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Who’s Driving Japanese Style?

At the close of Tokyo Fashion Week, BoF shines a light on the enigmatic stylists shaping how the world sees Japanese fashion.
Styling by Kanako B. Koga, photography by Rene Habermacher featuring Rila Fukushima | Source: Vogue Uomo
  • Ashley Clarke

TOKYO, Japan — Masataka Hattori knows that his taste captures the zeitgeist like no other and he isn't afraid to say so. "To put it bluntly, I only trust myself. As long as I think it's good, it must be good," says the unlikely tough guy whose sensual styling was a highlight of Tokyo's Amazon Fashion Week, which wrapped up this weekend.

In a rare display of offbeat elegance, Hattori styled the show for designer Shinpei Yamagishi’s label Bed J.W. Ford. At a time when Tokyo’s runways are awash with brands that reflect a ‘sensible’ aesthetic – in contrast to the increasingly vibrant designs on show in competing Asian cities like Seoul and Jakarta – it is left to fastidious stylists like Hattori to keep Japanese fashion eye-catching and internationally relevant.

According to Daisuke Gemma, the creative director of Sacai, Japanese stylists are particularly good at knowing how to coordinate because the bar is set high by the public. “The way they mix clothes is unique [because] in Japan even normal people on the street have interesting style [so] our stylists are influenced by them,” he says.

Yet while ‘Japanese style’ is famous the world over, Japanese stylists are a relatively enigmatic bunch to the outside world. Few have enjoyed the international spotlight like their designer compatriots. It is curious because, collectively, they are known for their unparalleled commitment to the craft.

Perhaps more importantly, some of Japan’s stylists have propelled important historical style movements forward. And others continue to push boundaries in ways that would surprise and delight the international fashion industry, if more were known about them.

Styling by Kumiko Iijima, December 2016 | Source: So-en magazine

From Bowie to Cutie

Yacco Takahashi is regarded as one of Japan's first professional stylists, and is best known for her work with designer Kansai Yamamoto; together they created David Bowie’s exotic androgyne Ziggy Stardust in the mid-1970s.

Sonya Park, the Korean-born, Japan-based founder of the brand Arts & Science, is often credited alongside leading menswear stylists like Tomoki Sukezane for putting Japanese style on the map in its 90s heyday, when brands like Nobuhiko Kitamura’s Hysteric Glamour were all the rage.

While the mainstream Japanese fashion industry didn't rate Park's style at first, before long her aesthetic in magazines like Cutie had captured the burgeoning energy of the Japanese street scene, and today she is widely regarded as the stylist responsible for the Western perception of kawaii fashion.

Kyoko Fushimi, a stylist who curates ‘The Happening’, a collective of avant-garde designers who have gained attention for putting on guerrilla shows on Shibuya streets, takes inspiration from Park’s approach which celebrated the native talent around her.

“Sonya Park worked with the Japanese photographer Takashi Honma, and started using more Japanese models. She did away with international brands and promoted Japanese clothes by Japanese designers, and so created street style [in Japan]."

Nowhere has Japanese fashion flashed between such extremities as it has in Tokyo’s Harajuku district where the over-styled subcultures that gave the area its reputation as a fashion mecca are often difficult to disentangle.

They have this innate sense of fashion that's so different. In the West it's very sexy and more about the body, whereas here it's not.

From the Ura-Hara streetwear scene to Decora devotees, it was up to Japanese stylists to make sense of it all. Minako "Milly" Yoshihara, for example, is the stylist responsible for much of the Visual Kei aesthetic. By styling influential '90s Visual Kei bands like Pierrot, a subculture centred around pop-goth androgynous style was born.

Kumiko Iijima, a former Vogue Japan employee, is well-known in Tokyo as the stylist behind singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's hyperbolic Harajuku saccharine look. Iijima's protégée, Miki Aizawa, has inherited that rainbow spirit, and is a successful stylist in her own right, working closely with Punyus, the cheerful 'marshmallow girl' label created by the plus-size model and comedian Naomi Watanabe.

"Iijima and Aizawa use lots of props with the clothes in their shoots, promoting that pop shojo [young girl] style, which was perfect for when Kyary came on the scene [in Harajuku]," says Misha Janette, the founder of bilingual fashion blog Tokyo Fashion Diaries.

Styling by Masataka Hattori | Source: Eyes Cream magazine

"[They] work with what is known as 'So-En style' [named after the Bunka Fashion College magazine], which means very layered styling, and focuses on big volume. They have this innate sense of fashion that's so different. In the West it's very sexy and more about the body, whereas here it's not…You might have young girls looking like grandmas. It's very much a fairytale that sells a story."

Tension between creativity and protocol

Surprisingly, the colourful aesthetic of this type of Japanese styling is often at odds with Japan’s relatively conservative mainstream fashion industry. A common frustration among Japan’s creatives is the many stipulations and limitations that high-end brands put in place. While this happens in most other markets, it can be particularly strict in Japan.

"As a stylist, I believe my job is create images by mixing high-brands, street, vintage and everything [but] Japanese magazines have strict policies about this. Most high-end brands require you to shoot a total look, and you're not allowed to mix with other brands," says Shun Watanabe, the fashion director of Nicola Formichetti's Japan-based contemporary publication Free magazine, and stylist to model Kiko Mizuhara.

“I think it's a shame to have those restrictions [and] I find it stressful. Young people are not interested in pages full of total looks from high-end brands. It holds no attraction to them either, because they can’t buy a total high-end look anyway,” adds Watanabe, citing his love of layering, genderless looks and homegrown brands like Toga, G.V.G.V. and Kapital.

Some who have found Japanese protocol creatively stifling have simply gone elsewhere. Nobuko Tannawa, senior fashion editor at TANK magazine, moved to London in her 20s: "The reason I wanted to start fashion in London was that Japanese magazines are mostly very commercial. European magazines like The Face and i-D felt like they had a cultural message, a form of expression, whereas most Japanese magazines often looked like catalogues for the materialistic consumer."

Takashi Kumagai, one of Japan’s leading photographers as well as a top stylist, branding expert, and fashion designer, agrees: “The Japanese stylists who prefer to work more freely with their work go abroad,” he says, naming stylists Kanako B. Koga and Mika Mizutani, who have both carved out successful careers in Paris. Other exports include Yuji Takenaka, a former fashion editor for Commons & Sense who has spent the last decade working in New York with brands like Robert Geller.

“I admit that I like the Japanese stylists who work on a global level,” says Kumagai. “They make the world their stage. But all Japanese stylists are unique in that they have a deep understanding of the history and background of clothing. They are, in a way, artisans. Styling in Japan might best be understood as descriptive in the way that it pays closer attention to the clothing, rather than focusing on the final photograph.”

Styling by Shun Watanabe | Source: Nylon Japan

Being meticulous is a quality that many Japanese stylists have become famous for. Take Kanako B. Koga who has been helping to create Uniqlo U advertisements for the past two seasons, lending her hallmark sensuality to the commercial brand’s identity.

One of the shots in the Spring/Summer 2017 campaign is of a female model standing on a dirt track. They are soft images, easy to look at, but it took Koga three days to perfect: “I worked closely with the art director to study the movement of the body, to find out how we can make a nice composition of colours with 12 images,” she says.

Leading publications such as Vogue Japan and Ginza are generally full to the brim with practical trend-led fashion advice, and Japan's stylists are expected to achieve painstaking levels of research and detail.

Mitsuko Watanabe, the editor-in-chief of Vogue Japan, explains: "Because the amount of information in Japanese fashion magazines is so extensive, it's the job of our stylists to keep the magazine up-to-date by applying current trends [in their styling] and matching the intricate developments of fashion to the current period, to visually convey [these trends] to our readers."

Regarding the stylists that work with Vogue Japan, Ms. Watanabe lists Rena Semba, an experienced stylist who "understands the global movements of high fashion", Michiko Kitamura, a veteran fashion editor who is "involved in styling for cinema and costumes – her deep knowledge of clothing enables her to do styling in a contemporary and avant-garde way", and Tsuyoshi Noguchi.

“Among Japanese stylists, Noguchi is one of the most famous. He does both men’s and ladies’ styling, and takes care of a large number of Japanese celebrities. [In fact], there are many Japanese celebrities who agree to photoshoots upon the understanding that Noguchi will be doing the styling,” Ms. Watanabe adds.

Jey Perie, the creative director of Kinfolk, as well as brand development manager for Japanese menswear label Bedwin & The Heartbreakers, spent five years working with Japanese stylists in the mid-2000s.

 Japanese stylists are unique in that they have a deep understanding of the history and background of clothing. They are, in a way, artisans.

Like Ms. Watanabe, Perie also mentions Tsuyoshi Noguchi as a powerful creative force: "I remember he played a big part of the [cult streetwear label] Wacko Maria collaboration with [womenswear retailer] Baroque. He made the deal, styled it, and brought his creative direction [to the project]. It was interesting to see how a stylist could be involved in the whole business and the creativity also."

Great respect for experience

Deep knowledge and experience are often more valuable than hype in Japan. Trendsetting magazines don't desperately search for the next hot stylist's name like some do in other markets. Kazumi Asamura Hayashi, who was called in to oversee the recently-launched i-D Japan as its editorial director, says that the magazine initially tried working with up-and-comers, but quickly found out that it was more mature stylists who did the best jobs.

Styling by Yoko Irie for Japanese retailer Beams | Source: Courtesy

“We started off working with not-so-experienced stylists. They were good and had a lot of energy, but it wasn't quite enough.” Hayashi says Mana Yamamoto, Chiharu Dodo, and Keiko Hitotsuyama are names to know. “Those three have stayability and consistency, a knowledge of fashion. They know what publications are looking for.”

However, a few talented young names are rising to the top.  In addition to established figures like Tetsuro Nagase [also known as Giant], one name to watch is Lambda Takahashi, according to Sacai’s Gemma.

"They very much have their own style. Especially Lambda, he mixes streetwear brands like Supreme with Huntsman [from Savile Row]. I think that's a really Japanese thing to do," says Gemma.
"It helps that the stylists here are more connected with music and hang out in other scenes outside of fashion. It's hard to tell what makes Japanese styling different from other countries, but it is somehow. It's like a feeling," he adds.

Yoko Irie, who has multiple Nylon Japan covers under her belt, works to create scintillating shoots for the magazine and captures the punchy attitude of Japan's young female generation as well as vivid campaign imagery for iconic Japanese retailer Beams. Risa "Ribbon" Kato a homegrown stylist and another regular Nylon contributor, combines coveted western brands like Vetements with vintage sportswear, as well as gritty Tokyo labels like M.Y.O.B.

Masataka Hattori's career is taking off too. Besides runway work, Hattori is also working with Japanese magazines like Pen, Brutus, and New Order. On top of that, he styles J-pop bands like Radwimps and Exile.

Akiko Shinoda, director of international affairs for Tokyo's Amazon Fashion Week, attributes Hattori's recent success to his straightforward attitude: "Hattori has selected what he wants to do, and he only works with what he likes," she says.

While Shinoda is surprised that some of Japan’s most talented stylists haven’t yet found fame beyond their home market, she isn’t overly concerned.

“Whether they’re internationally well-known or not, the quality of work is still there,” she says. “And today’s young stylists are doing an amazing job for Japanese fashion. That's what matters most.”

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