The long-standing Japanese culture of cute, known as Kawaii, is toning down its lather.
The style was once all about female femininity: encouraging women to exude childish sweetness through their wardrobes, restaurant preferences and even their tone of voice, with an often unsettling effect. But as seen by WWD in cities like Fukuoka, Okayama, Hiroshima, Nagoya, Osaka, and Tokyo, the frilly, youth-centric style is now imbued with an athletic backdrop, offering a stronger feminine ideal.
Its recent switch to pink is cut with the same sense of sportiness that permeates the United States and Europe, albeit for a different reason.
In its truest form, Kawaii was a subculture that saw women of all ages stacking up on tousled ephemera to flamboyantly express their individuality. The tradition began to flourish in the 1970s with the creation of cartoon houses like Sanrio, creator of Hello Kitty. It has taken a brutal business turn over the past decade, becoming one of Japan’s most lucrative style exports, and is reflected across the country with cute characters, embellishments and sounds dotting the cultural landscape. from the country.
But now, to counteract that youthful femininity, style-conscious teens and young women have started to layer athletic clothes into their outfits.
Hair ties and knee socks can still be sold by the spade, but a cool girl wouldn’t wear them with a petticoat and lace backpack anymore. Instead, the knee socks can be of the Nike football variety, tucked into Teva platform sandals, worn with a tennis skirt, tongue-in-cheek t-shirt, and a steam wave holographic visor – mats that come out from below. A walk after school hours in the neighborhoods of Harajuku in Tokyo, Shinsaibashi in Osaka or Daimyo in Fukuoka would let glimpse cliques in do-it-yourself sportswear – some with neon tulle saddlebags sewn onto t- Oversized Reebok shirts, creating something of a free-form dress.
But the Japanese don’t look to athletics as a sartorial inspiration with the same exercise-induced mentality that Western consumers do. While many Americans may wear workout clothes for a tangential association to the current health craze, the Japanese do so in reaction to the fragility that came before them.
“I don’t think it sounds healthy, it’s purely a style statement,” Tokyo-based French fashion designer Julien David said of the sportswear boom. in the country.
âThe biggest change in Kawaii is that it’s less scary than it used to be,â said Anne Ishii, owner of clothing brand Massive Goods who divides her time between New York and Tokyo. “It used to be youthful cuteness, and now it’s just plain cute.”
The passionate model, photographer and japonophile Marcel Castenmiller: âThe [original Kawaii] generation is growing up – you can’t dress like that and have kids. The generation is fading and the new generation is not interested [in Kawaii] so much – a lot of people are scared of it.
When layered with tulle, handkerchiefs and hair clips, these new sportswear act like a balance number – toning down lather and expressing a new, stronger feminine ideal that in many ways mimics the meaning of entrepreneurship and increasing independence among Japanese women. According to data pulled by Japan’s largest crowdfunding firm, ReadyFor ?, the number of entrepreneurial and nonprofit projects uploaded to the site by women has increased by 50% in the past year.
Fashion consultant, flower designer and Nikkei collaborator Rie Ehara says the shift in Japanese women’s understanding of cute may have something to do with the liberating effects of social media. âNow more women are questioning their dreams because of social media. I think entrepreneurship is developing among women, especially as side projects. It’s a big change. But there are not many women entrepreneurs yet because there is a fear of failure, which is very shameful here. Japan is still a human-centered society.
Female athletes – and their associated wardrobes – are themselves unusual in a culture that generally values ââneo-romantic ideals of physical fragility.
Kawaii’s sportier vibe can be felt at a wide range of retailers: high-end (like Isetan’s contemporary floors), DIY (sandy stalls in Koenji’s Kitakore building), and the general public (stalls in Shibuya 109 and the many micro-shops bordering Jingumae).
While just a few years ago hyper-girly brands like Marc Jacobs ‘Louis Vuitton were a source of inspiration for the Japanese shopping street, it is now more daring brands like Marques’ Almeida and JW Anderson – who often play with gender constructs – which are the most referenced.
In Harajuku, Tokyo’s Nadia Corazon store, peasant blouses constructed from old Nike T-shirts are sold for $ 55. Osaka’s Kitahorie store named Kitty sells dresses made from old Adidas t-shirts, with pink tulle cascading from the hem – priced at $ 65.
Such reinterpretations of Adidas have become commonplace. In fact, the German company has created a buzz among younger shoppers, who are clamoring its many major retail outposts across the country for activewear to mix into their wardrobes. The Adidas department’s outings inside the Isetan flagship in Shinjuku are known to draw long lines like Supreme. Consumer appetites are so strong that many second-hand stores have started to carry vintage tracksuits in now hard-to-find colourways and obsolete, technological aluminum foil materials.
This tomboy change isn’t exclusive to clothing. From changes in makeup patterns to TV cartoons, a toning down of the female aesthetic is taking shape nationwide.
While Japanese grooming standards once emphasized pink tones, red hues are starting to take their place – with cool girls sporting matte red lips and a simple wash of red just above their cheekbones.
Popular cartoon characters released by Sanrio and San-X tone down their sweet background. An egg yolk figure named Gudetama (meaning “lazy egg”) – caught fire in a market that was yearning for pouting teddy bears and lopsided rabbits. Gudetama’s popularity lends itself to male and female fans, food, household items, and Tchotchke memorabilia. Due to his egg shape, the character now has a national TV show that airs every day for breakfast.
Beyond the virtual, human media personalities have also begun to express a less overtly feminine sentiment. Just a few years ago, cutesy characters like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu were considered demagogues. But now a more cheeky new wave has taken their place. Instagram star BopMappy, DJ and fashion designer Mademoiselle Yulia and model Rola exemplify this stronger ideal.
But according to Ishii – whose brand appears to challenge gender conventions through graphic imagery – athletics could be Japan’s path to pre-90s female understanding.
âThere was virtue in being a strong woman, before the 90s. [The early 2000s bubblegum pop girlsâ group] AKB48 just wreaked havoc [in the larger culture], but I think this [Kawaii moment] is a [historical] exception. There were things before and after. What’s happening now is more consistent with how Japanese feminine values ââexisted before this last decade-and-a-half obsession with a youthful sense of sexy.