Underneath the clothes: A look into the exportation of Japanese fashion

Author's Notes
I wrote and submitted this article to the 2011 FCCJ Swadesh Deroy Scholarship Competition and was awarded an honorable mention for my work. I love covering emerging trends, and this competition was a great excuse to interview people all around the world.

You may not hear the typical Japanese storefront greetings of “Irasshaimase!” when entering the New People mall, a brightly lit building situated in the heart of San Francisco’s Japantown, but all the other ingredients needed to create a typical Tokyo department store are there: a top-floor art gallery, a cinema airing Japanese favorites, and the first international branches of popular Japanese brands such as Baby, the Stars Shine Bright and Black Peace Now.

Unveiled in 2009, the stores at New People make up some of the newest additions to the slowly growing list of Japanese brands that have been looking to enter the American clothing market, which also includes Harajuku Hearts — a small San Francisco boutique that opened last November and sells punk-themed items straight off of Harajuku’s Takeshita Street — and the flagships of ubiquitous, high street Japanese shops Muji and Uniqlo in New York City.

However, even with the opening of these stores, Japan still has a long way to go if it wants to become a household name in the American fashion industry. “These stores are catering to a niche market that really understands international trends,” explained Brian Sheehan, Associate Professor of Advertising and Media Management at Syracuse University. “Even though Uniqlo is very inexpensive and very cool, if I polled the entire population of New York, maybe 10,000 people would know of them. That’s not even a niche, that’s a sliver.”

Carly Haden, a junior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who is currently studying abroad in Japan, agreed that those who follow Japanese fashion in America belong to a special niche. “A lot of people also exoticize Japan to the point that it almost becomes its own fashion label, like Gucci or Prada,” she said.

While this may be the case in highly populated areas, Sheehan was quick to note that outside of the major U.S. cities, most people who buy Japanese clothing do not do so merely because it is Japanese. “I’m sure that some people feel it’s great that [certain items] are Japanese in origin, but most people like them because they are trendy and foreign,” he said.

Things are the same even across the ocean, according to Swedish Japanese student Jasmine Martinez, who explained that Japanese culture is “semi-popular” back home, but remains somewhat unknown to the majority of the Swedish population. “Sometimes people buy Japanese clothes because they’re Japanese, but they also buy them because they’re different,” she said. “People in Sweden like to be different.”

It is these unique designs and styles that Japan has to offer that inspired small business owner and graphic designer Aleister Kelman to create Tokyo Textiles, an online shop based in London and Tokyo that opened last November and specializes in selling handpicked Japanese fabrics to customers worldwide. “Creative people in the United Kingdom are inspired and intrigued by Japan, but they don’t know how to access it from their homes and workplace,” he said, adding the company plans to expand its range to include product sales and custom fabric design.

Customers seeking to purchase commercial items can turn to the markets of Flutterscape, an online store that encourages people residing within Japan to seek out interesting items to post on the site, which opened its beta program to the public last May. People can then order through browsing the site’s user-contributed gallery or by requesting specific items be purchased and shipped to them.

However, even the opening of middlemen distribution companies may not be enough for Japan to make a lasting impression in America — or elsewhere in the Western world. “Japan isn’t really culturally salient in America anymore, because when you think of Asia, you think of China, places like Shanghai,” Sheehan said. “Even though Japan has been successful in a number of marketing areas, it wasn’t because the products were Japanese, but the product appealed because it was different.”

University of California-Berkeley Japanese Studies student Andrew Long was quick to point out the irony in calling Japanese products “different”: “Japanese influences tend to be adaptations of foreign ideas,” he explained, drawing comparisons between Japanese visual kei rock bands Dir en Grey and X-Japan and Western glam rockers The Cure and KISS. “Japanese bands like to copy, adapt to, and change based on trends, and this is true with fashion too.”

While Kelman, who also performed as a singer-songwriter while he lived in London, agreed that recent Japanese styles such as Gothic Lolita and Morigirl (forest girl), are popular in the U.K. and have Western roots — they were inspired by the British Victorian period and the Bohemian trend respectively — he noted that Japanese rock music has yet to permeate the U.K. music scene, the home of glam rock. “People in the U.K., if they even know what [visual kei] is, think it is strange and geeky,” he said.

Though the world has seen popular Japanese acts such as Miyavi make their overseas debut and it has become much easier to purchase Japanese-made products after the opening of companies such as Tokyo Textiles and Flutterscape, the influence that Japanese trends have had on international music and fashion has been purely superficial, according to Sheehan. He explained that Japanese products market well overseas due not to their cultural associations — but their appearance — and cited the Los Angeles-based Tokidoki, which is famous for its Japanese animation-inspired mascots and uses them to market their products. “Tokidoki has been the single most successful product in selling the culture because it has cute characters, it has a really strong visual appeal,” he said. “Most people didn’t buy it because they thought it was Japanese, they bought it because they think it looks cute and different. It felt different.”

The popularity of Tokidoki and Tarina Tarantino’s jewelry line featuring Hello Kitty proves that the majority of the people outside of Japan may not have a comprehensive knowledge of Japanese culture or care much about it — these items are not actually Japanese in origin and are often purchased merely for their cute appearance and aesthetic value, according to Cristina Viseu, who works at Japantown’s purikura arcade Pika Pika and models for Japanese clothing stores in her spare time.

Viseu explained that most of her customers have been exposed to anime or manga — art styles that Japan has become internationally known for — and while the publicity may have helped widen Japanese companies’ channel into the international market, it has not promoted a deeper understanding of Japan. “Although we may see a glimpse of it in Hello Kitty and Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls line, Americans do not have a conceptual understanding of how this culture came into place,” she said. “Most people see Japanese culture as very cute, sleek or stylish and don’t see anything beneath that.”