Whatever the exact causes, when Daphne Mohajer, an Iranian-Canadian fashion designer and PhD student based in Tokyo, started working with Aoki and shooting for FRUiTS in 2010, the look was verging on extinction.

“It was hard to find people who could be shot, who were doing new things that were playing with categories or materials in an original way and looked good,” she says. “Maybe 1 in 100 or even less people.”

The style has continued to limp along, and gone through some revivals in recent years, largely because of celebrities who have adopted it, notably Japanese pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Mohajer describes her as the unofficial brand ambassador of Harajuku, specifically Takeshita Street and Ura-Harajuku. The set of her 2011 hit “PonPonPon” was the handiwork of Sebastian Masuda, the designer behind Ura-Harajuku-based shop 6%Dokidoki. The store became a cornerstone of unrelentingly cutesy kawaii style after it opened in 1995.

“I’d say that once she teamed up with Sebastian Masuda they really pushed her and made her into Harajuku’s darling, propelling it into a new wave of popularity overseas,” Mohajer says.

Masuda has gone on to design several buildings that embody the look that has come to represent Harajuku, such as the Kawaii Monster Cafe, which attracts tourists eager for a glimpse of the Harajuku stereotype. Kawaii seems to be the style that has most come to represent Harajuku abroad.

When the cafe opened in 2015, Tokyofashion.com wrote that it “aims to capture the spirit that made Harajuku the most famous street fashion neighborhood in all of Asia.” Travel + Leisure said it’s at the top of tourists’ must-see lists. Asian tourists, especially Chinese, looking to shop the Harajuku stereotype are what have kept the area’s retail businesses alive—though as Mohajer points out, the trend has long since passed.

Harajuku’s present—and future

Today you may occasionally find kids dressed up in rainbow doll’s clothes in Harajuku, but they tend to be emulating YouTube stars and celebrities in an attempt to get noticed. Most people prefer a more subdued look.

Some blame Uniqlo—Japan’s internationally expanding basics chain—as one cause for the shift. Marx says the company, with its muted colors and simple styles, has clearly had an impact on Japanese wardrobes, but he frames its growing influence in terms of economics.

“You can’t detach Uniqlo’s rise from that fact that consumer incomes have been dropping since 1998,” he explains. Japanese shoppers have historically had to pay much higher prices for clothing than shoppers in other countries, and have mostly been willing to. But wages have fallen, and spending on apparel declined 19% (pdf) from 2000 to 2009. As Marx describes it, “Uniqlo came in and said, ‘Hey, how about you just have nice clothing at about the same price as other people pay for clothing.'”

Japanese shoppers walk into popular casual-wear retailer Fast Retailing Co Ltd's Uniqlo store in Tokyo's fashionable Harajuku district September 3, 2001. Analysts predict the top retailer with 520 stores offering its Uniqlo brand of low-priced T-shirts, jeans and other basic items will regain investors' favour despite a recent beating in shares if its first overseas launch in London, due in a month, proves successful. Picture taken September 3, 2001. REUTERS/Eriko Sugita ES/RCS - RTRM7ML
The Harajuku Uniqlo in 2001.
Image: Reuters/Eriko Sugita

Cheap global chains, including H&M and Forever 21, also drew large crowds when they opened in Harajuku.

That’s not to say that Tokyo, and Harajuku specifically, has lost its sense of style. Creative fashion is still more part of the culture in Japan than, say, in the US, and there are plenty of well-dressed people on the streets of Harajuku to photograph. But fewer of them are dressing in an artistic way that pushes boundaries, and fewer still in the very specific mode FRUiTS started capturing 20 years ago.

“People wear a lot less vintage, there is less of a sense of eclecticism and much more mainstream fast fashion,” Mohajer says. “They look good, but they look familiar.”

Aoki says he has seen a shift in priorities among young consumers. Fashion, he says, is less of a priority these days than smart phones. But he’s still optimistic that the spark of creativity he first saw decades ago lives on.

“With Harajuku’s existing power, and the talent of the young people still going strong,” he says, “I think something good will happen.”


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