Little Tokyo gets busy on Saturday afternoons. Even when the crowd was as thick as it was on this unusually warm January weekend, people couldn't help but notice the group parading along 1st Street. There were a few dozen of them. Some were dressed bright colors and bold patterns. Others wore beautiful dresses that resemble those seen on old fashioned dolls. Some chose a darker, gothic-influenced, color palette. There were layers of tulle, hair the color of sweet tarts and shoes with major platforms. Onlookers tried to grab photos. Two guys on bicycles stopped to watch as the group convened near a crosswalk.
In Harajuku, the Tokyo neighborhood where these fashions originates, fashion walks are more common. Saturday's event is the first similar walk for fans of Japanese fashion in Los Angeles. The Harajuku to Los Angeles Fashion Walk started deep within Little Tokyo's main plaza, at Fairytale Boutique. Inside the store, participants scrawled their names on a sign-up sheet and grabbed wristbands. A few browsed the racks of clothing from Japanese brands like Angelic Pretty, Baby the Stars Shine Bright and Hangry & Angry. In the background, a video from a concert of Japanese pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu played on a television screen. The singer's wild outfits and whimsical performances match the spirit of the store's customers.
Miki, who doesn't use her last name professionally, is the owner of Fairytale Boutique. Ask Miki how she got into Japanese fashion and she'll answer, "I have no clue." It's been a part of her life for a long time. Years ago, when Japanese brands were gaining fans in the U.S., but didn't sell their clothing here, she helped a friend organize events. For a long time, she didn't see the need in explaining her interests to people. That changed. "A lot of people started to look at me differently," she says. "They started looking at me like I was some type of alien." Miki read up on how others in her scene explained their style of dress to others. That helped.
Still, as a store owner, she noticed how many of her customers were shy about wearing the clothing they bought in public. "When I run events, people show up for a couple hours and go home," she says. "A lot of people come in, change into this and then the moment they walk out of my store, they change back into their normal t-shirt and jeans because they don't want people to look at them differently. "
The Harajuku to Los Angeles Fashion Walk was born out of a need to help others feel more comfortable in their own clothes. "The walk is mainly to let the world know, we are no different than you and you and you," she says. "You don't have to look at us differently just because we dress different."
Inside Fairytale's back office, Miki gives a rundown of Harajuku street fashion. Some, like punk and goth, will ring familiar to U.S. readers. Even then, there are slight variations. She notes that punks in Japan rely more on accessories - lots of belts and hats - then their Stateside counterparts. Others, like Lolita and Gothic Lolita, have become more recognizable in the past few years. Maybe you've seen or read about the style that incorporates bell-shaped skirts, large bows and accessories that appear refined, even when they are overtly cute.
Still, there are many other styles of dress that aren't as well known. Fairy-kei, which is popular with Fairytale customers, is a pastel-heavy style that incorporates items like tutus and some retro 1980s details. "Fairy-kei encourages people to make their own stuff, DIY," she says. "They make their own dress or their own bow or bag." There's a variation of the style called mahou-kei that's influenced by girl-friendly anime and manga, like Sailor Moon and Creamy Mami. Fairytale carries items that reference both series in the shop. Mori, or "forest" fashion, is an elegant hippie look that's gaining popularity. Some styles are extreme. Take shironuri for example. That's a look that incorporates stark white face make-up and has been popularized globally by an artist and model named Minori. It's not a common look in Los Angeles, but Miki has seen shironuri customers at theshop.
Today, Miki is wearing a salopette, a casual dress that resembles a jumper, from Angelic Pretty. That's a Japanese brand focusing on Lolita styles and it's incredibly popular with those who follow the fashion. Angelic Pretty is widely known for beautifully illustrated prints, which are released in limited quantities. "People will camp and refresh their website all day to get one," says Miki, "or, they pay obscene amounts of money for a shopping service to obtain them." The dresses are expensive too. Miki says that hers, which was from their Wonder Queen series of prints, cost about $250. If she wanted to sell it, she figures that she could probably get $400 for it. The most popular dresses can fetch more than the original price on the secondary market.
Angelic Pretty is fairly popular at the store, but the price of the dresses mean that they tend to spend some time on the racks before someone claims the dresses. Putumayo, a brand whose items often lean more towards punk, moves faster. "They just fly off the shelves," says Miki, adding that, sometimes, she can keep Putumayo items around for a couple days. Fairytale's customers are often young. Miki sees a lot of high school students, sometimes even middle schoolers, browsing. She offers payment plans to help them afford the costlier items.
Even though her shop focuses on new and previously-owned items from Japanese companies, she incorporates a few regional designers in the shop. It's not easy to get shelf space at Fairytale. Miki does a lot of research into the brands she'll carry. One of the big hits at the store, though, is Automatic Honey, launched by two Southern California guys who have been fans of Harajuku fashion for more than a decade.
Alexander Cifuentes, a graphic designer from Chino, and David Klingbeil, a hair stylist from San Diego, are Automatic Honey. Cifuentes came up with the idea after they heard Japanese fashion designer Sebastian Masuda speak at a local event. Cifuentes recalls Masuda mentioning the Los Angeles crowd as "the new Harajuku" and was stirred by that statement. "I thought it would be cool to start doing a brand here that was closer to what you would find in Japan and more accessible, since I know a lot of people can't get certain brands from Japan," he says.
"A lot of the stuff that we started doing was kind of creepy cute," says Cifuentes. "Since we both liked Lolita fashion, we took inspiration from a lot of pretty prints and fairytales."
Right now, the focus is on jewelry, which they sometimes embellish with odds and ends that they found in Japan. Some can be purchased online, but other pieces are exclusive to Fairytale Boutique. They're working on incorporating more clothing into their brand this year.
Joining the group for today's event is RinRin, a model for Angelic Pretty and the Japanese alternative fashion magazine Kera. RinRin is actually from Southern California. Several years ago, she modeled at an Angelic Pretty event in Los Angeles when the company invited her to work for them. She lives in Japan now, but is back in town for a visit. On this particular Saturday, she's at Fairytale Boutique to run a make-up tutorial for the group.
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RinRin is dressed on-trend for Harajuku. She's wearing a dark blue velvet dress with "Unloveable" written on the front, a white harness and cross earrings. She starts talking about what's big in Tokyo's spot for hip, youth fashion right now: cropped tops, dark eye make-up, crosses. After the walk, she teaches a store full of people who to create the illusion of "puffy eyes." That's a look that's popular right now, she says, and it requires some careful application of pink and brown shadows. Of course, she adds with a laugh, lack of sleep can create the same effect.
RinRin was interested in Japanese fashion before her work as a model, but only to a certain extent. "I always admired it, but I never thought that it was something achievable," she says. "I didn't think that there was a place to wear it here."
Things are changing, though. Where the styles that L.A. people knew from import magazines and websites once "seemed so far away," that's not the case now. On her recent trip back to the States, RinRin saw that Japanese fashion has made a significant impact on L.A. "I feel like everything is getting a lot closer than before," she says.