Tokyo designers go beyond ‘kawaii’

Written by Dan Bailey, CNNTokyo, Japan

For more than a decade, Tokyo Fashion Week has fought to cement the city as Asia’s fashion capital. But while there’s certainly stiff competition from Seoul and Shanghai, Tokyo designers’ biggest challenge seems to be overcoming the city’s own reputation.

When visiting the city, fashion insiders come with expectations that range from the avant-garde (thanks, Comme des Garçons) to the outlandish “kawaii” fashions popularized on the streets. Here’s how designers defied convention for the Spring-Summer 2019.

A model walking the Jenny Fax show as part of Tokyo Fashion Week.

A model walking the Jenny Fax show as part of Tokyo Fashion Week. Credit: Koji Hirano/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images

Unlikely collaborations

This season saw several exciting synergies. Masanori Morikawa, head of unisex brand Christian Dada, and menswear minimalist Shinpei Yamagishi of Bed J.W. Ford presented a luxurious joint show; N.Hoolywood designer Daisuke Obana teamed up with both Umbro and Converse; and Jenny Fax presented her first collaboration with stylist Lotta Volkova (of Vetements and Balenciaga fame), a vision of femininity through the lens of Asian pop culture.

Perhaps the most unexpected partnership was between self-described “unisex mode street brand” Acuod by Chanu, and Lego, which resulted in striking multicolored face masks and decorative headpieces.

A model wearing a headpiece inspired by a collaboration between unisex street brand ACUOD by CHANU and LEGO.

A model wearing a headpiece inspired by a collaboration between unisex street brand ACUOD by CHANU and LEGO. Credit: Dan Bailey

The art of performance

Anyone can play a track to accompany their show. But in Tokyo, live performances dominated.

Guests at Shohei, by fashion week first-timer Lisa Pek, were serenaded by singer-songwriter Julia Shortreed, while models walked in time with a live percussionist at Akari Miyazu.

Elsewhere, Ohal Ando’s brand Middla presented its collection to a soundtrack by Tokyo’s Rev Saxophone Quartet, and Anrealage’s 15th anniversary show
was scored by musician Ichiro Yamaguchi and DJ Shotaro Aoyama.

But not all the performances were musical. Model Emi Suzuki enlisted multimedia artist Yoichi Ochiai and producer Kaito Sakuma a.k.a BATIC to direct lighting and sound for her new label, Lautashi, elevating the presentation from simple showcase to an immersive audio-visual experience.

Paradox Tokyo x Muze SS 2019.

Paradox Tokyo x Muze SS 2019. Credit: Paradox Tokyo

And, in keeping with the spirit of collaboration, streetwear brand Paradox Tokyo joined forces with Muze for a show that opened with a traditional cheering “essa” performance by athletes from Nihon University.

The show’s diverse cast included Paralympic ice hockey player Wataru Horie, kickboxer Takeru Segawa, and director and producer Terry Ito.

A big-name backer

Japanese brands have long struggled to find greater relevance and visibility outside of fashion week. Even during the show seasons, young designers’ can find it hard to attract influential editors and industry figures to fill their front rows.

So, it’s surprise that, for all the independent collaborations, the brands that made the biggest splash were those who were supported by the At Tokyo program funded by Amazon, Tokyo Fashion Week’s official sponsor.

Partnerships like this offer smaller, as well as newer brands such as Lautashi, financial backing to present their collections. There is also publicity support and opportunities for collaborative merchandise.

Their prominence at Tokyo Fashion Week is a reminder that perhaps graduating from a top fashion school isn’t enough, and that young designers — for better or worse — need commercial connections, not just creativity, to drive their brands forward.

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