If you have so much as a passing interest in Japanese fashion you are more likely than not to have seen the work of Kjeld Duits the owner and sole photographer of Japanese Streets – the very first site to bring Japanese street fashion in English to the world. Over and above that, it Japanese Streets was one of the very first fashion blogs in existence back when it started in November 2002. Now with over a decade of experience under his belt, thousands of photographs that document the rise of street fashion as the demonstrative face of the Japanese fashion industry, Kjeld is taking stock with a pop-up studio in Harajuku where he has invited some of his favorite subjects in for a studio session to celebrate their contribution to his journey this far.
It is the very fact that Kjeld has built up such a rapport with the street fashion icons that makes the site what it is, far beyond the mercenary attitude employed by the interns that scout for some of the biggest names in the industry. Watching Kjeld at work you can see that gets to know almost every person he shoots, capturing the essence of the youth fashion he focuses on.
It goes without saying that Japanese Streets has a special place in our own history as Japanese fashion fans, and regularly meet foreign buyers, journalists and even academics who cite the site as a major influence, and one of my Master’s students credited the site as the reason she got into Japanese fashion in the first place. With that said, we took the opportunity to sit down with Kjeld and talk the past, present and future of Japanese streets:
Tokyo Telephone: What was it that first engaged you with Japanese street fashion?
Japanese Streets: Two things, the fashion itself and what it represented. I first came to Japan in the early 1980s, people weren’t really dressing that originally, it was mostly Ivy League and it felt like a lot of people were just imitating each other. That all changed in the mid 1990s just before Shoichi Aoki began FRUiTS magazine in 1997. From my point of view there was a sense that Japanese people were becoming proud of being Japanese again, when I first came to Japan it was very obvious that everyone was looking outside Japan to the States and not at their own culture. Even in the 1980s you could feel a sense of shame regarding their defeat in WWII, people were very much aware of what had happened in the war but for the generation who grew up in the 1990s, that shame was gone. To them WWII was something that had happened only in history books and they couldn’t relate to it at all. People started looking at Japanese culture again as a source of fashion inspiration, both traditional and modern popular culture. On the street yukata and kimono became popular again, it was the first time since the 1950s that young men started wearing yukata or yukata inspired tailoring that Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto were turning out at the time. There was a boom in fashion editorials mixing kimono with modern elements like plastic and sneakers, it was a cool look that was impossible before that time. You had this major social shift that led to the breaking of rules, that you could only have because Western fashion only has a very shallow history in Japan, especially in the case of women, on a countrywide scale only just over 50 years now. Because of that there is a fresh eye that you can really see in current Harajuku fashion.
TT: When did you decide that you needed to document this through your site?
JS: I wanted to do something with the energy I was seeing and I didn’t know how to do it at first. I am first and formost a journalist, I work for a number of media outlets, but there wasn’t must interest from them in street fashion in the late 1990s – not yet. The internet was just starting to take off, I built my first site in 1999 and it just occurred to me that I could use the internet to show people what is happening. So in January 2002 I built the site, and put it live in November. Actually I did some research and I found out that the first ever fashion blog started in April 2002, so I wasn’t far behind!
TT: How has the street fashion you focus on changed in the your time running the site?
JS: At first I didn’t shoot the more extreme fashion as much I do now. In the beginning I shot the really average casual street fashion as well. In the last 2 years especially I have really focused on the more extreme examples.
TT: So where did that decision come from?
JS: It wasn’t really a decision, it happened really naturally as I started to not only shoot on the street but go to events and get to know people. At the clubs and parties you see the kind of people who go beyond what you can wear on the street. To catch that level of fashion on the street you would have to be waiting every single day to for a week to catch one person. I would still like to shoot the regular fashion as well, as a balance. If there are 100 extreme fashion photos and only 3-4 normal photos it is probably confusing to those who aren’t based in Japan.
TT: But I can’t help but think that there are now more than enough sites focusing on mainstream fashion, and you really don’t have to be representative when people have the tools to find out what Japanese fashion is really like for themselves. I suppose the problem would only arise if they only looked at your site.
JS: I notice sometimes that people think that what I shoot is representative for Japan, but it is not. It is a small group of people and I am just good at finding them! Once you leave Harajuku, Shibuya, Shinjuku and go to Ginza or Aoyama, or leave Tokyo you just don’t see them. You don’t even see them in Amemura in Osaka anymore.
JS: What do you think people abroad have to learn from their fashion?
TT: They have a different way of looking at things. Last year I remember someone left some rude comments saying that the people I shoot were badly dressed and saying that I had isolated the worst dressed people in Japan, and asked me to explain why I shoot the people I do. Of course that wasn’t really a question, just a rhetorical statement of their own opinion. But I responded anyway that it was a matter of perspective, they clearly look at fashion differently from you and unless you are influenced by the same mix of old and new Japanese culture that they are you won’t understand it. In particular even if sometimes the wearer isn’t aware of it, the influence of layering different textures as learned from kimono is very important in street fashion. I think from that acceptance of difference and perspective people can relate to all people from other cultures and lifestyle orientations.
TT: How did this event come about? Why make the move from the street to the studio?
JS: I wanted to try a pop-up studio as with a pop-up shop and see what would happen. The theme is matsuri, and usually when I shoot people on the street I do so as they are, but this time I wanted to give them a theme and see what they did. I wanted to do that because usually when you shoot someone on the street it is like shooting a mannequin wearing clothes, you don’t understand them as a person. I wanted an opportunity to give a bit of depth to the people I usually shoot – they are not dolls, they have personalities and if you insult them they would be hurt. I also asked them to bring three things that are important to them, express who they are or their fashion. Most people have brought their fashion collections, but some went further, for example, the fashion blogger ICCHO brought his mother as the most important and inspiring person in his life. I didn’t expect that from anyone, especially not him. If the concept was to get people to open themselves up beyond the street fashion magazines and sites, then it worked.
TT: Compared to your approach do you think the rest of the fashion media has a tendency to commodify street snaps?
JS: I feel that too and it bothers me, but I know that approach leads to failure so those sites and magazines don’t last long.
TT: Finally, where do you want to take Japanese Streets next?
JS: To be honest I feel people are getting tired of street fashion, have you noticed that?
TT: As an observer who never takes street fashion photos I think the quality of authentic street fashion has decreased rapidly due to the sheer number of people shooting and the climate that creates. For example I talked to some girls dressed in Lolita fashion in Shinjuku who said they don’t go to Harajuku dressed like that anymore because foreign tourists take their photos without permission. If you look at the big names in street fashion photography including FRUiTS and TUNE they are more focused on snaps at events and parties now, people seem reluctant to dress that way outside of a safe environment or they are conscious that someone will inevitably take their photo.
JS: I don’t think that will effect me to much as I know the people I shoot, but I think that will cause less people to see seek out street fashion. Right now I want to focus on more articles and editorials, I started there and the time has come to go back.