Ura-Hara Street Clothing: The Rise of the Japanese Fashion Otaku

 

Many would be surprised to hear that at one point in time, Japan was quite possibly the world’s largest consumer of luxury goods. In 2008, the French luxury goods conglomerate, Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) reported that its sales in Japan alone accounted for 20% of their fashion and leather goods department.  A few of the well-known subsidiaries in LVMH include: Fendi, Donna Karan, Givenchy, Louis Vuitton, and Marc Jacobs. [1]

Additionally, the high-end Japanese streetwear industry experienced extreme growth in the early 2000s.  Companies such as A Bathing Ape were at the forefront of this expansion and dominated the industry for years. Despite their ‘street’ branding, t-shirts alone were and continue to be sold for anywhere from $80-$200 U.S. dollars in Japan.  Many producers and analysts cannot seem to understand this phenomenon, but a few point to the rise of a new otaku culture.

 

 

 

 

The Japanese Streetwear Industry

Streetwear fashion was created in the early 1980s from the surfer and skateboarder culture in the United States.  This brand is known as ‘streetwear’ because the skater and surfer street culture inspired the designers and their work.  Early fans of the style noted that most streetwear clothing contrasted from high fashion for this reason. Shawn Stüssy, the creator of this brand and most successful streetwear designer, started as a surfboard designer and began applying his designs and signature to clothing. In the mid 2000s popular rap artists such as Kanye West and Pharell Williams began wearing streetwear clothing they imported from Japan.  American rap artist Kid CuDi is even a former employee of the A Bapthing Ape store in New York City.  In Tokyo, the Harajuku district is known internationally as a fashion capital of the world for its unique styles and shoppers.  The area is most commonly associated with the Harajuku girl style.  However, the Japanese streetwear industry began in the back streets of  this same Harajuku district. [2]

 

Ura-Harajuku

Ura-hara, or ura-harajuku, refers to the back streets of the Harajuku region and the streetwear shops that slowly emerged in the harajuku district.  Teenage boys slowly dominated this area by introducing the skate and hip-hop cultures to the region.  The first A Bathing Ape store along with another popular streetwear store, Silas & Maria, are located in this area.  Teenage boys will come to these shops for hours just to earn the chance to purchase the newest clothing.  In a 2002 New Yorker article, author Rebecca Mead writes:

At certain popular stores, like Silas & Maria, a British skatewear brand, would-be shoppers are required to wait in orderly file in the street, as if they were on a bread line, before being permitted, twenty or so at a time, to rush in and scour the sparsely stocked shelves for any new merchandise. The next twenty customers aren’t allowed in until the last of the previous group has left and meticulous sales assistants have restored the shelves and racks to their unmolested condition. The whole cycle can take half an hour or more. This is what Japanese teenagers do for fun.

 Many would consider this store’s tactics to be a bit ridiculous, but it is clear that their customers do not agree.  Most Japanese streetwear stores and designers strive to create similar levels of exclusivity with their products.  They believe that this approach could maximize their sales and popularity. [3]

 

Streetwear Otaku 

Many Japanese streetwear companies focus on promoting the exclusivity of their products, rather than the products themselves.  The reason they do this is because no one has been able to quite understand when a company could suddenly gain popularity and be ‘in’, but they do realize that exclusivity is a part of the equation.  Producers have to always be ready to increase their prices as soon as their brands gain popularity if they want to capitalize on the moment. [3]

Before the company’s recent overwhelming success Comme des Garçons t-shirts could cost as little as $44, today they could cost anywhere from $80-$100.

 

In the past the term otaku was widely used to refer to men that were obsessed with Japanese anime and manga.  Since Hiroki Azuma first wrote on the otaku culture in 2001, more and more industries have started using the term to refer to their obsessive fans as well.  People have begun referring to these fashion otakus as such because they do things like wait in a line for hours to shop for twenty minutes, or because they obsess over which hat to wear with which pair of jeans, or simply just because they fell in love with this American surfer and hip-hop culture, despite having never seen a surfboard in real life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Attempt to Explain the Phenomenon

The biggest underlying question behind this industry and culture is, how do these high school and college students afford these prices!?  One common and fairly accepted answer is that these young Japanese men continue to live at home with their parents long after it would have been acceptable or expected of them to move-out.  Therefore they do not have to spend any of their salaries on food or rent and can afford to purchase these products.  Some feel as though young men are able to do this because the dynamic of the Japanese household has changed since the collapse of the Japanese economy.  Most fathers of the family take responsibility for this event and as a result, have a weaker level of authority than in past generations.  This allows the young men to continue living with their parents with few complaints from the fathers.  One of the most appealing aspects of the streetwear clothing to Japanese youths, is that the majority of these companies are started by DJs and surfers.  In Japan, it is often true that the DJs are more popular than some of the rap artists and therefore, their clothing brands would a generate a larger following.  Hiroshi Fujiwara may be the earliest example of a DJ that turned his attention to fashion design and has been called the godfather of Harajuku culture.

 

When Nigo, founder of A Bathing Ape, sold the company in 2009 for a mere 2.8 Million dollars, people took that as a sign that the company had met its end.  Over a period of time Nigo’s company became too mainstream for the likings of the Japanese fashion otaku.  Nigo used his company to create Bape hair salons, a record label, and children’s clothing.  He even went as far as to design t-shirts for charity, which sold for a mere $15.  The fashion otaku taught Nigo and the rest of the designers that no fashion dynasty was too big to fall. [4]  The new owners of the company learned from this and scaled back their overseas operations to focus on their Asian markets.  Fashion otakus, like all other otakus, expect to have their way.  Rather than aggressively give the designers their demands, they silently accept or refuse brands through their purchases.

Sources:

 1. http://www.economist.com/node/14447276

 2. http://factsanddetails.com/japan.php?itemid=1859&catid=20&subcatid=136

 3. Mead, Rebecca “Letter From Tokyo: Shopping Rebellion” The New Yorker. 2002.

 4. Marx, David “A Bathing Ape Takes Its Final Bath” NeoJapanisme. 2011.

Related Links:

Kawaii, Kogals, and Loli: Examinations of Japanese Female Subculture

Standing Out and Fitting In: Street Fashion and the Search for Identity and Power in Post Bubble Japan

 

Discussion Questions

Given Azuma’s work on the manga and anime otaku culture, is it possible that he would agree with calling these clothing fanatics, ‘fashion otaku’?

Could the fact that the Ura-Hara fashion world was founded in the back streets of Harajuku be a metaphor for the greater streetwear culture itself?

 

Comments

  1. Cool article, Andrew! It was really interesting to find out where the origins of streetwear fashion came from, and how it has been received and re-interpreted and made into its own, unique style in Japan. Also, the idea of exclusivity is something very new to me, and I didn’t know people would have that much patience to actually wait in line. I noticed that you are using Azuma for his ideas of otaku being “obsessed” and also for the idea that if something strays too far away from the norm, that fans reject; however, I was wondering if you ever considered including Azuma’s theory about database elements, too? I think it would be kind of interesting to see, perhaps, the makeup of a few fashion items or brands, and how they might produce similar qualities, traits, styles, etc. that make them so “addictive”. Also, I was wondering if you were only going to focus on Japanese streetwear in Japan, or if you were also going to show how it has influenced/been received here in the West like in Europe or the United States? Great job, though!

  2. Great post! I don’t really know much about the relationship between American rap/hip-hop and Japanese street fashions, so this was very edifying.

    I was just wondering, are there any other proposed explanations for the rise in youth (luxury) street wear consumption? The explanation you describe seems utterly plausible, but it seems a little hard to believe that only one social factor (poor economy=youth living at home=more disposable income) contributed to this phenomenon.
    Additionally, that factor seems very similar to Sharon Kinsella’s explanation of the appeal of Kawaii, in that it relies on youth in a stagnant economy consuming luxury goods. Do you think the outcome, of luxury goods consumption as a form of rebellious subculture, is or will be valid here?