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Tokyo’s Tastemakers: Tracing TikTok’s Fashion Trends Back to Harajuku

LESS IS MORE. Or so has been the custom of high society and mainstream fashion for ages. “Before you leave the house,” Coco Chanel once said, “look in the mirror and take one thing off.” It’s a sleek, chic finish that works whether you’re stepping into the office or red carpet. 

But stroll through the streets of New York this week—whether it’s Washington Square Park, Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, or Fifth Ave. Catch a glimpse of the art students trickling out from Parsons, or the influencers strutting in Times Square—and you’ll see that Gen Z’s got a new fashion playbook. Rule 1? More is more: think more layers, less cohesion, and accessories galore. 

For some, that Marie-Kondo, millennial-coded minimalism has just been slapped with a sparkly expiry date, and maximalism is here in all its glory. It’s a style that has its fingers in every sartorial pie, driving the core influence behind the subcultures that have fashion fanatics in a chokehold. Trending topics include coquette, subversive, or “#aaliyahcore” —all embracing dopamine dressing with childlike charm, imagination, or hyperfeminine flair. We’ve got TikTok to thank for this explosion of personal style and individuality—popularizing looks that have sent haute couture houses side-eyeing and scrambling to catch up.

Trending Gen Z Subcultures

Fashion, though, has always been cyclical—and sure enough, these addictively outrageous, seemingly radical looks made their debut nearly 50 years ago. Across the world, where an underground fashion hub was humming to life—in East Asia.

TOKYO, JAPAN, 1970. The World Wars and 1964 Tokyo Olympics had injected American language and culture into the veins of Shibuya, attracting photographers, artists, and designers with its bustling downtown nightlife and international character. Baby boomers were kindling start-ups, fueling dozens of indie designers that contributed to the flourishing youth fashion scene. On Sundays, teens paraded in their handmade pieces through their makeshift runway: a park coined “Pedestrian Paradise,” where young designers came to merge creative visions.

The economic boom of the 80s spurred the country’s then-dormant social growth. Like a wire connecting the closed-off nation to global markets, all of Japan’s creative circuits lit up at once. While the West went through gradual evolutions of style, Japan’s exposure to every era in the blink of an eye gave way to an outburst of anachronistic aesthetics. Lolita, kitschy Decora, Vkei and Gyaru, just to name a few—each more accessorised than the last. 

90s Harajuku Fashion

Yet a movement wouldn’t be anything without its mouthpiece—and maximalism found its home in the youth. The 90s recession sent disillusioned teens yearning for a stronger sense of identity, feeling alienated from wider society and compelled to question the meaning and function of fashion as a whole. An independence from institutions, induced by sociopolitical strife—sound familiar? These attitudes, which catalysed the overload of decorated, subversive dress in Harajuku, simultaneously laid the blueprint for its revival in Gen Z’s closet today. 

“Climate-change nihilism, information saturation, streaming-era content overload, and out collective Long Covid of the soul,” Judy Berman from Time adds, is the equivalent for kids today. A “20-year nostalgia cycle” that leads to desensitisation en masse, and our all-too-familiar joke of needing to “feel something.”

Gen Z Style Influencers

A MOVEMENT SPARKED BY THE YOUTH, FOR THE YOUTH. Harajuku maximalism thrived as a kaleidoscope of cultures, textures, and attitudes—an image free from name brands or fleeting trends. And if the kids set Harajuku in motion, it was the explosive success of 90s street fashion journalism that gave it flight. Kera, Cutie, Tune, and FRUiTs (whose founder recently worked with Beabadoobee) were household names. The business model was deceptively simple: photograph real teenagers with eye-catching fits right in the streets of Harajuku. The catch? Brands hired high school students as stylists, trend forecasters, and writers, completely unheard of in high fashion houses. Harajuku was a “nucleus of this positive creative boom in Japan,” FRUiTs mastermind Shoichi Aoki explains, “and much like the punk revolution of the late 70s, it was a time for a generation of kids to shout out who they are and why they’re here.”

FRUiTS Magazine Covers

“All fashion designers today are influenced by Harajuku,” Karl Lagerfeld—once creative director of Chanel—muses. And yet few people acknowledge it today, sweeping its history under the blanket term of “TikTok fashion.”

Come 2017, fashion retail chains were cleaving Harajuku into homogenous shopping districts. FRUiTs magazine shut down the same year, with Aoki simply sighing that there were “no more cool kids to photograph” and sending the underground fashion scene reeling from the loss of its key tastemakers. It’s a defeatist statement that may have foreshadowed Gen Z’s eclectic approach to fashion post-pandemic, too: fast fashion cannibalising indie designers and replacing Harajuku’s originality with a diluted parody of its glory days. 

Yet Chris Tordoff, founder of the nostalgic FRUiTS Magazine Archive, thinks the age of social media might have a silver lining—one that could kickstart the iconic genre’s revival. The age of Instagram marketing has allowed for another wave of Westernisation mixing with distinct Japanese style, and the pandemic years effectively staunched the conglomerate influences commodifying Harajuku’s organic fashion scene. “The droves of tourists that once engulfed Harajuku have ceased and allowed the kids to find their style voices,” Aoki says. “Harajuku can breathe again.”

With an influence already so internationally widespread, and its birthplace on the brink of another projected style revolution, it looks like maximalism is only on its way to continue evolving. And as we hurtle towards a worldwide recession—prompting consumers to get more wear out of a limited inventory—it looks like Japan’s underground fashion sector might get its long-awaited place under the global spotlight, after all.

Tokyo Fashion Week Looks Fall 2023, Vogue

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