Walking around the streets of Tokyo, the bright signs and neon lights are only overshadowed by the eclectic clothes being paraded up and down the main thoroughfares.
Any clothing label worth its salt in Japan these days must aim for Kawaii Fashion, and not only that, they must aim to be ahead of the rest of the fashion universe. Teenagers in the rest of Asia look to Japan for burgeoning trends and follow them slavishly, albeit by the time they catch on, teens in Tokyo have already discovered something even hotter.
In the West, fashion is dictated by business moguls and magazine editors and fashion reaches the masses through a top-down approach. In Japan by contrast, fashion is much more grass-roots and teenagers, who spend the equivalent of hundreds of dollars a month on the latest outfits, control the industry with their buying power and particular style.
Looking around Japan, it seems obvious that youth are enamoured of all things Western. I discerned a lot of American fashion labels, from the humble Levi to more expensive brands. But there is always a twist, and Japanese teenagers seem to have a natural ability to take a Western fad take puffed sleeves for example and make it into something much more interesting. Puffed sleeves seem rather girly, but when teamed with leather, studs and skulls and cross bones, create a suddenly strong silhouette.
In fact, the Japanese clothing industry has now started to influence the West, and this is especially obvious in pop culture. Gwen Stefani for example has based her signature style on replicating Japanese young things, and is now taking her own fashion label to teenagers all over the world. Cutesy but tough seems to be the order of the day. Think Hello Kitty meets biker chic.
The Gothic Lolita look defines this perfectly. A mix of innocence and darkness, it is a popular sub-culture where the teenagers wear ballerina flats with long ribbons lacing up the leg and bows and headbands. Also de rigueur is a large bag or purse for carrying the enormous amount of makeup that completes the look. Porcelain doll cuteness is a required part of the fashion, but is often accompanied by skulls and crossbones and lots of black clothing, all chastely covering as much skin as possible.
Hairstyles are also an important part of teenage girls fashion, and again, the look tends to change on a monthly basis. Bright colours are popular, from blues and greens to deep pinks. The cuts are often sharp and sometimes asymmetrical. I saw a lot of girls wearing what I assumed to be wigs, only to find out that they were just amazingly coiffed heads of hair. One girl I chatted to had a reasonably normal bob, except one side was shoulder length and the other was sitting above the chin.
Accessories are a fashion industry in themselves. From jewellery and shoes to mobile phone dangly things, there are shopping malls devoted to making teenage girls happy. Japanese girls dont dress in clothes; they have outfits. The right fingerless glove or bracelet is as important as the platform boots or electric blue mini-skirt. One without the other is not possible.
So next time you are walking along the streets of Tokyo take the time to appreciate the multi-million dollar industry which is behind the carefully constructed looks of the girls. And also think about the fact that everything you are seeing will be reproduced a few months later on the streets of Bangkok, Sydney and Hong Kong. These girls control the very future of the teenage fashion industry around the world.