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.
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…