The biannual Design Festa art festival is actually sometimes a better indication of incoming trends and movements in Japanese fashion than fashion dedicated events such as roomsLINK.  Certainly for identifying core aesthetics and themes of the moment it is very useful, mainly thanks to the relative spontaneity of creating an art work as opposed to an item of fashion that has to be shown, ordered, enter production and then finally be brought into circulation months after inception.  On top of that you have to take into account the sheer number of exhibitors at Design Festa, on paper you are looking at 11000 artists and designers over the course of 2 days that span booths, stages and installations.  In short it is like a blaring orchestra of Japanese culture being aimed right at you, ultra niche guro artists sit awkwardly next to booths for amateur lolita brands, artisans selling damascus steel for a month’s paycheck flow into remade clothing lines that you could usually only find at Koenji’s best vintage shops.  It is hard to know where to start with it all lest it become a “wacky Japan” photo dump, so for our coverage we are going to break our report into two and focus on the main themes in a vain attempt to make sense of it all.

Without a doubt the most obvious theme of the event was the evolution of kawaii culture, but before we begin it might be worth reading this piece on Rurumu here, another piece on ero-kawaii here and also my interview with Kyary Pamyu Pamyu here for good measure.  With that established hopefully we can start to see that kawaii culture as it stood in the past – Hello Kitty and girlish stereotypes is starting to give way to a far more aggressive variant with only superficial visual similarities   To claim that nothing has changed would be to say that shoujo manga from the 60s is no different from that used in the bishoujo genre beloved by men that grew out of it, the intent is very much different and the sociological effect a world apart.  It might be tempting to say that it still perpetuates the same world view in Japanese society, especially as the word kawaii is still the buzzword of fashion magazines like CanCam that lead the conservative mainstream, but when used in the context of kawaii culture it is the rallying cry of culture created by women for women, yes it may make heavy use of semi-sexualized images used in male otaku culture at times, but many of the artists themselves would argue that this is their expression of their own identity and if society can’t accept that Japanese women are capable of their own empowered sexuality then they probably need to ask themselves some pretty searching questions.

So with that said, lets not jump to any conclusions as we take a look at the current state of kawaii culture.

First up is Karisawasarika, an artist who uses uniforms in her work – a very common theme in kawaii culture, afterall, where else can you start exploring gender roles than in the school uniform?

As you can see there is manga imagery lurking beneath the surface – a reference to how this garment has become a product of pop-culture.

Utsukushii Tekubi (Beautiful Wrists) walks the guro-kawaii line with beautifully macabre work – I love the tights below in particular.

Into territory more likely to be associated with kawaii culture in the mainstream and you have work from Mannequin which is stocked in Spank in Koenji.  Get past the pastels and the pink, and you find a striking look that really does separate you from society in the same way other subcultures have done in the past.  It is worth reinforcing that contrary to popular misconception not everyone even in Harajuku dresses like this and it is in fact a bold statement that isolates you from conventional gender roles and we are even now seeing a generation enter their late 30s and 40s with no intention of leaving the bubble.

I like the idea of taking video games, which is even now considered a “boy’s hobby” by many and staking your kawaii claim on them.

The brilliant Kumamiki is a designer really worth keeping your eye on, she used to make western clothes in her distinctly cute way, but now she has moved on to the kimono and covering them with her modern kawaii motifs:

The brilliant design team “Pink” who claimed to be from Planet Pink were out in force, in the past their art has taken patriotic images from Japanese culture and made them kawaii – definitely worth a look.

Here the “Magical Girls Research Group” take an essential idea of girlishness – the twintail hair style, and turn it into the straps of bags leaving them with an awkward edge.

Illustrator Tokimeki Parade captures the important pathos of kawaii culture in her series of wounded girl illustrations and plasters and bandages used as accessories.

Gensou Polaroid, who are rarely off friends of the site – Tokyo Fashion and Japanese Streets, stood out as ever.

One of my favorite finds of the day was this series of mutilated Barbies:

Thoroughly creepy!

There was a surprising amount of groups like Tarako (above) who had created photo books for sale as artwork, when asked they all said that the vast majority of their fans and the people who buy the work are women like them looking for ways to explore gender through their work.

Artist Kitabayashi Minami, who has just started to bring her work to fashion – watch this space!

And finally a round-up of some other kawaii culture highlights:

Love this style by Hachimitsu Yanai.

Tumblr favorite Maromi (stand by for more on her soon).

Images of masculinity rendered cute.

How is this for a sociological image?  The very antithesis of Japanese masculinity rendered a kawaii soldier, a product firstly of Japanese male refusal of gender norms and then a rise of female kawaii creators who have filled the cultural void.

Stand by for more from Design Festa very soon, and I hope I have shown that there is depth to kawaii culture, it may be difficult to come at it from a western viewpoint, and even mainstream Japanese society struggles, but there is something of substance to it and doubtless we will see it evolve in the future.

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