Following on from our coverage of the Akiba Noise 2.0 exhibition on the main site, we thought it deserved a closer look here as well from a less general fashion perspective.  One of the most important changes in Akihabara culture at large has without a doubt been the advent of the internet and how an area that used to require you to actually be there to partake in it, has now seen its identity disseminated not only online, but also worldwide.  Undeniably this has been key in attracting different people to the culture of the digital space, whether as contributors, or as users who would normally be put off by the occasionally intimidating reality, and it would also be fair to say that this phenomena has in turn probably brought a more diverse crowd to the physical space over time.  As someone with observer status this is rarely an issue for me personally, and indeed, the act of observing is all the more easier to do when things are actually changing.

However, for both the digital user who feels they should have a say on what Akihabara culture “is”, or those on the street actually defining it, this does create an element of friction, particularly in the case of fashion.   There are those who have an attitude that one should not exhibit the culture so publicly, even as the Yanki’s drive by in their ita-sha, or else those who scorn it as they falsely accuse the majority of women involved of lacking agency, but that is a whole other topic entirely.  In short this friction comes down to the difference between those actively involved in this culture in reality and those whose virtual voyeurism keeps them at a distance that ironically develops its own codes and culture.  For example, you cannot compare idol fans who spend the majority of their time participating in the culture on the ground with those who only venture out occasionally, the act of actually “being there” tends to change how you interact with a culture and the palpable difference between the atmosphere at a hand-shaking event or the energy of a concert is evidence of that.

I think this is topic increasingly relevant to fashion these days as well, the forums and tumblrs of the fashion internet have created people who experience fashion in an entirely digital space, venturing out only rarely actually wearing the clothes they collect.  Likewise their relationship with fashion is fundamentally different from those who live it, and once again as an observer I have no stake in either camp.

The tipping point comes when these two worlds start to collide, and once again Tokyo in general has proved a front-runner for that, with Akihabara fashion in particular being the front-line.  The mix of internet fashion culture with real/urban fashion culture is the zeitgeist of the moment, a mixing pot to spit out a new aesthetic and code from the complete saturation.  Join me now as we get closer and closer to the work at the Akiba Noise 2.0 exhibition until all you can see is a blur of an idea, but there is definitely something concrete to come:

Stand by for 3.0 next season and rest assured that we have a whole host of Akihabara Fashion for you to enjoy soon.

Ero-kawaii has always presented the fashion world with something of a problem, not least because Japanese fashion is actually very conservative on the whole, but mostly because the pre-existing ero-kawaii art and illustration scene comes laden with controversy and accusations of misogyny that even leaders of the field such as Aika Makoto can’t shake off.  It is one of those situations where you end up defending the indefensible, if you claim that designers such as Rurumu (full report here) have some interesting points to make about gender and society through ero-kawaii elements in the work (which I do), you also have to accept some pretty dodgy stuff into your definition of fashion – and even those who walk the thin line well, such as Lady Spade, do cross the line on occasion to the point where it is hard to justify the whole as credible.

If that is the situation in Japan then it is a situation worsened ten fold the moment you take this kind of fashion abroad where people looking at normal Lolita fashion, nevermind ero-lolita fashion, see ageplay, and the overall perception of Japanese women remains stuck in something of a colonial bubble on the whole.  Personally it makes it a topic I avoid unless the overall message is empowering as even if I put ero-kawaii fashion in the correct context, all is takes is a reblog on tumblr of a single image to strip it of its context and then suddenly we are perpetuating stereotypes once again.

That is precisely why I am such an advocate of Keisuke Kanda, Mikio Sakabe and newcomers such as Otona Toy (report coming soon) who handle the same issues without the potential for sexualization that inherently come from the ero-kawaii genre.  That means there is a whole lot that won’t see the light of day, from strip fashion shows by h.Naoto to some of the racier work from Chaos Lounge, regrettably we just aren’t ready for it yet.

The collection review is up on the main site (here) for Mikio Sakabe’s fantastic AW 2013-14, but I thought I would add a couple of comments here from the perspective of this sub0cultural leaning site.  Personally it was gratifying to see Mikio so obviously reference Nakano Broadway (A place close to his atelier, TT Towers and indeed my heart) in the collection, it is a place that used to be, and to a degree still is, the original hub of cosplay, dojinshi and other otaku created, rather than otaku targeted work.  Obviously in recent years that has contorted to become a business in its own right, but there used to be a time when Nakano Broadway was the home of all that was grass roots creation.

It was a creation that grew out of failure, the economic failure of the 80s certainly, but also a cultural failure as mainstream Japanese tastes turned their back on an otaku culture in the mid to late 80s, ending with the mass panic over Miyazaki in 1989.  This led to Nakano Broadway becoming an area unapologetically focused on the unacceptable (dame), but where indulgences are indulged and I dare say, I man could dress in full on Mikio Sakabe and be accepted.  This counter society stance combined with that against the Japanese fixation over “coming of age” and hyper gender defined roles in the mainstream are the context that make this collection such a triumph – in effect Mikio’s men models had turned their back on all that is cherished by traditional values.  These may be themes well considered in the art world, but to tackle them head-on in fashion in a manner that will see these provocative questions on the street is as exciting for me as Chim-Pom’s ability to confront the public with their art.  I also can’t help but feel that now that otaku culture in its purest forms seldom crosses into anything verging on the publicly acceptable, and yet the stock of Japanese fashion is high both domestically and abroad, that this might be the best way to confront this issues in society and culture.

At the very least I look forward to spotting the work in Nakano Boradway one day soon.

It is fair to say that youth street fashion has defined most of the fashion to become representative of Japanese fashion over the last decade, and Akihabara fashion is no different.  However, in the case of women’s Akihabara, or Akiba-mix or anime (some academics still refer to Spank/fairy-kei fashion as “anime” fashion), you actually have to look outside the streets of Akihabara to find the sparks which caused the genre to ignite.  Ari’s vintage shop Cult Party, which is now in its second iteration as The Virgin Mary on the Shibuya/Harajuku border, was without a doubt the nucleus of the movement, starting at Cult Party and its strong connections with designer Keisuke Kanda in Koenji before graduating to the more mainstream direction at the aforementioned Virgin Mary.

Ari has always seen culture and fashion as a single force, uniting music and art with the fashion to the point where if you are not in the bubble you quite simply do not get it.  It really is a lifestyle commitment on a level with Lolita fashion, but a whole lot more insular, even if it enjoys many fans who just like to live on the cusp looking in.

It is a topic I am going into much greater detail in through a related project I am working on right now, but broadly speaking the look takes on elements of male otaku culture, but processes them through a distinctly feminine eye.  The signifiers of predominantly male bishoujo drawing style are repurposed through the more hand-drawn and softer aesthetic beloved by female fans, an ironic move seeing as bishoujo illustration style was originally derived from shoujo style aimed at men.  From there designers like Keisuke Kanda take the lead on designer fashion, but Ari makes it reality through repurposed vintage and even styled a fashion show in her own unique way.

The look takes the proportions of young girls straight out of anime, as well as certain visual signifiers of character types (i.e. the cat ears), but places them on vagabond piles of fabric, discolored and worn.  The make-up and facial expressions adopted are dour and are a gulf away from the inviting faces of maids or male otaku imagery.

 The bag here is Keisuke Kanda, parodying the designer handbag in paper, highlighting the theme of girls who are not going to grow up, but in their own distinct way, not conforming to either mainstream or male otaku archetypes of attractive women.

Where they go from here remains to be seen, but it is doubtless going to be very interesting watching events unfold.