Having recently written about Akihabara Fashion Week and the new Akihabara fashion boutique 5okai (probably a good idea to read those two before you proceed) it occurred to me that it might be worth discussing the origins for this new kind of fashion for those on the periphery of Akiba / Otaku culture.  After all, this can be something of a closed book to those interested in fashion who have long removed themselves from anything deemed “uncool” or indeed people who are purely concerned with Japanese fashion in isolation and don’t really require the cultural context.  Either way, I think it is a really interesting topic and it might well have formed part of my dissertation at university so I will press on.

The first influence to flag up is that of Cosplay, which due to it being a costume it is not fashion as such.  Elements of cosplay can be worn as fashion, but by wearing a complete ensemble you are by definition using your clothes for a specific use and by the terms of a “definition in use” that is not “fashion”.  On the other hand, cosplay does play an important part in this new Japanese fashion, mainly because the idea of being “completely consumed” or “being taken over” by an item of clothing is a key element in runurunu, Balmung, Bodysong, etc work.  But the important distinction is that this is fashion that consumes one from head to toe with a complete identity, as in most character design, but does not necessitate that you are leaving any of yourself behind to become someone else.

Having dealt with that rather abstract fundamental concept the second point is a whole lot easier to understand.  This next wave of Akihabara fashion is governed by fabrics and structures hugely influenced by modern computerized illustrations and modern figures.  Note the glossiness and almost latex-like sheen that you see on the figures beloved of Otaku, this is replicated using artificial shiny fabrics by designers such as Balmung and Chloma / Junya Suzuki very frequently.  Likewise, the fabrics used lend themselves to strong structures without the use of padding or petticoats in the case of skirts.  In essence these fabrics mimic the constant state of agitated movement even in stillness that modern illustrations and figure design capture so well.

Next up is silhouette distortion which has been a fundamental of fashion since, well, since fashion existed, but is harder to achieve than in the above illustration where one can just draw the body how you would like it to be.  However, consider Jenny Fax’s S/S 2012 and how she employed the same extreme shoulders to create the same impossibly long slender arms, and swan-like thin neck of the above.

This would be your basic (admittedly exaggerated) silhouette.  Note how the postion of the waist, hourglass shaped torso, vast shoulders and grossly extended lower arms is achieved with some of the outfits in this post here.

The final element of this emerging Akihabara fashion isn’t actually found in Otaku culture directly, but comes from the Buddhist (often derived from Thai and Tibetan Buddhism) imagery that has long been associated with the Tokyo underground and in particular the underground Techno scene that was such an inspiration for early Julius.  The bright and vibrant colours, clashing and saturated textures, and overall allusion to psychedelica is present in the work of runurunu and veveropparuuu, amongst others.  There are also the obvious Buddhist links to the Akihabara area historically, and also the role of Aum Shinrikyo in the area that could be brought in at this point (but that is a huge can of worms to open in this particular arena!).

So I would say that the three points to be your basic pins in the proverbial map to understanding these designers work are: Clothes that change the whole body, fabrics that mirror Otaku imagery and the anime silhouette.  The Buddhism that comes from a separate aspect of underground culture is important, but is a little more difficult to pin down in glib terms for now (maybe a topic for another time), but try and spot the religious references in these shop photos here if you doubt their presence.

I thought I would finish this post with a topic that is close to my heart, and that is – what I would like to see Otaku culture impart on fashion.  For that I will revisit my old friend Kazuma Kaneko who I have written about in the past.  He is a fantastic illustrator for a number of projects, including my favorite series of games – Shin Megami Tensei, and I have long been a champion for what his work can bring to the world of fashion:

Impossible ideals of perfection and sharpness of tailoring.

Absolute austerity.

Complete cohesion in an ensemble (obviously designers do this on the catwalk all the time).

A willingness to place a complete theme in an outfit.

OK, so maybe Gareth Pugh has been doing this for a while, but still I think his designs walk a line between the conceptual and the wearable in a way that most graduate shows do not.

Very Pugh, now there is a man who needs to use some fur…

A couple more extreme examples, but united by the theme of complete cohesion in a theme, and capturing the essence of an impossible, ritualistic ambition.

Personally there is so much that I admire in the work of Balmung, runurunu, Mikio Sakabe and the gang, but it tends to be the conceptual aspects that I have mentioned in the first half of this article and not the ritualism and austerity of the latter.  Somewhere between the two there is a new aesthetic ready to come out, one that is of Japan and arguably could only ever be worn in Japan!  It is certainly a movement to keep your eye on and even though many of the designers mentioned above will inevitably tone down their work for the fashion week shows next month, I am assured that in the aftermath there will be developments of note to look forward to…

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10 Responses to Introducing the Origins of Akihabara Fashion

  1. What a great article! I enjoyed reading it very much!! very informative… lol sounds like a spam but I’m real 😛 I also twittered about it 😉 please make more such posts!!!

  2. Samuel says:

    @ ねこちゃん

    Thanks, very much appreciated. I have been waiting for an opportunity to talk about these kind of issues in a fashion context for a while now. Hopefully I will get the chance again soon 🙂


  3. Andrew says:

    I also really enjoyed this article. For one, I am really glad to have a little bit of history and context to the Akihabara fashion posts, which I have to admit really caught me off guard. I also love hearing about the more abstract, cultural aspects of fashion, so I am all for more posts on that topic, whether it’s Akiba / otaku or not!

    In any case it is really exciting getting to see you guys catalog what appears to really be a new movement in Japanese fashion. I never would have expected anything like this to come out of Akihabara, so I’m glad you guys are there to follow it and keep all of us informed!

  4. Samuel says:

    @ Andrew,

    Well we try. I mean Tokyo is packed with creative energy and if you only listened to one source you would not get a sense of what is really going on.

    It seems that outside of Japan people have understood specific aspects of Japan to obsessive levels whether it is Number (N)ine, Lolita or Grimoire. There are pockets that are covered as well as you could hope for, but there is still so much more to see that has barely been touched upon abroad, mainly because of a lack of awareness in Japan itself. Just think how many great shops still only have a rubbish blog with cellphone quality pictures – well they are the good ones! There are so many more with no presence at all, e.g. the subject at hand, 5okai.


  5. Leanne says:

    I agree – very informative! And as always Samuel, extremely well-written. Kudos for championing an emerging trend 🙂

  6. Samuel says:

    @ Leanne

    Thank you, and great news that you might be back in March! We are a lot more settled and calm now so we should have some quality, non-rushed time to hang out and do something fun 🙂


  7. Kate B says:

    Fantastic article! Wonderfully informative, thank you!


  8. Samuel says:

    @ Kate B,

    Thank you! I am sufficiently spurned on to continue this topic at some point soon.


  9. Amazing article! I love the illustrations as well…I can definitely a fashion influence there for sure.

    And I like what you said about interesting movements happening in Tokyo only having cheap cell phone pic blogs. It still really boggles my mind. I definitely agree that there are movements going on in Japan, especially Tokyo, that people outside can’t know about so easily without really digging. Thanks for keeping us all informed on the other side of Japanese fashion besides just the obvious lolita/gyaru/dolly-kei. Excited to watch this movement develop. Huge fan of these designers.

  10. Samuel says:

    @ Lactose Intoler-Art

    As it happens we just shot another new shop that opened about 2 weeks ago that continues the trends seen above. Very interesting times, but even if this doesn’t hit the mainstream or progress beyond the current state of affairs, all that really matters is that things are happening. It is the simple fact that there is still so much possibility as yet unexplored that excites me.

    Plus this is making good use of so much of the culture that I (and you) grew up with. It is nostalgic, but also unknown.


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