Archive for the ‘Mobile Phones’ Category

Shibuya Girls Collection ‘09S/S

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

At the time of its initial establishment in 2005, Tokyo Girls Collection (TGC) offered a revolutionary alternative to the standard industry “fashion show.” E-commerce company Xavel (now Branding Inc.) founded TGC as a multimedia fashion event focusing on “real clothes” — low-priced domestic brands with an eye towards street trends. Instead of generic foreign drones imported from Eastern Europe, TGC used young models from popular magazines to parade the clothes on the runway. With its winning formula, TGC found quick success and ultimately rewrote the rules for Japanese fashion: choosing inclusivity over exclusivity and immediate relevance over artistic intention. TGC was “real” fashion for “real” Japanese women. Take a hike, “fake” fashion purveyors!

Now in 2009, Tokyo Girls Collection has taken its rightful place as a core institution of the Japanese fashion world, with big sponsors all clamoring to get a piece of the action. Uniqlo has just offered its second TGC collaboration — spring blazers promoted with popular ViVi model Marie. Last weekend’s 2009 Spring/Summer TGC took the brand line-up into totally new territory: select shops Beams, Kitson, and Free’s Shop, as well as originally-American brands Milkfed and Jill Stuart. All five are much more “fashion-forward” in the traditional snobby sense than the usual Shibuya 109 fare. The inclusion of these brands perfectly illustrated the fact that TGC is no longer a niche event for offshoots of the Shibuya gyaru subculture but an event where 20,000 female consumers with open minds and relatively heavy wallets can congregate and party. In just four years, TGC has become completely and utterly mainstream.

The day after Tokyo Girls Collection, Branding Inc. held TGC’s “little sister” event Shibuya Girls Collection (SGC) on the same Yoyogi National Stadium stage. Most wondered whether back-to-back Girls Collections would not mutually cannibalize audiences, but the pre-show buzz had the younger SGC outselling its big sister TGC. By the day of the event, all tickets for SGC had totally sold out. The day of the show, the arena was completely packed — with even the press seats over-run with eager girls. (Although SGC offered a “Men’s Stage” to show Oniikei fashion brands modeled by Men’s Egg superstars, the crowd was ultimately over 90% women.)

The two Girls Collections essentially share the same format, but SGC is a completely different beast than TGC — almost like the young weekend crowds at Shibuya 109 broke into the stadium and threw their own fashion show. As the name suggests, Tokyo GC is about girls’ street fashion in a wide and comprehensive sense, encompassing the diversity of looks found in Japan’s capital. SGC, on the other hand, is all about the specific gyaru style that emerged in the Shibuya neighborhood in the mid-’90s and remains strong. Accordingly, the SGC atmosphere was much more subcultural and niche than TGC, representing a fashion world that remains under the shadows of the “serious” industry. But despite the more narrow focus, the seats were equally packed at TGC, proving that the Shibuya fashion movement is just as legitimate in size and energy as the “mainstream” of fashion.

That does not mean, however, that SGC is particularly comprehensible to outsiders. I nominally cover the girls’ “street” fashion beat, and yet, most of the details of SGC culture are totally alien to me. TGC employs beloved magazine stars with name-value: celebrities who double as dramatic actresses (like Karina), singers (like Yu Yamada), and general TV talent (like Marie). Many are even known outside the confines of the “real clothes” fashion world. The participating TGC brands too, like Beams, are universally well-known.

SGC’s models, in comparison, may draw total blanks even with a hardcore TGC audience. They are total unknowns to anyone besides avid Popteen readers. The “star” model of SGC was Tsubasa Masuwaka — a 23 year-old ex-Popteen model and young mother who is big with the kids in Shibuya but has no connection to the mainstream entertainment industry. (She is sometimes featured on TV shows but only in news stories about her marketing power with teens. Despite her popularity, she is not invited to be a cute tarento on quiz shows.) Tsubasa is just the tip of the iceberg. The crowd’s other favorites — Wei Son, Jun Komori, Yui Kanno, and Kumiko Funayama — also came from Popteen. Admittedly, Popteen is a popular magazine in terms of readers, but representative of a style without much influence on mass culture.

With SGC relying on dokusha “reader” models — young fans of the magazine who volunteer posing and smiling services to magazines for little-to-no money — the model pool was markedly amateur. Most SGC models are about 5′4″ max. Star Tsubasa does not even hit five-foot. The SGC heroes dwarf in comparison to the professional long-legged models of TGC. Of course, these imperfections are what makes the girls so popular with readers: What could be more “real” and imitable than a 4′11″ model? And likewise, opposed to the half-Japanese mania of TGC, almost everyone at SGC is “pure” Japanese. The gap between fans and models at SGC thus becomes incredibly narrow. But since fans pay good money to attend, the models need to look “larger than life.” This needs pushes the girls to ramp up their normally over-tanned and bleach-blond appearance to the maximum degree: dark skin tones, faces caked with glitter, hair curled, crimped, permed, and teased out. They all looked like an army of idealized gyaru robots hot off the beaches of Hawaii.

While SGC’s official cast of characters gravitated towards’ Popteen’s gyaru world, the prevailing fashion style of attendees came straight out of post-gyaru fashion magazine ViVi’s sophisticated and hard-boiled look. The uniform was shoulder-length hair with curled bangs, black leather motorcycle jackets, unzipped hoodie sweatshirts in bright blues, black-and-white horizontal striped T-shirts, high-waist tiered skirts or shorts, big belt buckles, and a man’s fedora. There was also an unexpected outbreak of giant bows propped up in girls’ hair. Perhaps this post-gyaru look is the current style moment for the Shibuya streets — a mishmash of original gyaru surf culture, Ura-Harajuku streetwear, punk influences, high-fashion silhouettes, and the elegant tastes of the original ’90s kogyaru who have graduated from the movement and created their own up-market brands. A more likely explanation is that the hardcore gyaru — those who take the style to formidable delinquent yankii extremes — were not going to shell out the ¥3,000 for tickets. Or maybe they were in the cheap seats at top.

So here was the strange divide: The crowds came to see their Popteen idols up-close, and yet, they choose a personal fashion style much more mainstream than the hardcore gyaru formula. Gyaru style originated in the 1990s as an delinquent upper-class high-school subculture, but as the decade progressed, the rich girls ceded leadership to rural working-class yankii followers. The army of sexy and tan kogyaru transformed into monstrous ganguro. Gyaru has returned to its more aesthetically-palatable roots in recent years, but the movement’s heart and values still stay close to the lower socioeconomic stratum, best evidenced by the large crossover between the style and employees at host clubs and low-priced “cabaret-club” hostess bars. So while the audience felt a step apart from the core gyaru style, the models on stage (especially the male models) generally embrace and embody the yankii delinquent lifestyle. This made SGC feel like an act of selling the allure and rebellion of Japanese working class delinquent subculture to middle class kids. Up to this point in Japan, the fashion industry has rarely indulged in this kind of marketing practice. Usually, elements of delinquent subcultures were forced to do their own marketing.

Most analysis on the two Girls Collections tends to focus on the possibilities the events have for the fashion market, as if Japan Fashion Week or even Paris Fashion Week could take a lesson or two from this real clothes festa. But lumping these “fashion shows” all together misses the true dynamic of TGC and SGC. Sure, there are clothes traveling down the runways, but everything about the event makes the apparel feel like an afterthought. The multiple giant jumbotrons behind the runway zoom in on the model’s face for almost her entire walk down the path, save a single full-body scan.

The press releases always boast about “girls buying clothes on their cell phones right as the clothes hit the runway” but I have never observed this “real-time e-commerce” in the audience; the girls are usually too busy cheering their favorite stars to take the time to buy clothes. Surely brands that participate get a huge promotional bump, but I think the excitement is less about shopping, commercial transactions, and apparel and more about being in the same room as celebrities.

But as much as we believe the Popteen models are the draw, those subcultural folk heroes still lose out to the bigger crowd-pleaser: TV stars. A surprise appearance from Becky — a half-Japanese TV talent who is not a member of the gyaru community by any definition — elicited prolonged and severe screams from fans. After attending a handful of these “real clothes” events, I can tentatively conclude that the crowd is most interested in celebrating “celebrity.” They may love their community icons like Tsubasa, but they go absolutely crazy with the appearance of an honest-to-god variety show regular.

So there is an unconscious tension boiling under SGC between the “gyaru community” and mainstream culture, but while the crowd loves the surprise of celebrity appearance, the 20,000 young women did not show up to Yoyogi National Stadium to see sumo wrestlers and musicians. They want to take part in the Shibuya fashion community. Shibuya Girls Collection proves that there is a huge — and growing — market around the gyaru subculture. Popteen is one of the few magazines to gain readers over the last few years (And the magazine looks more like the deeply working-class hostess-circular Koakuma Ageha by the minute.) As non-community members, we tend to reach for the word “subcultural” to describe SGC’s style and dramatic personae, as if these strange girls are interested in something far removed from our comfortable “mainstream” cultural paradigm.

But in fact, the overwhelming popularity of SGC proves how little influence the entrenched mainstream entertainment and fashion worlds have in the 21st century. The powerful forces of traditional industry now all band together for TGC, but even with such support, the mainstream TGC does not really attract any more people than the niche SGC. When it comes to subcultural affiliation, the gyaru numbers are rising and the generic mainstream plurality is shrinking. SGC is not just popular in its own right, but may be a harbinger of bigger things to come for bottom-up culture.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Koizora: Empathy and Anonymous Creation

Friday, November 16th, 2007

If the promotional materials are to be believed, one out of every ten Japanese has already shed tears over the “keitai novel” Koizora 『恋空』. This level of cultural penetration would make the work the mainstream media event of the 21st century — quite a feat for an amateurishly-written love story about gang rape, teen pregnancy, miscarriage, and premature cancer deaths. The figure of 12 million may be a misreading of internet download statistics, but Koizora’s success in mainstream markets has been the real deal. Beginning as a keitai shōsetsu posted on a host-focused bulletin board in 2005, downloads of the story from the keitai novel site Mahō no Island eventually hit 10 million in its first year. The cleaned-up book version sold in the millions, a manga version appeared, and the recent film adaptation debuted at #3 on the box office. A “side-story” Kimizora: ‘koizora’ another story is currently topping the fiction charts.

Although we at clast have been skeptical in the past about the internet’s ability to completely crack the old production systems for culture in Japan, Koizora clearly presents the case of a total “nobody” creating content, “publishing” it through an open website, gaining grass-roots popularity, and finally winning sponsorship from the larger entertainment industry (in this case, Starts Publishing and Tōhō Company, with help from Lawson’s, Tsutaya, NTT, and Mitsuya Cider etc.) Some wonder how this particular work found its way into the system so quickly (when more popular keitai writers continue to be ignored), but just as in the Chad Vader model, Japanese companies are clearly using the internet as a testing ground for new talent.

In other ways, however, Koizora is just another example of traditional Japanese diffusion patterns for pop culture. Whether schoolgirl fashion or a hot band, microtrends in Japan very rarely show clean linear (or even exponential) growth from the grass-roots level up to the masses. Once a certain product or style becomes slightly visible on the street, the mainstream media complex scoops it up and propels it into national news/advertising campaigns — thus creating an immediate explosion in interest or participation for the entire country. The effect is a huge jump in diffusion rather than a smooth curve. In the case of Koizora, the original “phone novel” phenomenon may have been impressive for that niche, but the book printing was promoted through mass-targeted television advertising; the subsequent high sales should not be too surprising.

The most interesting feature of Koizora‘s success may be its author — “Mika” (美嘉) —  about whom we know absolutely nothing. Despite being the best-selling young female author of recent days and an overnight millionaire, “Mika” has chosen not to reveal herself to the public. Like Densha Otoko before, Mika is essentially anonymous and untraceable. We get nothing more than a first-name and some attributed quotes. Koizora is supposed to be a “true story” of her youth, or at least, “based on her experiences.”

Since nobody in the Japanese media appears interested in investigating the real Mika and readers do not have problems with the gross inaccuracies in Mika’s depiction of pregnancy and malignant lymphoma, the author has no pressure to add a face and full name to her semi-literary stardom. Anonymity is important for individuals to share their creations on the internet, but there is also a sympathy and understanding amongst Japanese consumers towards protecting the anonymity of those who request it. Anonymity, however, is also a key component of this form of confessional literature. Not only does the “nobodiness” of the author make it seem more “real” and “personal,” anonymity protects seemingly-autobiographical narrative works from the James Frey/A Million Little Pieces danger of exposé.

Empathy is the key emotional response to a book like Koizora. Readers cry because they have emotionally invested in the pain and suffering of this protagonist — feelings no doubt amplified by the assumption that the terrible gang-rape bullying and teenage death actually happened to this pitiful author. Once the narrative becomes “based on a true story,” revealing the true degree of fictionalization may lead to collective let-down. If Mika were really a forty-year old data-entry clerk who experienced completely unremarkable teenage years, the whole prerequisites at the base of the “empathy” start to fall apart. It’s not fun to cry for the pain of a friend who has lost her mother and then find out the next day that the mom is alive and she was lying the whole time to get you to pay for drinks.

The more net culture in Japan progresses, the more it becomes clearer that anonymity is its underlying principle. Even in the face of possible fame and fortune, amateur writers are finding it more helpful to hide real identities in order to reap in the benefits of building fantastical realities for mass empathy. The masses of readers are more likely to tolerate terrible writing, melodramatic clichés, and incredulous stories of sex and death on the assumption that they are first-hand accounts. The Internet has made the narrative behind the “success” of a creative work as important as the narrative contained the work itself. Breaking Mika’s anonymity in the case of Koizora would ruin both.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Tokyo Girls Collection

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2007

The Fourth Annual Tokyo Girls Collection was held on March 3 at the Yokohama Arena, attracting an audience of almost 22,000. Press and members of industry organizations may have been well represented, but the majority of the crowd was normal everyday women in their late teens and early 20s. These nominal “fashion shows” have the energy of rock concerts, but not just because of the guest musical performances. Girls congregated from all over Japan to see their heroes — models Ebihara Yuri and Fujii Rina etc. from their beloved fashion magazines (Can Cam, ViVi and JJ) — prance upon the stage in real life.

Created in 2004, these events intend to give proper exhibition to domestic brands that supply the “real clothes” worn by Japanese girls in their daily life. In this, they are challenging the idea that runway shows and collections are the sole property of European import brands, domestic high fashion, and indie avant designers. And in this bottom-up rebellion, they are wildly succeeding.

Participating Brands in Tokyo Girls Collection:

ALBA ROSA JAPAN alicias Apuweiser-riche CECIL McBEE
DELYLE DOUBLE STANDARD CLOTHING gMALOUSE HbG
JAYRO Joias Jolly Boutique Kai Lani
L’EST ROSE LIP SERVICE LITIRA
MAISON GILFY
Noble Birth Private Label
RADEESSE Ravijour
rich rienda SWORD FISH UNIVERVAL MUSE
VIERGE

Some History

Over the last several decades, there has been a growing synthesis of two major conceptualizations of “fashion” in Japan. High fashion — “designer brands” in local parlance — started to become a familiar aspirational item to Japanese middle-class consumers in the 1960s. At first-rate department stores like Seibu, shoppers were able to browse European luxury apparel in the same environmental space as their everyday household goods. Although mostly unaffordable at the time, high-end brands became convenient symbols of economic success for the society as a whole. Incomes and taste standards rose up to a point in the mid-1980s where the DC Boom (DC = Designer/Character) swept Japan and made domestic designer brands the fashion standard. With the Plaza Accord doubling the value of the yen in a short time, “normal” consumption of the world’s greatest luxury brands followed in tow. An important note: The locus of legitimacy for the high fashion stream is clearly overseas — especially Europe (Paris and Milan). Even the dominant domestic brands like Comme des Garçons or Issey Miyake won most of their local esteem after widespread international recognition.

Running parallel to high fashion has been the street brands which range from the casual Ivy League fashion of Van to the myriad subcultural looks of social delinquents and their middle-class imitators. In 1988, after a few years of being displaced by the DC Boom, casual anti-fashion made its way back to the top through the Shibu-Kaji (Shibuya Casual) trend. Epoch-making street brands have mostly been domestic, and while Japanese fashion may take influence from foreign trends, the codification of style usually happens at the hands of Japanese actors, whether bottom-up subcultures or top-down magazines.

The 1990s explosion in street-wear — especially the brands geographically based in the Ura-Harajuku neighborhood — saw a synthesis of the two trends in the form of high-priced casual brands that won foreign recognition. These brands used limited-edition supply to build an aura of exclusivity similar to high-fashion. On the Men’s side, several brands like Under Cover, Number Nine, and N. Hoolywood have managed to win high-fashion approval for clothing that began life within a street brand association (although you cannot deny that these brands boast superior concepts and loftier aspirations than their meat-and-potatoes t-shirt-and-sneakers peers.)

Stealing the Thunder from High Fashion

The Tokyo Girls Collection is a new type of synthesis between street brands and designer fashion. Rather than the “exclusive” street fashion of the 1990s, TGC fashion is a group of low-priced domestic brands — mostly sold at the “gal” (gyaru) culture center of Shibuya 109 rather than in snobby boutiques or upper-crust department stores. These brands are appropriating the language and actions of the high-fashion world, and like H&M and Topshop, many of the ideas as well. In order to throw their enormous fashion show each year, this coalition of brands join forces with their media partners in the internet sales sector, the publishing world, powerful modeling agencies, and now also, the Japanese government. The end result is a very impressive and un-ignorable “media-mix” event that creates a new sort of unified promotional front for a tier of clothing once perceived closer to commodities than “fashion.”

The organizers describe the clothes as “real” — implicitly creating a dichotomy between their products and the “fake” or “imaginary” apparel on display at traditional fashion industry shows. Tokyo Girls Collection models are not tall and skinny high-fashion regulars nor foreigners, but instead, the “cute” and familiar girls from Can Cam and the other popular fashion consumption bibles. While on the runway, the models wave to the crowd in a friendly way instead of sternly projecting ice cold stares. There is no frozen and rigid hierarchy between participants nor polite silence at TGC. Most importantly, all the clothes featured are within the realm of possibility — nothing is experimental. The female commentator notes that ensembles featured in the show are perfectly styled to give specific direction to the girls “studying” this fashion look. TGC attendees should feel as if they could immediately buy the pieces and wear them the next day.

In the video above [now removed], the commentators use a few choice words to describe the event: soft (柔らかい), safe (無難), and easy-to-understand (分かり易い). Designer fashion has become perceived rightly or wrongly as a product group opposite of these three critical descriptors. The vast majority of young Japanese women no longer aspire towards international designer culture and couture. High-fashion and typical runway fare is seen as the exact opposite of our three key descriptors — conceptually-difficult, socially-risky, and “hard” in its often confrontational stance. The central focus on the designer/auteur in high fashion is seen as selfish and not allowing the wearer to insert her own “individuality” (個性) (even though girls are really asking for a mediated and safe individuality that will not cause social friction rather than a completely inimitable differentiation from others.) The young women have explicitly refused to be impressed or interested in the artistry and intellectual ideas behind contemporary fashion — because neither “intellectualism” nor “artistry” (as they are being widely defined) can serve this demographic’s social intention for apparel.

As the female commentator notes [in the removed video above], these girls want to be popular with boys (モテる) and that means curiously (1) no glasses and (2) no designer fashion (mode, モード). This romantic angle on consumption could end up being a very big problem for international luxury brands in that the average young Japanese girl believes her consumption of expensive and trendy clothing to be a serious impediment towards meeting boys rather than a tool for better self-presentation.

Populism and National Interests

From a populist angle, the Tokyo Girls Collection is a triumph. Girls can feel that these once “low fashion” brands are “fashion” — complete with runway shows and media attention. And honestly speaking, these brands are for the most part designed and sold by young Japanese women very similar to their consumer base. From a certain perspective, this is fashion by the people for the people — with the financial backing of some big local corporations, but not necessarily the usual suspects.

This trend towards populist fashion could lead to a serious disaster for the international brands that dominate the Japanese market if the TGC manages to challenge the Euro luxury brands or design school graduates’ sole possession of the “fashion halo.” By proudly proclaiming “soft” and “non-challenging” and “domestic” as the most important characteristics of a “good brand,” the Guccis and Chloés could hit a serious philosophical discord with their biggest consumer demographic. Over the last two decades, import luxury brands have gone from providing the entire outfit for trendy girls to now just the expensive handbag accessorizing a wardrobe constructed from cheap domestic product. And if this TGC conglomeration of brands and influential media organizations finds it necessary to redefine handbags in a more “accessible” and “real” way, things may get hairy. Coach and Samantha Thavasa are already creating an authoritative position with a much cheaper product than the traditional luxury standard.

On March 26, the TGC organizers threw a version of their 2007 Japan show in Beijing at the CHIC (China International Clothing & Accessories Fair). The Japanese government is fully behind helping these domestic brands export to the enormous Chinese market, and with Japan at the top of the fashion and entertainment hierarchy in Asia, they may be able to succeed in mass exports. In terms of national interest, the success of these brands may become a higher economic priority than the continued success of the European luxury houses. Whether this will impact how top-down trends are started remains to be seen.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.