Tokyo's army of fashion goths, dressed in all black.

TOKYO — Harajuku’s winding streets are a counterculture litmus test. The Japanese, regarded for their aesthetic sensitivity, have in the past offered tiered ruffles or neon jesters as a fashionable reaction to our times. But that exuberance here has taken a somber turn. The district is now home to an army of hipsters dressed in head-to-toe black — a Goth for the new era.

Much like the original Goth movement’s protest against Eighties excess, Japanese hip-makers’ gloomy looks are a reaction to social media overload and a rejection of the cutesy, pink Kawaii styles that have defined Tokyo’s style for two-plus decades.

Teens spotted in the Laforet Harajuku youth mall.

Teens spotted in the Laforet Harajuku youth mall.  WWD

Last year, as reported by WWD, the area’s streets had shown early signs of subdual — with fashionable teens wearing streamlined versions of the ebullience that was once a Harajuku signature. This summer marked another step away from the mixed prints and zany color combinations, with black vintage Victorian mourning tops, oversize tailoring, lace shirting and dark streetwear combined solely for textural contrast — appearing something like a bleak uniform.

Resembling the early-Eighties fashions of Nick Cave and The Cure’s Robert Smith, teens layer their black cloaks, heavy eyeliner and theological jewelry with a whiff of eccentricity — an homage to Gothic-inclined looks by Japanese brands like Comme des Garçons, in which Japanese Millennials say they have recently found new interest.

Heath, from left, Richard Fortus of Guns N Roses, and Toshi of X Japan perform at the Coachella Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club on Saturday, April 21, 2018, in Indio, Calif. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

X Japan performs at the 2018 Coachella Festival.  Amy Harris/Invision/AP

The Goth movement began in late-Seventies England and made its way to Japan by the end of the following decade. Here, it merged with visual elements of the punk movement, creating a new style called Visual Kei — a unique subset that encompassed music and dress.

While the dark aesthetic had fallen from popularity, it has recently experienced renewed interest. X Japan — Visual Kei’s ultimate band — played a set at this year’s Coachella Festival, sharing the stage with Marilyn Manson.

X Japan’s looks — a cross between Eighties hair bands and late punk — are evoked in images shared by the popular street-style Instagram account Drop Tokyo. All-black ensembles — worn by men and women — are accessorized with crosses, blackout sunglasses and angular haircuts, taking residence in closets where rainbow wigs, oversize bows and Lolita tutus were once favored.

Japanese hipsters spotted across Tokyo.

Japanese hipsters spotted across Tokyo.  WWD

In Harajuku — an area where fringe subcultures and fashion boppers intermingle — there is now a clear delineation amongst various Goth factions. Fashion Goths eagerly posed for photos with veteran skill. Rather than offering peace sign fingers and a cherubic pout, as they were once known to do, the scenesters’ new poses see them sulking. True Goths, however — known for their pious self-reserve — declined to be photographed when approached by WWD.

Some observers say the new wave fashion Goth look — worn by Tokyo’s teenage fashion addicts, more so than mainstream consumers — is a movement away from “Instagenic” style, the bright and trendy fashion worn to ensnare likes on the social network.

Maina Imura, a buyer for bluechip Tokyo vintage stores Pinnap and Banny, has noticed a growing fatigue for Instagram among creative circles. She feels these types have grown to reject some of the inane principles that developed in the app’s mainstream ascent. “Priorities have changed. For the general population, it’s more important to be popular in SNS [social networking sites] communities now than in real life,” Imura said of Tokyo’s broader digital culture.

Early Japanese goths spotted in Harajuku, 1997.

Early Japanese Goths spotted in Harajuku, 1997.  Roy Garner/REX/Shutterstock

“I think the current street fashion is existing between the real street and the Internet street,” said Yusuke Koishi, founder of Kleinstein Co. Ltd., a creative consultancy firm that works closely with Comme des Garçons.

Social media has given fashion followers direct access to an audience, and thus they no longer need to promenade in outlandish looks to be photographed for street-style blogs. With creative intent skewing more toward digital ambition than real-life fulfillment, Tokyo’s general style has been caught in a creative rut.

The dark styles come at a time when Japan’s Kawaii culture, now mainstream, has become unappealing to those with a higher understanding of fashion. A subculture no more, Kawaii style has become somewhat derided — its infantile-feminine aesthetic now considered an inappropriate representation of Japanese fashion, particularly during the #MeToo (or #WeToo as it’s been diplomatically called in Japan) era.

Kawaii has been a prolific style export for Japan - catching on at home and abroad, as seen here at a Japanese expo in London, 2012

Kawaii has been a prolific style export for Japan — catching on at home and abroad, as seen here at a Japanese expo in London in 2012.  Paul Brown/REX/Shutterstock

Imura felt that “Kawaii isn’t a fashion thing anymore, it’s more of a pop-culture thing. I don’t know if it’s the right thing to represent Japanese fashion.”

According to observers, black style is the cumulative result of these cultural changes. Always looking to flout convention, Tokyo’s fashion fanatics have calculated their own antidote to unsavory shifts in social priorities — outwardly relaying their contempt through fashion.

“By wearing black it’s possible to eliminate your own personality and be more invisible. It’s about not wearing ‘Instagenic’ fashion; it’s about wearing black to clean one’s self of the individuality you may have when wearing colors,” said designer Noriko Nakazato, a Ph.D. candidate at Tokyo University of the Arts focusing on contemporary elegance.

Shop mannequins across Tokyo evoke early designs by Japanese designers like Comme des Garçons and Junya Watanabe.

Shop mannequins across Tokyo evoke early designs by Japanese designers like Comme des Garçons and Junya Watanabe.  Misty White Sidell

“When there is no big [overarching] trend [like Kawaii], people go back to black. It’s the safest. It’s also the most anti-Kawaii thing,” said Maiko Shibukawa, creative director for vanguard Tokyo boutique The Four Eyed, which set up shop in the red light district of Kabukichō in an effort to “not become one of those [Kawaii] Harajuku stores.”

Adding fuel to the popularity of black is a rediscovery, among fashionable Japanese Millennials, of homegrown fashion talents such as Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Junya Watanabe. Early in their careers, this creative band — once known as the Karasu-Zoku (crow tribe) — had toyed with Gothic undertones and all-black design, popularizing this aesthetic on Paris’ runways throughout the Eighties and Nineties.

Koishi says the all-black trend is Kawaii’s next iteration — an inevitable swinging of the pendulum, particularly considering how Kawaii’s frilly fun was intended as a reaction against Karasu-Zoku’s dark austerity. “Kawaii fashion itself was against high fashion and status quo society. Kawaii followers got older, their values changed. The original Kawaii designers are now following the Nineties high-fashion designers. People who did not fit in with high street Nineties fashion originally,” he said.

Early Nineties looks by designers Comme des Garçons (L) and Yohji Yamamoto (R).

Early Nineties looks by designers Comme des Garçons (left) and Yohji Yamamoto (right). 

Shibukawa, a keen observer of style, has noticed her own renewed interest in these designers. “I see people wearing all black right now — to me, that’s the people who like Comme des Garçons and Yohji. It is coming back. Maybe 10 years ago, Comme didn’t mean much to me, but now it’s like the Nineties are back kind of thing.”

Koishi elaborated: “It is surprising for my generation, but there are many young people who did not know much about Comme and Yohji until recently. They did not learn about these brands from magazines, though. It’s come through social media. Their first encounter with the big labels like CDG and Yohji is not very direct — they encounter them via influencers or a new label. For me, these brands are the infrastructure of Japanese fashion, but for teenagers they are merely brand new.”

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