Japan’s long-standing culture of cute, known as Kawaii, is toning down its froth.
The style was once entirely focused on girlish femininity: encouraging women to exude a childlike sweetness through their wardrobe, restaurant preferences, and even their tone of voice, to an often-unsettling effect. But as observed by WWD in cities including Fukuoka, Okayama, Hiroshima, Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo, the frilly, youth-centric style is now imbued with an athletic context, proposing a stronger feminine ideal.
Its recent shift out of the pink is cut with the same sense of sportiness that is pervading the U.S. and Europe — albeit for a different reason.
In its truest form, Kawaii was a subculture that saw women of all ages piling on ruffled ephemera to flamboyantly express their individuality. The tradition began its rise in the Seventies with the establishment of cartoon houses like Sanrio, creator of Hello Kitty. It took a sharp commercial turn in the last decade, becoming one of Japan’s most lucrative style exports, and is reflected nationwide with cutesy characters, embellishments and sounds dotting the country’s cultural landscape.
But now, countering this juvenile femininity, style-conscious teens and young women have begun layering athletic clothes into their outfits.
Hair bows and knee socks may still be sold in spades, but a cool girl would no longer wear them with a petticoat and lacy backpack. Rather, the knee socks may be of the Nike soccer varietal, tucked into platform Teva sandals, worn with a tennis skirt, an ironic T-shirt, and a vaporwave holographic visor — pigtails peering out from underneath. An after-school-hours stroll through Tokyo’s Harajuku, Osaka’s Shinsaibashi, or Fukuoka’s Daimyo neighborhoods would yield glimpses of cliques in do-it-yourself athletic gear — some with panniers of neon tulle sewn onto oversize Reebok T-shirts, creating something of a free-form dress.
But the Japanese are not looking to athletics for sartorial inspiration with the same exercise-induced mentality that Western consumers are. While many Americans may wear workout clothes for a tangential association to the current health craze, the Japanese do so in a reaction against the frilliness that came before.
“I don’t think it’s to appear to be healthy, it’s purely a style statement,” Tokyo-based French fashion designer Julien David said of activewear’s rise in the country.
“The biggest shift in Kawaii is that it’s less creepy than it used to be,” said Anne Ishii, an owner of clothing label Massive Goods who splits her time between New York and Tokyo. “It used to be cuteness predicated on youth, and now it’s just cute.”
Said model, photographer and avid Japanophile Marcel Castenmiller: “The [original Kawaii] generation is growing up — you can’t dress like that and have kids. The generation has been fading out and the new generation isn’t interested [in Kawaii] as much — a lot of people are creeped out by it.”
When layered with tulle, handkerchiefs and hair clips, these new athletic clothes act as a balancing act — toning down the froth and expressing a new, stronger feminine ideal that in many ways mimics the sense of entrepreneurialism and independence rising amongst Japanese women. According to data mined by Japan’s largest crowdfunding company, ReadyFor?, the number of entrepreneurial and nonprofit projects uploaded to the site by women has spiked by 50 percent in the last year.
According to fashion consultant, floral designer and Nikkei contributor Rie Ehara, the shift in Japanese women’s understanding of cute could have something to do with the liberating effects of social media. “Now, more women challenge their dreams because of social media. I think entrepreneurialism is growing among women — especially as side projects. That’s a big change. But there are still not many female entrepreneurs because there is a fear of failing — which is very shameful here. Japan is still a man-centered society.”
Female athletes — and their associated wardrobe — are themselves uncharacteristic in a culture that generally values neo-romantic ideals of physical fragility.
Kawaii’s sportier mood can be felt at a spectrum of retailers: the high-end (like Isetan’s contemporary floors), the DIY (gritty stalls within Koenji’s Kitakore building) and the mainstream (booths within Shibuya 109 and the many micro boutiques lining Jingumae).
While just a few years ago hyper-girly brands like Marc Jacobs’ Louis Vuitton provided knock-off inspiration for the Japanese high street, it is now edgier labels like Marques’ Almeida and J.W. Anderson — both of which often toy with gender constructs — that are the most heavily referenced.
At Harajuku, Tokyo store Nadia Corazon, peasant blouses constructed of old Nike T-shirts are sold for $55. The Kitahorie, Osaka shop named Kitty sells dresses made of old Adidas T-shirts, with pink tulle cascading from the hem — priced at $65.
Such Adidas reinterpretations have become commonplace. In fact, the German firm has instated a craze among young shoppers, who clamor to its many sizable retail outposts across the country for athletic garments to mix in to their wardrobes. Releases at the Adidas department inside Isetan’s Shinjuku flagship are known to draw long lines akin to Supreme. Consumer appetite is so strong that many secondhand stores have begun stocking vintage tracksuits in now-hard-to-find color ways and outdated tin-foil-weight tech materials.
This tomboyish shift is not exclusive to apparel. From changes in makeup motifs to TV cartoons, a toning down of girlish aesthetics is taking shape nationwide.
While Japanese grooming standards once placed an emphasis on pink color tones, red hues are beginning to take their place — with cool girls wearing matte red lips and a sheer wash of rouge just above their cheekbones.
Popular cartoon characters issued by Sanrio and San-X are toning down their saccharine context. An egg yolk character named Gudetama (meaning ‘lazy egg’) — has caught fire in a market that used to pine for pouty teddy bears and lopsided bunnies. Gudetama’s popularity lends itself to male and female fans, food, housewares and tchotchke memorabilia. Owing to his egg form, the character now has a national TV show aired each day at breakfast.
Beyond just virtual, human media figures have also begun exhibiting a less overtly feminine sentiment. Just a few years ago, cutesy personas like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu were regarded with demagogue status. But now, a new, sassier 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 looks challenge gender conventions through graphic imagery — athleticism could be Japan’s way back to pre-Nineties female understanding.
“There was virtue in being a strong woman, before the Nineties. [The early 2000s bubblegum pop girls’ group] AKB48 just wreaked so much havoc [in the larger culture], but I do think that this [Kawaii moment] is a [historical] exception. There was stuff before it, and after it. What’s happening now is more consistent with the way Japanese female values existed before this past decade-and-a-half obsession with a juvenile sense of sexy.”