The Changing Face of Kawaii

Kawaii fashion’s pink, sweet, and girly aesthetic has always been at the forefront of street fashion. In a world that forces you to grow up, kawaii is an outspoken refusal to follow traditional norms.
Starting with student protests in the 70s, fashionistas opted for youthful and nostalgic clothing as a symbol for self-independence. Ten years later, with this same spirit, an economic boom allowed teenagers and young adults more money to spend on developing their personal style and combined with integration of western media, new sources of fashion inspiration became open to the Japanese public. In 2009, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed three Kawaii Ambassadors as representatives of kawaii styles, to internationally rebrand Japan as a forefront of creative and technological innovation, attaching the image of kawaii to Japan’s national reputation. With kawaii culture among Japan’s prominent cultural exports, this fashion subculture stands at a unique crosspoint between counterculture, its origin, versus mass production,its future! Now in a new decade of the 2020s, what does it mean to be kawaii?

Harajuku fashion has been famous for the wide-ranging creativity birthed throughout the 90s and 2000s but now headlines proclaim: the cool kids are leaving Harajuku! The once eclectic boutiques, where youth would piece together new styles, are being replaced by fast fashion and mainstream brands. Take the case of Bubbles, the vintage boutique turned mass produced household name. Stepping in the stores gave shoppers a glimpse into the brand’s message. But in just 10 years, shoppers would be hard pressed to find any similarity. In 2011, bold candy striped walls were the background for racks of outfits straight from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Along the walls were shelves of curiosities from store owner Coi’s personal travels: hats, costume jewellery, and even a mounted deer head. With Coi regularly travelling to America to thrift, the curation of the store naturally reflected her unique personal taste. While the store’s original aura in 2011 didn’t give off the traditionally pastel stereotype of kawaii, it held the same counter cultural significance as kawaii intended: to be a loud expression of individuality. The original form of Bubbles was present at a time where multiple niches of new styles were emerging, all crafting different looks based on the common ingredient of the availability of vintage clothes: mori-kei, “80s disco”, and “neo vintage mix”. So has the spirit of kawaii gone, or has it moved into a different visual style?

The new store may embody the visual elements of kawaii, but now with mass produced rather than vintage collections, some may argue it has lost its authenticity? The clothing collections of Bubbles today hold many visual hallmarks of kawaii fashion, with girly silhouettes, frills, and soft pinks. However, this is not the same vibrant, child-like kawaii of the 2010’s Decora and Fairy Kei. 2020 is the era of Jirai kei kei (“Landmine style”), where the same girliness of traditional kawaii flirts with danger. Despite its overt cuteness, the models are styled with smokey eyeshadow, and clothing pieces with severe contrasts of black and white. These trends face a similar demographic to that of original kawaii culture – younger women and students – but, nowadays, the aesthetics of maturity is more popular overall than the direct childhood inspiration of the 2000s. Rather than directly embodying child and teenage years, incorporating younger elements for an older demographic, Jirai kei does the opposite, taking more mature and formal styles and adding in playful girly elements. On a scale from business formal to business casual, Jirai kei is business girly. Jirai kei is the new trend sweeping the streets of Harajuku, from Takeshita street to major department stores. With this new, updated look, does this mean that the image of kawaii is changing?

Some areas of Tokyo, such as Koenji, are still known for their density of thrift and upcycled fashion stores, such as Happy Birthday To You, Meno, and Gunifuni. However, Takeshita Street, once the heart of Harajuku, now showcases many mainstream stores and drop shipped goods, rather than the independent and unique storefronts of the 2000s. Each storefront still technically flaunts colourful and visually kawaii clothes. Despite the rainbow sweaters and plush backpacks, many of these goods are mass produced and drop shipped, rather than reflecting an individual’s personal vision, potentially leading to the end of kawaii’s counter cultural meaning?

Ryosangata kei, the sister style of Jirai kei, is the result of embracing this stylistic homogenization. Rather than viewing artist involvement as the only option to be truly kawaii, Ryosangata kei embraces the accessibility of cheap fast fashion. These wearers often overlap with Jirai kei – after all, it is one of the most popular right now! The term “Ryosangata” originally derogatorily aimed at young women, claiming that their styles were identical to each other. People assumed that their style choices were based on whatever was fast and trendy, rather than wearers having creative individuality. In reality, wearers of Ryosangata lean into stylistic similarities because they view a shared style as a form of community. If you have a passion for cute clothes, it’s even more fun to share that love of kawaii with others! Ryosangata is a conscious choice to seek solidarity in overtly feminine expression, not an easy susceptibility to fast fashion. If the personal fashion aspect of kawaii is separated out from people who enjoy wearing kawaii styles, the focus on community is revealed to be an underlying value.

While Jirai kei and Ryosangata kei offer darker, more mature takes on traditional kawaii, other brands are looking to the future entirely. Mikio Sakabe’s pieces are what someone from 2050 would imagine kawaii to be. Most fashion fanatics have seen Sakabe’s collaboration with shoe designer GROUNDS. The popular platform sneakers with bubble soles either conjure the image of the wearer walking on delicate foam, or on strange alien eggs. Jenny Fax, Mikio Sakabe’s sister brand, has even done a collaboration with lolita brand Angelic Pretty! It doesn’t get more iconic than that. Sakabe melds street fashion with high fashion, producing kitschy ribbon-adorned designs that, even when photographed in classy black and white, is unabashedly kawaii. His work spreads kawaii design motifs into more spaces, including being a large proponent of genderless fashion, where his styling is androgynous despite kawaii’s traditionally female association. In addition, his self-proclaimed love for Otaku culture leads Mikio Sakabe to design true to his own interests, without caring about what others think!

New brands are continuing the original countercultural vision of kawaii into new realms. In the 2020s, it might not continue to be the pinnacle of pink, but by no means is it dying. kawaii is evolving, combining interests of international fans and fashion designers, ranging from runways, to department stores, to personal wardrobes.

Written by Selina.

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