The Origins of Japanese Streetwear
Japanese streetwear has taken the world by storm. Whether it be through major brand collaborations, or runway shows at Paris Fashion Week, we can't get enough of this takeover, but where did this takeover come from? Some believe the blueprint started back in the 70s and 80s; this is generally when Japanese youth, for the first time, began to stand up to their elders, despite a strict traditionalist society. This defiant, non-conforming mindset is key to understanding Japanese streetwear.
By the early 90s, a wave of young people had moved into the small neighbourhood of Urahara, situated between the districts of Harajuku and Aoyama in Shibuya, Tokyo. Many moved because of the cheap rent and the need for a new start, away from their families with traditionalist values. Soon enough, a mentality of creating and designing was born. Small clothing boutiques began to open, offering a new style to Japanese youth, heavily inspired by Western fashion, which was ahead of the curve in exploring the meanings of youth culture. Brands such as UNDERCOVER, WTAPS, NEIGHBORHOOD, and boutiques such as NOWHERE and A Store Robot were gaining traction and popularity. It didn't take long for everyone in Tokyo to want a taste of that Harajuku aesthetic. As the clientele grew, so did the exposure, with magazines, such as ASAYAN, focusing on and capturing this phenomenon.
“WE BELONG TO A GENERATION OF DESIGNERS WHO GREW UP ON SKATE CULTURE AND STREET CLOTHES IN THE 1990S AND 2000S, SO NATURALLY IT GETS MANIFESTED IN OUR CREATION.” – YOON AHN, CREATOR OF AMBUSH
The Impact on the Western World
While Japanese streetwear drew inspiration from Western culture, it was not receiving the recognition it deserved. As a result, many Japanese designers started helping each other out by collaborating or sharing materials. For this reason, you will rarely read about one Japanese designer’s success without having another’s name mentioned. For example, the now-ionic store Nowhere was opened by both Jun Takahashi, founder of UNDERCOVER, and NIGO, founder of A Bathing Ape. This was undeniably a defining step in the evolution of streetwear. This Asian mindset of collaborating, rather than competing, is still very much alive.
The Harajuku success in America and Europe can partially be explained by the Western influence. The numerous collaborations between famous brands, such as Supreme with BAPE, and Nike with Atmos, certainly helped advance the movement. However, the Japanese brands’ craftsmanship and detail-oriented aesthetic was what truly catapulted them to major global success. Hours were spent redefining and perfecting the quality of each item and the Japanese added a fresher, newer look.
The Essence of the Aesthetic
And while we could argue that the Harajuku aesthetic commonly uses looser fitting, vintage American-inspired garments, and modernised Japanese pieces - such as ALK Phenix’s recreation of a kimono in the SS16 show - it simply cannot be defined by this surface level analysis. Harajuku is much more about a state of mind than an item of clothing. Most brands were born out of a misfit mentality, pushing their desire to dress and live differently. Trying to pinpoint a definite style would be useless, as the clothes are only a means to a bigger picture. Each brand interprets and reflects the rebellious, youthful mentality in its own way, working in a close-knit community, but also not being afraid to broaden horizons.
THE 15 EMERGING BRANDS & DESIGNERS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT
Designer Hachi Balmung is the brains behind the Japanese cult brand BALMUNG. The brand grabbed the attention of the Tokyo fashion community with its first installation show which was performed using 8 dolls made of garbage bags, adorned with the brand's debut collection. Inspired by the city of Tokyo itself, with its abstract, chaotic atmosphere, BALMUNG's clothes experiment with texture, colour and proportions.In 2018, the designer was presented with the Tokyo Governor's Award at the Tokyo New Designer Fashion Grand Prix, marking the start of a bright future for the emerging fashion house.
Images Courtesy of BALMUNG
Founded by the creator of another legendary Japanese streetwear brand, WTAPS, Tetsu Nishiyama conveys a nihilistic and rebellious vision with FPAR. While WTAPS is more put together, FPAR shines in its chaos and disorder. Nishiyama created this brand from an old aphorism which states that for a product to be classed as new, it must be changed by at least forty percent when compared to a previous design. This is noticeable in FPAR’s almost bootleg-like garments. In late 2019, the brand teamed up with Nike to create a pair of SB Dunk High. The shoe featured the inscriptions “I’m lost too," “Don’t follow me,” and “Trust No One” highlighting the brand’s sombre identity. This shoe received high recognition from sneakerheads, giving FPAR some well-deserved exposure.
TOKKOU, named after the Japanese term tokkō-fukku, meaning ‘special attack clothing,’ is a Japanese-born, London-based fashion brand. Masa, owner of TOKKOU, is inspired by the Bousou-zoku '80s biker gang subculture. Believing that this culture is slowly disappearing, Masa aims to emulate its legacy through his brand. TOKKOU is known for its famous Okayama denim and embroidered punk phrases – such as the roughly translated “Unify a country” and “Not giving up.” Although the brand has only been around for a few years, Masa has managed to create a unique and identifiable aesthetic, and the brand is quickly becoming a staple within the Japanese streetwear scene. TOKKOU's graphic prints, strong contrasting colours and use of Japanese characters to convey a message truly stand out, which, when combined with the high quality construction and use of Osaka denim, make these pieces a worthy addition to any wardrobe.
Ethical New York-based brand, Cycle by M.Y.O.B. (short for ‘Mind Your Own Business’) has been creating edgy garments for over a decade. The designer duo Comi and Tanimi started the brand creating jewellery, and shortly after tackled the world of ready-to-wear. The brands aesthetic is inspired by a mix of Tokyo and New York streetwear, while staying true to traditional Japanese craftsmanship. By 2014, Cycle opened its first flagship store in Harajuku. The brand's latest collection was made solely from cruelty-free leather, recycled plastics and eco-friendly materials.
Images Courtesy of Cycle
UNDERCOVER has certainly asserted itself as a global label, having collaborated with Uniqlo, Nike and Supreme, and the brand keeps growing. Jun Takahashi, founder and designer of UNDERCOVER, started the brand whilst at the Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo. Inspired by punk icon Vivienne Westwood, and avant-garde legend, Rei Kawakubo, Takahashi clothes are heavily inspired by grunge and punk culture, with elongated hems, unusual sizing and unfinished seams.
Graphic design graduate Yoon Ahn never planned to create a ready-to-wear brand, but is now, alongside her rapper husband Verbal, head of AMBUSH, one of the hottest Japanese brands. However, AMBUSH didn't make its debut through clothing, but rather through jewellery. By 2008, AMBUSH pieces could be spotted on the likes of Kanye West and Pharrell. Not being satisfied by how the jewellery was being styled, Ahn decided to design garments which would align with her expectations and overall aesthetic. The self-taught couple went on to create unisex clothing made to represent youth culture, to shock and even ‘ambush’ people’s expectations. The brand now shows at Paris Fashion Week and has become a worldwide favourite.
NEIGHBORHOOD, founded by Shinsuke Takizawa in 1994, gets its name from the defining neighbourhood of Urahara. NEIGHBORHOOD is one of the many Japanese brands which, for a while, flew completely under the radar in Western culture, but now, announces regular collaborations with notorious Western brands. NEIGHBORHOOD’s latest collaboration, alongside Vans and Mr. Cartoon, got fans excited, as the end result seamlessly incorporated the varying aesthetics into an elegant and authentic sneaker. Takizawa takes inspiration from motorcycle and rock’n’roll subculture, and is always on the lookout for new sources of inspiration to further push the boundaries of innovation. This is why many turn to NEIGHBORHOOD to discover future trends.
F-LAGSTU-F, founded by Nobuyuki Murayama, was created in 2014. Despite being a younger brand, F-LAGSTU-F has managed to make a noticeable splash within Japanese street culture. Murayama’s work includes many graphic and band tees, taking inspiration from the vintage shop he once worked out. '40s and '50s military uniforms are also a huge source of inspiration, giving many of his garments a distinct utilitarian look. Fusing Japanese culture with '90s America, F-LAGSTU-F has become a sought-after brand, popular within the streets of Tokyo.
Inspired by art, music and film, WACKO MARIA is a leading streetwear brand which manages to keep a romantic and glamorous feel. Co-founded in 2005 by Keiji Ishizuka and Atsuhiko Mori, the staple Japanese brand has made its mark in the industry. WACKO MARIA garments are known for their bold colour and Japanese patterns. The brand not only produces clothes, but also hosts events, collaborating with various artists and uplifting the community. Despite being a newer brand, WACKO MARIA has, and continues to influence the streets of Japan.
After dropping out of the Institute of Hokkaido, LEH founder Takuya Mikami travelled the world. By 2005, he created LEH, as a way to honour and showcase the indigenous aesthetics and styles he had picked up whilst travelling. The explorative nature of the brand shines through in not only the designs of the garments but in the fabrics used, with many being sourced from India, down to the craftsmanship itself. LEH now exhibits a collection regularly at Tokyo fashion week always innovating with new materials, techniques and designs.
Hirofumi Kiyonaga is the creator and designer of SOPH., an umbrella brand which includes SOPHNET., uniform experiment, and F.C. Real Bristol. SOPHNET. can be identified by its neutral colours, muted tones, minimalist aesthetic, and unisex styling. Kiyonaga takes inspiration from military and industrial wear to create everyday, functional looks. The brand has managed to impose itself in the streetwear and sportswear community, due to its constant deliverance of innovative designs. Being at the forefront of Japanese streetwear, SOPHNET. has amassed a loyal fanbase.
Takahiro Miyashita, founder of NUMBER (N)INE, was never formally trained in fashion. In fact, after being kicked out of high school, Miyashita went on to design for Keizo Shimizu, owner of Nepenthes and co-creator of Needles and Engineered Garments. It was through this job that Miyashita realised that he wanted to work within the fashion industry. By 1997, Miyashita had started his own line, NUMBER (N)INE. Named after The Beatles’ song “Revolution 9,” the brand is heavily inspired by classic American and British rock. Miyashita had grown up listening to Western music, dressing in American vintage clothes, and by the '90s, he was making frequent trips to the United States. The brand quickly became a fan-favourite in the streets of Tokyo, however, in 2009, Miyashita left the brand over supposed management issues and creative differences. Although this disappointed many fans, NUMBER (N)INE is still producing intricate garments. Some of the brand's best sellers include jeans and tee-shirts, reminiscent of the Americana feel Miyashita originally took inspiration from.
Co-founded by graphic designer SK8THING and fashion designer Toby Feltwell, CAV EMPT (also referred to as C.E) is one of the most exciting new brands on the market. Before starting CAV EMPT together, the two worked for brands including BAPE, UNDERCOVER, and Billionaire Boys Club to name a few. With such an impressive portfolio, the future looked bright for the pair, and by 2012, CAV EMPT was born. The brand’s name comes from the Latin expression, and film Ubik, which translates to “buyer beware.” CAV EMPT specialises in futuristic streetwear, recognisable through bold graphics and intricate shapes.
One of the lesser known brands, ROTOL has potential to be the next big thing in Japanese fashion. Having created nine collections, the brand is known for its oversized athletic pieces and colour-blocking. Seemingly inspired by youth culture, ROTOL delivers fresh, new garments to an eager audience of fans and streetwear enthusiasts, with traces of military wear and workwear being infused through the use of heavy pockets and denim.
KIKIITO is the brainchild of designer and artisan, Kiki Ito. Her eye-catching bags are handmade using high quality Italian leather, juxtaposing modern aesthetics and materials with applied craftsmanship. Sustainability is at the heart of the brand with the majority of small parts, bases and internal workings being made from leftover leather to minimise waste. Staying true to the traditional artisanship that is at the core of KIKIITO, the bags are designed with longevity in mind and for people who truly appreciate the product, with only a limited number being produced to reduce waste.
The Future of Japanese Streetwear
“With the example of NIGO and Jun Takahashi working and collaborating with UNIQLO, we can see that the pioneers of Harajuku have embraced these changes and benefited from them. It’s now up to the new generation to create their movement and take over a new district as their playground.” - Jey Perie, creative director of Kinfolk
While there is no debate that the Japanese Streetwear movement exploded and boomed between the '90s and early 2000s, some believe the glory of Japanese streetwear has peaked. We at YUGEN think not! The Urahara movement made such an impact that it remains at the forefront of people's minds, and the fashion industry as a whole, not just in Japan. Japanese brands big and small continue to produce innovative pieces, pushing the boundaries on design, and collaborations between global brands and Japanese designers keep perpetuating this momentum. With the emergence of new brands, such as those listed above, the future continues to hold promise for Japanese streetwear, and we cant wait to see what comes next.
Text: Juliette Eleuterio & Sam Pennington