As the sun set over Culver City maid cafe Royal/T and the crowd of Pullip doll-clutching elementary school girls were replaced by young adults in elaborate Lewis Carroll-themed ensembles, the Mad Tea Party, hosted by local shop The Valley of the Dolls, began to resemble a cross between a gallery event and a nightclub. Intricately designed and often heavily modified dolls were displayed as carefully as the house art collection and party-goers posed for photographers in stunning ensembles as International Pop Conspiracy's dance selections pumped in the background. Those in attendance chatted and giggled as though they have known each other for ages and, looking around the room, I couldn't help but feel a sense of familiarity, as though I had at least seen the bulk of the crowd at other similarly themed events around town.
At one point in time, it seemed that American lovers of Japanese pop culture -- anime addicts, Jrock and Jpop fans, doll collectors and Lolitas-- were a loosely scattered tribe who connected through Web forums and occasionally met in person at conventions. While this may still be the case in the rest of the country, in Los Angeles a string of events outside of the convention and meet-up circuit, including Royal/T parties, concerts and theme nights at local clubs, is prompting the formation of a bona fide scene with its own look, sound and even its own micro-celebrities.
Central to this emerging scene is Hayley Ruszecki, who along with her mother Betty and The Valley of the Dolls owner Scot Reyes, helped organize Saturday's Alice in Wonderland-themed soiree. I had been told by several guests that Ruszecki, an active member of both the Japanese street fashion and doll collecting communities, has been instrumental in bringing together the doll collecting and Lolita cultures, two groups that overlap often, but previously held separate gatherings.
"Lolitas and dolls have always been something that have gone together," said Ruszecki modestly as she sat on a bench in her own outrageous Cheshire Cat costume, "but this is something that has helped them unite."
Although a wide variety of mostly Asian-made dolls were represented at this party, Pullips, which hail from Korea via Japan and are found en masse at The Valley of the Dolls, hold a unique appeal. Aside from being posable and featuring blinking eyes, Pullips are released on a monthly basis in limited quantities. The brand (which also features male doll Taeyang as well as female Dal and Byul) has incorporated characters from popular manga and anime series like Evangelion, Rozen Maiden and Black Butler and frequently features the latest in Japanese street fashion. Designer H. Naoto recently collaborated on a line of dolls and beloved Lolita label Angelic Pretty will contribute to the series in late summer.
"If you cross-check the date that the doll is issued with what's on street fashion in Tokyo, you will see a real correspondence," explained Reyes, a former toy designer who opened his own shop in 2004, adding that Pullip's popularity "tends to skew towards the Lolita and Goth community."
While dolls were the catalyst for this particular party, they weren't the only stars of the night. The International Pop Conspiracy DJs, who host monthly party Tune in Tokyo and have DJed several Royal/T events, are piecing together the sound of the movement, mixing the indie electro artists that are de rigueur at L.A. clubs with Jpop icons like Perfume and Kaya. When DJ Greg Hignight threw in "Hare Hare Yukai," the closing theme from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, a group of girls erupted into the dance sequence from the immensely popular anime. The crowd roared with glee, they apparently all got the meme. Several minutes later, when Hignight played Kaya's single "Chocolat,"a trio whose leader donned a purple kimono-styled dress (known as wa Lolita) similar to one worn by the gender-bending singer proceeded to mimic the choreography of the video.
And then there were the outfits, a mix of Japanese labels, thrift store finds, Etsy scores and homemade items thrown together to represent the whimsical characters of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. One girl even spent most of the night walking around with her own full-sized mirror.
"I want everyone to dress in costumes all the time," said Evan Tensing, owner of the Little Tokyo boutique Num Num Kawaii, who came dressed as the Queen of Hearts in a brocade and crinoline frock with large gold hearts dangling from it and matching gold boots.
"[There is] a sense of play," said attendee Liza Saguto of the connection between Carroll's fantasy world and the community gathered inside the party. "A sense escape, a sense of having fun and being yourself for even just a short while."
It's the details -- the white aprons made to look like cards or the homemade Lolita jumper striped like the Cheshire Cat -- that make this scene so interesting. Not since the end of the 1990s club kid era have young people in the U.S. taken to dressing up with such abandon. It may seem frivolous to some, but it isn't. They have transformed themselves into walking art projects, their dolls becoming an extension of that. The world outside may be dreadfully dreary, but it isn't inside Wonderland.