The Transformers

Little Bo-peep chic runs wild in Tokyo

The Transformers
Little Bo-peep chic runs wild in Tokyo

It’s a new-look FLARE, so why don’t you write something about transformation, said my editor. By some fortunate coincidence, I’d just spent 10 days in Japan, so my head was swimming with images of the things people do to themselves in the name of fashion. Perfect timing!

Its obsession with detail, excessive attachment to material and undue attention to the body means that fashion has always been in love with fetishism. In Tokyo, that affair is so passionate, it’s disturbing. My first night in town, I went to a club where a boutique called Spank was throwing a party for its loyal customers. There were maybe a couple of hundred young women dressed like Strawberry Shortcake or Little Bo-peep pogo-ing wildly while the DJ played girl groups—Bananarama, the Go-Go’s, the Bangles—on the wrong speed. It was a hen night/rave in Wonderland. No sex, no drugs and a debatable rock ’n’ roll quotient—all that was important was this tiny tribe gathering to celebrate its uniqueness.

You could actually debate the uniqueness as well, because no one does cookie-cutter fashion like the Japanese. They will slavishly duplicate a look right down to the colour of the shoelace tips. But when you see dozens of young women adopting an inspiration as—how can I put this?—specific as Bo-peep, it does add up to a highly original spectacle, especially in the streets of Harajuku on a Saturday, where I saw a Bo-peep followed in rapid succession by a corpse bride, a French maid, a Watteau shepherdess, a Marilyn Manson.

This street-style phenomenon is the subject of endless magazines in Tokyo (images from one of the best, Fruits, have been anthologized by Phaidon), but it’s fast-moving enough that the newest wrinkles may already have come and gone by the time you read about them. For instance, in Laforet, the legendary fashion hypermarket that is the epicentre of Harajuku, there’s a stand called Alice and the Pirates, whose look is supposed to be the Next Big Thing. Girls—and boys!—are wearing an Edwardian silhouette (corseted black jacket, skirts to the ground), froths of lace at throat and wrist, a ton of costume jewelry, long blond wigs, dead-white skin—and searing-blue contact lenses. The eyes have it!

At another hypermart, 109, in the nearby Shibuya district, the dedicated followers of fashion scorn Harajuku’s gothic grotesqueries. Their style icons are Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez, so their look is all boobs, bare midriffs, tiny cutoffs, tousled, highlighted tresses and tans, realized to a degree that would likely humble—or scare—Mariah herself.

As radically different as Harajuku and Shibuya style are from each other, they’re equally freaky in that they both start from the same basic clay: Japanese women have a very particular skin, hair and body type, and these transformations wilfully contradict nature. Which is, of course, what makes them so perversely fascinating for us.

But isn’t it the same fascination we feel when we’re confronted by any fashion alchemy?

Whether it’s embodied by a style maven such as the late Nan Kempner in her Saint Laurent couture, an Olsen twin in her bag-lady chic or a Japanese kid channeling Helena Bonham Carter, the best fashion defies the norm, surprises us, challenges us to expect—and demand—more. So hoist a glass to transformations. 

Japanese street style: More than meets the eye