How Tokyo Locals Have Rewritten The Rules When It Comes To Fashion

Tokyo is synonymous with a self-assured approach to personal style that sets trends rather than follows them. Dan Ahwa takes a closer look at how the locals have rewritten their own rules for dressing


Photo / Getty Images

City-specific style tropes can be tiresome. A Parisian’s dishevelled bed-hair and red lipstick, a New Yorker’s black skivvy. However when it comes to Tokyo’s relationship with style, you’ll never be bored.

From high fashion to high-cosplay, individuality and self-expression is what makes a Tokyoite tick, whether dressed in full rockabilly get-up or wafting across Shibuya crossing in an organic Japanese linen smock with a pair of multi-coloured Onitsuka Tiger trainers.

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Yes the Cyber Punk and the eternal romance of the Harajuku Girl with lace-trimmed parasol still exists, but Tokyo style is so much more than that. Dig deeper and you’ll discover multiple layers of sub-cultures that cater to the whims of the city’s style-obsessed.

Photos / Babiche Martens

Twice a year it plays host to its own fashion week, widely considered the most important in Asia, with designers showcasing across Tokyo in locations such as Shibuya, Hikarie and Omotesando Hills. Never mind the international press and buyers who already appreciate the distinctive flair of Japanese design; Tokyo is a city big and varied enough to sustain its domestic market’s appetite for avant-garde fashion. And I mean serious, unfiltered fashion, plucked straight off the runway and styled for the streets.

After all, Tokyo is the home of genuine street style — pre-dating the current glut of influencers being paid to wear borrowed clothes — well-documented in magazines like the now-defunct Fruits, founded by photographer Shoichi Aoki in 1997, which provided a platform to showcase Tokyo’s street style scene.

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Upwardly mobile locals are spending up large on fashion and beauty goods, the latter proving especially lucrative recently due to Japan’s increasingly greying population.

For a Tokyo millennial living at home or in a shoebox apartment, self-expression is paramount and they have the money and means to buy luxury fashion compared with previous generations. But they’ll wear it their way of course, not head to toe in designer brands, but cleverly mixed with vintage gems or homemade treasures. Taking a magpie approach to dressing is what locals do particularly well, providing plenty of inspiration for fashion editors and stylists overseas.

Photos / Babiche Martens

There are ubiquitous sub-cultures, but some style tribes are a little more defined to their areas; whether it’s the retro revival in Koenji, where psychedelic fashion is prominent within the many vintage outlets, or the tanned designer-clad men and women who stalk Rippongi Hills like extras from a Japanese version of The Only Way is Essex, Tokyo style is limitless in its pursuits.

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In glossy Ginza, I find myself escaping the 32-degree heat at the tail-end of May, and finding sweet relief in the air-conditioned hallowed halls at one of Tokyo’s most revered fashion meccas — Dover Street Market. Sure there is the shiny veneer of Omotesando Hills or the grit of Harajuku, but for serious fashion purists, this is home to Japan’s fashion Queen Bee, Rei Kawakubo, who — along with husband Adrian Joffe — has created a multi-brand luxury fashion experience with popular outposts in New York, Singapore, Los Angeles and Beijing.

I feel clunky in my Birkenstocks and a tourist cap, linen shirt sticking to my back as a sales assistant with a completely matte face floats by wearing a quilted jacket/dress/shirt hybrid that probably requires an accompanying manual. “Irasshaimase” she purrs as I self-consciously finger the edge of a trenchcoat from Japanese luxury label Sacai.

Photos / Getty Images

Womenswear is a major market for Tokyo, and brands are a dime-a-dozen catering to such diverse tastes; from the girly-glamour of Gyaru style to the various incarnations of Lolita fashion.

Whether it’s the various vintage outlets — Kinji (great selection of shirts and denim), Flamingo (several outlets, Alexa Chung-approved), Vintage QOO (designer handbags and accessories), Pass The Baton (charming consignment store with a great selection of homewares); or its super malls like Shibuya 109 and La Foret, the options are endless.

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La Foret’s 13 floor maze of boutiques is the perfect place to observe Tokyo’s style tribes in their natural habitat, as diverse boutiques stand shoulder to shoulder like competitive alma maters vying for the attentions of the most fashion-obsessed women in the world.

It’s in Harajuku where I come to the conclusion that the most stylish men on the planet reside in Tokyo. It’s a controversial opinion considering the razor-sharp history of London’s Savile Row or the Italian Peacocks in Milan and Rome, but in Tokyo, men are able to pull things together that wouldn’t normally work, and somehow look convincingly good. A purple felt fedora, denim coat, neckerchief and platform sneakers might elicit stares down Ponsonby Rd, but amid the winding passageways of Harajuku, it’s a look worn with unapologetic conviction.

(From left) Issey Miyake fall 2019; Comme des Garcons fall 2019; Junya Watanabe fall 2019; Sacai fall 2019; Yohji Yamamoto fall 2019. Photos / Getty Images

There’s fluidity and confidence in men’s dressing that harks back to Japan’s history of genderless fashion, where men and women wore kimonos in opulent textiles. Specialist stores catering to menswear dominate the retail landscape, in some parts more so than womenswear. It’s not unusual to see menswear stores lined up within a few hundred meters from one another, highlighting a society that gives men permission to express themselves creatively through clothing.

It’s a city that has influenced street and skate cultures too. From the 90s revival of urban clothing line, A Bathing Ape (Bape) founded by record producer, DJ and entrepreneur Nigo, whose current label Human Made is inspired by 60s American workwear; to the popular denim brand Evisu, Tokyo’s menswear has played an important part in setting global menswear trends, particularly in Los Angeles, where an appreciation of denim and kitsch provides a natural style connection between the two cities.

Next time you’re shopping in Tokyo — whether it’s at Tomorrowland (the popular luxury multi-brand store) or Uniqlo — remember Tokyo style is not what you’re wearing but how you wear it. Just be sure to take your shoes off in the fitting room.

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