From What to Wear to How to Wear: The Bubble and Burst Economy
The 80s and 90s

At the end of the 70s and into the 80s, Tokyo celebrated homegrown fashions and trends. Rei Kawakubo of comme des garcons and Yohji Yamamoto presented their styles in Paris and created the “DC brands boom” in Japan. The Karasu-zoku (“crow tribe”), a trend dedicated to all black, anti-form-fitting clothes, came out of this boom. DC (Designers and Characters) brands refer to brands founded by notable designers or in-house brands owned by larger apparel establishments (ex. department stores) with designer-like names. The bubble economy of the mid-80s saw the youth and adults spending their inflated accounts on a whole array of fashion, from luxury to secondhand American vintage styles. In either case, fashion magazines were often behind the craze. Around this era, however, came a shift in fashion consciousness: From “What to wear” to “How to wear.” Consumers started revisiting historic fashion trends and mixing them with contemporary ones.

While different style trends came and went, one item of clothing seemed to have struck a chord with Japanese youth across all trends: iconic American jeans. The first Japanese encounter with jeans was in the 50’s black markets, which sold secondhand clothing dropped by G.I.s in postwar Tokyo. The jeans from the black market were gorgeously faded and pleasantly soft. To the older generation, those aged indigo-dyed pants looked familiar, resembling their well-worn kimono, also dyed with indigo. Although Japanese jeans industries had started producing jeans soon after the introduction of the product in the 50s, and would rise to international fame with their authentically crafted denim products decades later, the next generation of jeans fans sought out well-worn jeans at the source and started importing them directly from the U.S. (with the help of the strength of the yen against the American dollar). This importing of secondhand American clothing, which goes back as far as the early 80s, gave birth to the Japanese cult of wearing American vintage and casual clothing.  In the late 80s, the revival of American outdoor clothing trends that became popular with the rise of environmental issues, along with the peak popularity of secondhand American vintage clothing, created the style known as Shibu-kaji (Shibuya Casual). Contemporary Furugi-ya (old clothing stores) are directly descended from the select shops of the late 70s and the American vintage shops of the 80s. 

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Truly unique styles of street fashion in Tokyo exploded after the Japanese bubble economy burst, in what is called the “lost decade” of the 90s. Harajuku, which became synonymous with unique Tokyo street style, spread to other countries through music and magazines. The first big international hit was Urahara-kei. Their brand of choice, A Bathing Ape, came out of the back alleys of Harajuku, and big-name American hip hop artists wore their clothes and name-dropped them in their songs.

Multiple vibrant street fashions also came about independent of consumer trends, heavily influenced by the magazines. By symbolically throwing their textbooks away, the youth ventured into a new realm of fashion: experimentation outside of social norms. Visual-kei, gyaru-kei, Lolita, and Decora, for instance, were distinctly different from each other, but their challenging styles share an anti-conformist attitude. Following this trend, in 1997 a street fashion photographer named Aoki Shoichi founded a magazine called “FRUiTS,” which introduced a whole array of street fashions (including a later shoot in which pop star Kary Pamyu Pamyu was discovered). The advent of gyaru-kei fashion introduced a feedback loop into street fashion: the consumers could create the styles that would then be made and sold to further consumers. Even after the bubble economy, high-school girls and college students kept up the momentum of consumerism through agents called “charisma clerks” in department stores like 109 in Shibuya. Charisma clerks styled their customers according to their own creative instincts, independent of the influence of magazines and guides. Later, however, those charisma clerks founded their own fashion magazines that would become new textbooks for consumers. As gyaru-kei fragmented into subcategories, its characteristics changed to reflect these new street sensibilities.

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The lost decade was also a time that saw widespread validation of alternative productions like DIY, handcrafting, upcycling, and small-batch production. For instance, Wanomo style mixed upcycling of traditional Japanese clothing items with contemporary styling. Lolita and Decora styles are known to include DIY items in their fashion. It was also around this time that the Japanese denim industry started creating high-quality denim products in smaller quantities using an authentic process with vintage machines. Those “Made in Japan” products attracted international buyers, and later influenced heritage fashion in the United States and elsewhere in the new millennium.

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