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 cannot get enough of this rebellious takeover. However, this movement did not start in the limelight. On the contrary, some believe the blueprint to this streetwear started as far as the 70s and 80s. This is when Japanese youth was, for the first time, standing up to their elders within a strict traditional society. This defiant, non-conforming mindset is key to understanding Japanese streetwear.
To understand Japanese streetwear, we need to understand the story behind the location where it all started. 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 traditional families. Soon enough, a mentality of simply creating and designing was born. Small clothing boutiques were opening left and right, offering a new style to the Japanese youth. This style was heavily inspired by Western fashion, which was ahead of th 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 in traction and popularity. It did not 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 an undeniable defining step in the evolution of streetwear. This Asian mindset of collaborating, rather than competing, is still apparent after Western success.
The Harajuku success in America and Europe can partially be explained by the heavy western influence on its aesthetics. The numerus 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 catapulted them to major global success. Hours were spent redefining and perfecting the quality of each item, which originally seemed banal to the average Westerner. The Japanese added a fresher, cooler, newer look and that is what really made them stand out and admired by many.
Photographed by Matthew Sperzel
The Essence of the Aesthetic
And while we could argue that the Harajuku aesthetic commonly uses looser fitting, vintage American-inspired garments, and modernized Japanese garments - such as ALK Phenix’s recreation of a kimono is their 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 different, and live different. Therefore, trying to pinpoint a definite style would be useless, as the clothes are only a means to a bigger picture. Each brand will interpret and reflect the rebellious and youthful mentality in their own way, working in a close-knit community, but also not being afraid to expand their horizons.
Photographed by Hart Leshkina
THE 13 EMERGING BRANDS & DESIGNERS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT
Founded by the creator of another legendary Japanese streetwear brand, WTAPS, Tetsu Nishiyama has conveyed a nihilistic and rebellious vision with FPAR. While WTAPS is more put together, FPAR shines in its chaos and disorderliness. Nishiyama created this brand from and old aphorism which states that a new product must change at least forty percent of a previous design. This is noticeable in FPAR’s almost bootleg-like garments which have been modernized, a technique which is no stranger to Japanese streetwear. FPAR managed to further impose itself as a brand to be known, when, 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” which highlights the brand’s sombre identity. This shoe was greatly appreciated and recognised in the sneakerhead community, giving FPAR some well-deserved exposure.
TOKKOU, named after the Japanese term tokkō-fukku, meaning ‘special attack clothing,’ is a Japanese-born but London-based fashion brand. Masa, owner of TOKKOU, says he is inspired by the Bousou-zoku subculture, which involves biker gangs in the 80s. Masa believes this culture is slowly disappearing, which is why he wants to emulate its legacy through his brand. TOKKOU is known for its famous Okayama denim and punk-like embroidered 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 clearly define a unique and identifiable aesthetic, and the brand is quickly becoming a staple within the Japanese streetwear scene. We love TOKKOU's graphic prints, strong contrasting colours and use of Japanese characters to convey a message (not to mention the high quality construction and use of Osaka denim) and think these pieces are a worth 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 and fashion forward garments for over a decade. The designer duo Comi and Tanimi started the brand by 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 keeping traditional Japanese craftsmanship at the forefront. By 2014, Cycle opened its first flagship store in the influential area of Harajuku. Their latest collection was purely made from cruelty-free leather, recycled plastics and eco-friendly materials. During this climate crisis, it is uber important that fashion brands take actions. Cycle has lived up to this challenge. The brand is inspiring the young generation to become eco-friendlier, especially as some of their ethical pieces have been seen on the likes of FKA twigs, Kehlani and M.I.A.
Arguably one of the most impactful streetwear brands, UNDERCOVER has certainly asserted itself as a global label. Having collaborated with Uniqlo, Nike and Supreme, the brand keeps growing while keeping at its core the elements of a deconstructed traditional narrative. Jun Takahashi, founder and designer of UNDERCOVER, started the brand while still at the Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo. Being inspired by renowned punk designer, Vivienne Westwood, and avant-garde legend, Rei Kawakubo, Takahashi created clothes which were heavily inspired by grunge and punk culture. This can be seen in his clothes that often feature elongated hems, odd sizes and unfinished seams. By 1993, Takahashi opens the clothing store NOWHERE, and by 2002, UNDERCOVER becomes one of the most anticipated show at Paris Fashion Week. Perhaps, wherein lies the genius of UNDERCOVER, is the fact that Takahashi himself said, “We make noise not clothes,” revealing a deeper meaning to his revolutionary garments.
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 did not make its debut through clothing, but rather through jewellery. By 2008, the pieces were being spotted on famous rappers such as 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 is one of ours and Japan’s favourites.
NEIGHBORHOOD, founded by Shinsuke Takizawa in 1994, was named directly in reference of the defining neighbourhood of Urahara. NEIGBORHOOD is one of the many Japanese brands which were, for a while, unknown to Western culture, but now, what seems like every week, announces a new collaboration with big Western brands. NEIGHBORHOOD’s latest collaboration, alongside Vans and Mr. Cartoon, got fans excited, as the end result seamlessly incorporated all different aesthetics into an elegant and authentic sneaker. Takizawa takes clear inspiration the motorcycle and rock’n’roll subculture, he does not let his brand be defined by these limits. Takizawa is always looking for inspiration whether it be in music, film, or just different lifestyles in general, to further push the boundaries of innovation. This is why many turn to NEIGHBORHOOD to find out what the future trends will be.
F-LAGSTU-F, founded by Nobuyuki Murayama, is a younger brand, which was created in 2014. yet, it has still managed to make a noticeable splash within the Japanese street culture. Murayama’s work includes many graphic tees and band tees, as he has been impacted by the time he used to work at a vintage shop. He has also stated being inspired by the 40s and 50s military uniforms, giving some of his garments a utilitarian look. While maintaining a Japanese core and mixing the coolness of 1990s America, F-LAGSTU-F has become a sought-after emerging 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 glamourous feel. Co-founded in 2005 by Keiji Ishizuka and Atsuhiko Mori, the staple Japanese brand has already made its mark in the industry. Their garments are known for their bold colour and Japanese patterns. WACKO MARIA has also successfully marketed their identity with the use of slogans such as “Guilty Parties.” This makes the brand and what it stands for easily distinguishable to its customers. WACKO MARIA not only produces clothes, but also host events and collaborates with various artists to uplift their community. They have also opened a flagship store “Paradise Tokyo” in the district of Meguro (situated next to Shibuya), further pushing their popularity. Although being one of the newer brands, WACKO MARIA has and continues to influence the streets of Japan.
LEH, founded by Takuya Mikami, is perhaps the most distinctive brand from this list. It is less inspired by Western culture, but rather by the Asian continent. After having dropped out of the Institute of Hokkaido, Mikami travelled all around the world. By 2005, he created LEH, as a way to honour and showcase indigenous aesthetics and styles he had learnt about during his wanderings. The explorative nature of the brand shines through not only the designs of the garments but also from the fabrics used, many being sourced from India. Mikami’s vagabond lifestyle has given the brand a unique and international craftsmanship, for example using techniques from Bali for leatherwork. LEH now exhibits a collection at every fashion week in Tokyo, always surprising us with new materials, techniques and designs originating from various cultures.
Hirofumi Kiyonaga is the creator and designer for SOPH., an umbrella brand which includes SOPHNET., uniform experiment, and F.C. Real Bristol. SOPHNET. is recognized by its neutral colours, muted tones, minimalist and unisex aesthetic. Kiyonaga takes inspiration from military and industrial wear to create an everyday, functional look. The brand has managed to impose itself in the streetwear and sportswear community, due to its constant deliverance of innovative designs. SOPHNET., a now renowned brand, has collaborated with the likes of Nike, Stüssy, and many more. While being at the forefront of Japanese streetwear, SOPHNET. has impressed us with garments of the highest quality for over a decade, amassing 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. Through this job, he realised he wanted to work within the fashion industry. So, by 1997, Miyashita started his own line, NUMBER (N)INE. Named after The Beatles’ song “Revolution 9,” the brand is heavily inspired by the American and British rock era. 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, as the designer became friends and collaborated with other known designers, such as Jun Takahashi. However, in 2009, Miyashita left the brand over supposed management issues and creative differences. Although this disappointed many fans, NUMBER (NINE) is still producing intricate garments. Some of their best sellers includes jeans and tee-shirts, reminiscent of the Americana feel Miyashita originally created.
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 right now. Before starting the brand together, the two have worked for brands such as BAPE, UNDERCOVER, Billionaire Boys Club and many more. With such an impressive portfolio, the work of the two at C.E is definitely something to keep an eye out for. However, the beginning of C.E was not so hopeful. In 2011, a devastating tsunami hit Japan. The catastrophe affected everyone. Feltwell and SK8THING, though, were ready to leave this period of darkness. By 2012, CAV EMPT was born. The brand’s name comes from a Latin expression, and the film Ubik, which translates to “buyer beware.” The two collaborators wish to create a futuristic type of streetwear, which is recognisable through the insane graphics and intricate shapes of the clothing. For those doubting a future of Japanese streetwear, CAV EMPT is living proof of it.
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 impressionable colour-blocking. The brand seems to inspire itself from youth culture, as it delivers fresh, new garments to an eager audience of fans and streetwear enthusiasts. There are also traces of military wear and workwear within certain pieces, with the use of heavy pockets and denim. ROTOL, being one of the newer brands on this list, has a certain mysteriousness around it (perhaps also due to a desire to stay anonymous). However, we see huge potential in their design and aesthetic, and are thrilled to watch this brand grow through the streets of Japan and beyond!
The Future of Japanese Streetwear
While there is no debate that the 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 on not only Japan, but also the world, that it remains at the forefront of people's minds (and the fashion industry as a whole). Japanese brands big and small continue to produce innovative pieces and push the boundaries on design, which is eagerly consumed by fans around the world. Collaborations between global brands and Japanese designers keep perpetuating this momentum, furthering the worldwide impact and reach of Urahara. With the emergence of new and exciting brands, such as those listed above, the future continues to excite and hold promise for Japanese streetwear, and we cant wait to see what comes next.
“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
by Juliette Eleuterio