For some, fashion is full-time job

Japan trends intrigue West

Japan: Underemployed urban youths create a trendsetting look.

April 19, 2004|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TOKYO - Self-consciously parading down the street, the young men and women wear floppy hats, coats of many colors and handbags strapped around their shoulders. Their clothes come at you layer upon layer, even in the warmth of spring: the women with skirts over jeans over stockings, the men with shirts over shirts over shirts. Some wear nerdy black-rimmed glasses, or just the empty frames - the coup de grace of style over substance.

These urban men and women are the epitome of cool in today's Japan. They are so cool that a handful of Westerners earn a living by tracking these trendsetters in their trendy neighborhoods, including Harajuku and Shibuya in Tokyo and Amerikamura (American Village) in Osaka. Japan has produced an indigenous, must-see brand of cool.

"They are doing in fashion what they did before in industry. They take parts of the good stuff from everywhere and they create their own style," said Loic Bizel, a Frenchman who takes Western design and retailing clients on his Tokyo Fashion Tour.

"When I go to Paris, I sit in a French terrace of a cafe, and after two hours I fall asleep. I'm bored because everybody's wearing the same thing," Bizel said. "When you are here, you can stay all day and never get bored."

Japan's practitioners of cool are mostly oblivious to the fact that they are being closely watched by foreigners, or even that they are indeed this cool.

Most of them still live with their parents. They work part-time jobs. They spend most of the money they earn on clothes. It may be that haunting sense of inevitability, of the seeming conformity of Japanese adulthood that awaits them, that drives their individuality now.

Into the gray

Becoming an adult in urban Japan often means entering the gray, homogenous universe of corporate culture. Newcomers are immediately stripped of exterior individuality and assigned a uniform: The men don the business suit of the salaryman, the women wear the skirt and blouse of an office girl, and their hair had better be black. For many Japanese youths, it is not something to look forward to, and after the long economic slog following Japan's go-go 1980s, it's definitely not cool. It's much more fun to hang out with friends, shop and look different.

"By using fashion I can express what I feel inside, the kind of person I am, so in a way it's a weapon to show myself," said Shoichiro Shimizu, 21, on one recent afternoon in Osaka's Amerikamura.

He is wearing a silver hat made of wallpaper, oversize sunglasses, gold-colored $170 shoes, spotted yellow stocking pants, a white dress and a purple coat and matching purple handbag.

"In Japan, it's important that all people do the same thing, and I always felt that was strange," he said. "I am me, and I want to be myself, so why should I have to give that up in order to do the same things as other people?"

Many young Japanese choosing edgy outfits are less introspective than Shimizu. Many are just putting on a fashion show for their peers, the followers of trendsetters they see around them, which finds them paradoxically trying to be both "unique" and "trendy."

Horoshi Hori, 17, tried to explain his choice of a white baseball cap, tilted sideways, and his nerdy black-frame glasses while he was walking through Harajuku. "Because everybody's wearing it," the Tokyo high school student said, then in the next breath, "Original. It's original." When his buddy from school pointed out the inherent contradiction, Hori conceded sheepishly, "I'm the kind of person who is easily influenced by trends."

It might seem strange that, with more than 10 years of tough economic times behind them, Tokyo teens and young adults have the kind of money it takes to follow trends. In a perverse way, it's the economy that has created this generation: Because young adults can't afford to buy houses of their own and find it difficult to get a full-time job with a good salary, they live with their parents and join the legions of arubeito, or part-time workers.

Many of those interviewed said they spent at least several hundred dollars a month on clothes, sometimes as much as 80 percent of their income from part-time jobs. Their designer brand of conspicuous consumption has become the mark of the part-timer.

On a recent evening, watching a fashion show's worth of daring outfits go by in twos and threes, Bizel pointed out one of the many young men with a designer handbag.

"You see that guy with a bag? You don't see that in France. It will come. It will come, I am sure. Fashionable bags will come," Bizel said, repeating the prediction so many times that it didn't seem absurd by the time he stopped. "All the main brands, they are starting to make men's bags, fashionable bags."

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