Akiba in Style


It may seem like an innocuous proposition, but the simple assertion that the aesthetics of Japanese otaku pop culture have infiltrated the fashion establishment is one of the most provocative statements of the current generation. Louis Vuitton’s notable collaboration with Superflat architect Takashi Murakami and Aya Takano’s work with Issey Miyake might just about solicit grudging acknowledgment that otaku imagery and themes have a place as an adornment in fashion, but only once they have gone through the purifying lens of the two aforementioned artists. The taboo is clear to see - those designers who have attempted to bring the aesthetic to the polished runways of Tokyo’s official week have found themselves as outcasts off the official calendar, or else the fashion critics will do mental backflips of extraordinary proportions to somehow imply a degree of disconnect that keeps pop culture in its place and out of fashion.

External observers may struggle to see why this distinction needs to be in place, why Doraemon is a cherished mainstream cultural icon befitting of a smart-phone strap, and why Naruto isn’t - why admitting a love of K-on! is likely to get you socially shunned, and yet Sailor Moon is fair game for a printed t-shirt. Even in Japan the fenced off area of what constitutes otaku culture is rarely clearly delineated, defined as it is in its broadest possible terms as that which is widely rejected by the mainstream. It is readily clear why such a definition would be at odds with a common understanding of fashion which is defined, again in the broadest of terms, as the widely accepted style of dress of a given era.

However, even if this explains the refusal to accept otaku influenced fashion in the mainstream consciousness, it fails to fly among the fashion industry itself which would assumedly be primed to accept any new underground fashion movement - especially as the pop culture created aesthetics of anime, manga and games are realistically the only new ones to come out of Japan’s “Lost Generation”. Perhaps the stigma of the otaku is still too strong to overcome for that generation?

But stigma is exactly what this movement thrives on, its position outside the accepted cultural norms places it in line with bikers, punks and even Japan born movements such as gyaru. The very lack of acceptance is why we are seeing a generation who once would have been yankii outlaws adorn their modded cars with anime characters instead of the nationalist Japonica you would have seen only a decade ago. Otaku is the new punk, and even if the industry doesn’t want to acknowledge it, it is already knocking at the door.

The first salvo of otaku fashion was fired back in January 2012 with “Akihabara Fashion War Week w” held in the otaku friendly hub of the Dear Stage space in the backstreets of Akihabara, and outfits modeled by idol group Dempagumi.inc. From there Akihabara was given in its first ever dedicated fashion boutique in the form of Gokai from Kazuki Kotake, which in turn eventually expanded to counter-culture hub Nakano Broadway in west Tokyo, inspiring in the process a whole host of young creators to realize the otaku aesthetic in fashion.

Now key ambassadors include Mikio Sakabe whose work debates the very social stigma the culture faces through fashion, as well as delving into otaku sexuality, Chloma whose designs take very literal calls from anime and robot figure design, and Hatra who channels social issues relevant to otaku culture such as technological alienation and hikkikomori (social withdrawal) through the lens of fashion. All are united by their use of the aesthetics of otaku culture in the creation of their designs, rather than the addition of visual signifiers from that culture to a finished article as in the case of the pervasive “geek chic” t-shirt or Converse shoes.

With the genre established but the industry still skeptical, where now? Perhaps the mainstream needs to take the next move as ably demonstrated by brand Ne-Net who delved into the oeuvre armed with socially accepted shoujo manga (women’s comics) for their current A/W 2014-15 collection which features nostalgia-inducing illustrations from Yumiko Igarashi and Katsuki Tanaka along with a number of silhouette altering designs that the old otaku generation might well approve of.

It is a precarious situation, but an important balance to strike - without its stigma otaku fashion ceases to exist, and yet if that stigma overwhelms it, Japan, and the world loses out on the first genuinely new subculture to emerge this decade.

Written by Samuel Thomas (Tokyo Telephone)