what she wants to make. The other 20% is things she wants to sell, but they are mostly inner-wear pieces you don’t see in the show.
Undercover is always 70% things Takahashi wants to make and 30% clothes the brand wants to sell. Number Nine, on the other hand, is made up of 70% clothes they want to sell and 30% of clothes that they think will sell well. There’s a real difference between the two brands.
Another thing is that Takahashi’s “creative world” comes from the typical Japanese streets. So everyone is anticipating that he will show how far original Japanese street casual fashion can penetrate into the big fashion world of Paris. Unfortunately, Comme des Garçons has become too large of a company to really to play the insurgent role. Kawakubo has gotten older, so she’s brought in Junya Watanabe on deck and Tao Kunio at third-at-bat. She’s creating a whole team.
I think Jun Takahashi is amazing that he’s come this far for being basically just another little punk from the streets. He has used his own money and has persevered by his own will-power. I think he is very earnest. Everyone else is cashing in, but he has created such goodwill by his sheer force alone. As a journalist, I believe I should be assisting young designers, and I want to see how far Japan can slice itself into the current system.
Nigo’s brand A Bathing Ape (Bape) is doing well overseas with the hip hop crowd, but that success does not seem to have any effect on the brand’s sales in the Japanese market. Is the era of gyaku-yu’nyu (reverse importing where Japanese artists who succeed overseas later become popular in Japan) over?
Yes, it’s over. This latest generation of Japanese, what is “new” for them is not “novelty” brought in from abroad, but an interest in their own country. This could become a superficial kind of nationalism. Kids these days are very low-ambition; boys, in particular, are no longer going overseas for vacation. They think it’s fine just being in Japan: Why would we go? We have everything here.
I think this is a bit scary. You can only form your own identity after experiencing lots of different things and comparing yourself to others. This youth generation is closing itself off and overprotecting itself. But even if they are protected, they have things they want within the superficial Japanese consumer society.
I was born in 1945, right after the war, but my 34 year-old son’s generation knows nothing of the time before the war and nothing of old things in Japan. We are comfortable and safe, so they are only interested in discovering the things they are already interested in.
What do you think of the “real clothes” boom?
Japanese consumer society has made Tokyo into pure “consumer decadence.” You can get anything you want as long as you know it exists. That is the reality for youth these days.
When I am in Tokyo, I always visit Shibuya 109. Just looking at the displays, you can generally tell what young people want to wear and what they can afford to buy.
One of the most original things from the Japanese media is the idea of “street snaps.” Street fashion magazines like CUTiE or Spring send out cameras to Harajuku. Lately street snaps — and Japanese street coordinated fashion — are appearing in French and other foreign magazines. The Japanese media are also starting to expand the idea of street snaps and taking pictures of people and models and industry types in their street clothes at the Paris collections off stage and then turning that into magazine pages. The textile makers I mentioned before are looking at those Tokyo and New York street snaps when they are putting together the textbook to create the next year’s trends. People are making clothes from these photos.
Since the end of the 1990s, instant cameras came into vogue, then the digital camera, then the cellular phone. Everyone could take pictures wherever they wanted, and everyone became used to being a “subject” and learned to make anything into a visual. A long time ago, you could only become “visual” if you were on TV. So in this way, Japanese high-technology has really come into our every day lives at a high-speed. And if you are making visuals, you need fashion for those visuals.This is the way things are now. The information flow of consumer decadent Tokyo will start to flow backwards — from the sampling-heavy streets.
When we were young, we wondered, what do you do in order to live an affluent lifestyle? What do you make, design? The kids now grew up within a very affluent lifestyle. There are very different vectors between generations.
Young people today are “refugees of affluence.” They’re like boat people — who don’t know where to go to get away from the affluence. I am looking at Jun Takahashi with the idea that these boat people may also have great possibilities. He’s providing his own money to do collection shows in Paris — not New York — and all of his clothes that he makes are clothes you can wear. Compare that to John Galliano. Compare any originally-Japanese “real clothes” designer to Paris mode.
What was the first magazine to do street snaps and what was the cultural context for their origin?
I believe that the word “kawaii!” (cute) started to be used heavily amongst girls around 1991 or 1992. Around that time, publisher Takarajima started publishing the magazine CUTiE. I think the street snaps started around then.
The origin of street snaps is the photographer Shoichi Aoki, from the magazine Street he was doing. He was in Kyoto and liked fashion, so who he would take pictures of fashion kids in weird clothes. He said that he wanted to go to the Paris collections to shoot all the interesting people there too. So at first he shot the interesting people on the Japanese streets for Street and then he went to Paris.
So Aoki is the originator. But CUTiE was the first big magazine to run them.
Did these photos come out of the “street fashion”?
Japan did not have a class society like in Europe. Paris fashion always came from the top. In the mid-1980s, Jean Paul Gaultier was trying to be political, so he took ideas from the bottom and threw them into the “top.” That was Paris fashion in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. That was the era when everyone started to get bored of the “elegance” of fashion that came from upper society. If you looked horizontally, there was a lot of interesting stuff going on with vintage clothes.
Jean Paul Gaultier is the one who took the interesting stuff on the street and threw it into mode. But then Martin Margiela is the first to deconstruct mode and street. He worked for Gaultier for a few years. He ultimately went to Hermes to design, and he did a throwback to classic mode. At 50, he decided he didn’t want to work anymore, so he sold the company. Japanese designers can’t do this, because they work as a team. Garçons has existed for almost 30 years, but I don’t think Kawakubo will sell the company until she dies. From the end of the 1980s to the end of the Bubble Economy in the early 1990s, street fashion started to become an interesting counter to mode, as a reaction against Bubble tastes. The original “street-kei” style started with CUTiE in 1991, 1992. I wrote about it then as “look: even unattractive girls are wearing Comme des Garçons now.” At the time, everything for those girls was “kawaii” (cute).
I feel like the number of young girls who say “cute!” has decreased in the last few years. Last autumn, I came back to Japan and went to visit the temples at Nara. And I saw all these schoolgirls on a class trip to see the Giant Buddha (daibutsu), and when they saw it, they said, “Yabai!” (“Whoa!”). That’s the word they use now. “Kawaii” is a word that’s meant to show agreement with yourself. You yourself want to be “kawaii,” so everything you see is “kawaii.” Yabai is a word that is about differentiation from yourself. I’m like this, you are yabai. So I think the word yabai goes back to the idea of overprotecting yourself.
I was very impressed with A Bathing Ape when I first saw it in 1998 — that they were using the Planet of the Apes logos. It’s a kind of “cool” that works on an international level because of the ubiquity of the reference. But now you look at O-nii-kei fashion or Ebi-chan, and it’s a closed-off fashion that would only appeal to Japanese tastes.
Everyone in Japan used to look abroad for ideas. Nigo’s Planet of the Apes idea, for example — he got it from the movie. You don’t get those ideas unless you have a touch-point for global culture. But since Japanese are becoming too overprotective, they don’t go abroad, and they think that Japanese movies are good enough. So if you compare the two generations, the new generation’s tastes are greatly simplifying.
I think that kids now are totally in a paradox. They opened the door to the world and noticed that that they are standing in the middle of everything. So now they have stopped looking for anything else. They closed the door. That means that there are no seeds for the next consumer culture, subculture, and street culture.
I think they will probably want to find something new in Japan’s original traditional culture and customs. If they get comfortable with these tastes, the next generations can continue those traditions. I fear now that the level of fashion coming from the streets is seriously declining. There’s a mental part to that too, because suddenly the yankii and other lower-class subcultural tribes are becoming fashion.
Until the late 1980s, perhaps, the mass media generally looked down on yankii and domestic working-class subcultural fashion. Do you think that the kogyaru boom in the mid-1990s changed that and brought that stream of culture into the mainstream?
There are the gyaru, yes, and then I believe there’s also the store Hollywood Ranch Market. The owner Gen Tarumiku worked at Van Jacket. In the late ‘60s, he was doing sewing work and then went to live in Los Angeles. He lived as a hippie for seven years, wandering around Los Angeles and San Francisco.
When he got back to Japan, he liked clothes, so using the seven years of experience in the U.S., he started doing a used clothing store. That was the start of Hollywood Ranch Market, which later became huge.
Looking at his story, I think that Japanese street fashion comes from young yankii fashion. When he got back to Japan and started working, he brought in a lot of Japanese things, like indigo dyeing. He did denim, t-shirts, and jeans using traditional indigo dyes by artisans in Kochi-ken (Shikoku). At one point, his Hollywood Ranch Market jeans got big in America. In the process of being a hippie and coming back to Japan, he was able to bring in the best parts of Japan into his own clothing.
I think that the ideas and ways HRM makes clothes always are conscious of “Japan.” For example, every New Years’, they do a traditional mochi (sticky rice cake) pounding next to the Daikayama HRM shop. This event shows an awareness of Japanese culture. They also enforce a very strict hierarchy within the company. If the top boss says “Yes,” then all the other opinions don’t matter. This is the world of a subcultural tribe.
At some point in the last 20 years, a lot of yankii designers from the streets became designers in big apparel companies like Onward Kashiyama. The prototype for them is Ura-Harajuku.
I used to state that the guys who broke big in Ura-Harajuku were “alleyway designers.” And magazines like Takarajima were “alleyway newssheets,” since the community used them to communicate things like, “Those guys are making and selling this, so we should make that too.” They thought that the best employment relations were for one person to become boss, issue orders, and have a hierarchy to follow the orders. So they’ve moved that organizational style into fashion and are making money on it.
Once the guys who worked as sales staff in Ura-Harajuku figured out how the factories and textile makers work, they knew what they could produce to be successful. The guys who first started to make showrooms/shops around Ebisu were called the “Ebisu posse.” In terms of brands, this is Number Nine and Hollywood Ranch Market in Daikanyama.
I’ve written that the world of the yankii and the subcultural tribes has continued to change while the fashion industry wasn’t looking. My view of society is too slanted but I think that this yankii culture is one of the core movements of the new strange superficial nationalism. Everyone is getting a tattoo and wearing chains and making their own clothes.
Do you think that there are a lot of non-yankii designers that respect the yankii and want to bring their ideas into mainstream fashion?
Another way I look at Japanese culture is through what I call Doers (toujisha) and Onlookers (boukansha). My generation had the student movement. Those that took on the ideology of the time and participated in the protests were the Doers. Those that surrounded the student protestors but thought it was bad for society and rejected the philosophy were the Onlookers. Japanese culture lies in the balance between these two groups.
From the late 1960s to the first half of the 1970s, the Doers had the energy and emotion, so they lept into action at the time. But the Onlookers were the ones who created the second-half of the 1970s and the 1980s. Because they didn’t participate in the student movement, they were able to get jobs at good companies. But when they finally reached management positions, they brought back in all the Doers from the student movement.
The ‘80s and ’90s saw the repeat of this. So in fashion now, you have Doers who were the ones coming up from the streets, wearing weird clothes, and doing what they wanted. And those around us, but just observing were the Onlookers.
The media — mostly magazines — made closing the distance between them into a business. At some point the distance disappeared, and now everyone is the same. So what I think is scary, is that fashion is beginning to take on this generation’s superficial feelings. The “refugees of affluence” seem like they are starting to come home towards an non-philosophical nationalism: “We are Japanese.”
There’s the Doers who were in bosozoku motorcyle gangs and the Onlookers around them. And now the Onlookers are asking the Doers, “Do you want to do something?” I think it’s scary what may happen when this structural cycle hits a world that has no intelligence.
Lately, Oniikei yankii fashion has made a splash in the men’s fashion world, while hostess-inspired Koakuma fashion has made it big in the gyaru world.
These both show the short-circuiting world of the young Japanese. When kids are thinking about how to make money, more and more are looking towards the mizu shobai host club and hostess club world. Before that, kids wanted to become celebrities. They wanted to be on TV. But now, in their very narrow world view, being a host or hostess is the best way to make money and the coolest way to live.
The Japanese women’s fashion world always had the Ginza hostesses as a motivating factor for consumption. During the Bubble Era of the late 1980s, men would go out drinking after work at the Ginza hostess clubs and they’d look at the hostesses’ fashion. Whether Armani or Versace — they would go buy it for their wives and girlfriends as presents. These hostesses had a value to the men as a slightly glitzy part of their normal lives. But now that glitzy part has become so down-to-earth for everyone. Hostesses are recruited on the streets… Oh, if it’s so easy, why don’t we do it too… Oh, if I became a host, I could make a lot of money.
I feel like their lives are becoming more and more short-sighted. What young people have lost in sense, they’ve made up in desires in the consumer decadence.