Harajuku: A magnet for fashion fans (for Japan Connection)
TOKYO –– With its motley collection of small boutiques catering to almost every known breed of fashionista, Japan’s Harajuku is deserving of all the recognition it gets in the world’s major fashion centers.
But before Harajuku became a world-renowned fashion mecca, the area went through a rough patch. Also named Jingumae after a nearby shrine erected in 1920 and dedicated to the late Meiji Emperor, Harajuku was razed to the ground during the Great Tokyo Air Raid of 1945. After World War II, Harajuku became the site of a collection of military barracks housing thousands of American soldiers and their families – the so-called ‘Washington Heights’ of Tokyo.
Washington Heights, despite posing many of the hazards common to any peacetime military force sequestered in a foreign land – crime, prostitution, etc. – was responsible in large part for birthing the Harajuku that tourists have come to know and love. Famous tourist attractions such as the toy store Kiddy Land and the antique souvenir shop Oriental Bazaar, are two of the many businesses appealing to Western tastes which were established during the Allied occupation.
Today Harajuku may be long past its Takenoko-zoku (literally ‘bamboo shoot tribe’) street dance heyday of the 1970s and 80s, but it still retains the vibrant fashion-obsessed youth culture that made it famous. Indeed, even as Harajuku’s Takeshita Street, Cat Street and surrounding hipster town gradually fall victim to the relentless incursion of mainstream international clothing brands and luxury fashion houses from adjoining Omotesando, every year millions of Westerners continue to flock to the district for its colorful and ubiquitous street fashion.
Michelle Branch, 25, a Tokyo fashion trend watcher and consultant for Los Angeles-based fashion buying and consulting firm Barbara Fields Buying Office, is one such Westerner drawn to Harajuku for its eclectic mix of styling options. “For young fashion – which is what I specialize in – Shibuya maybe has more styles familiar to Americans,” says Branch. “Harajuku has many interesting trends and original looks but unlike nearby Shibuya it doesn’t necessarily translate readily over to the United States, which is why I’m here to raise awareness about it.”
Born in rural Tennessee, Branch, like an entire generation of Americans, traces her fascination with Japanese culture to Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z, Evangelion, Gundam and other 80s to 90s-era animation franchises. “I was the classic got-into-anime sort of kid,” says Branch. “My older sister who draws manga comics introduced it to me when I was young and I got really fixated on it.”
After spending a year in rural Kyoto Prefecture as a high school exchange student, Branch returned to Japan for college, studying art and communications at Temple University, Japan Campus, in downtown Tokyo. “During my exchange I lived in a little town, and when I returned to the States I had this overwhelming feeling of disappointment at not getting to do all the things I’d wanted to do in Japan,” says Branch. “I decided that I had to go back.”
Now a Tokyo resident for the past seven years, Branch has worked as a stylist and reported on the latest fashion trends in central Tokyo since late 2010. Though Branch occasionally ventures further out to “small hubs” such as Machida and Odaiba, where the latest fashion trends are often marginally different, she reports strictly from Shibuya and Harajuku, the latter of which especially is undergoing constant change.
Branch points to the closure last November of iconic legwear boutique Avantgarde Harajuku as a recent example of the once-trailblazing district’s slow decline. Avantgarde continues to maintain a vigorous online presence, but the closure of its flagship store, whose opening in 2011 fostered a nationwide street fashion phenomenon, saddens fans of Harajuku. Still, history gives hope that the neighborhood will spawn a new winning trend to take its place.
Since February 2015, Branch has offered weekly tours of Harajuku through experiential tour company Tokyo Way. Unlike other tours of the district, Branch’s tours are specially designed to give priority to the often underemphasized kawaii (cute) aspect of Harajuku fashion. “I feel somebody who’s coming all the way here wants to see those hidden, out-of-the-way stores that genuinely embody Japanese cuteness,” says Branch. “I want people to come away from my tour of Harajuku feeling that they’ve experienced the real deal.”
Carl Kay, founder and president of Tokyo Way, agrees, adding, “Our [Tokyo Way’s] philosophy is that whenever possible – which is most of the time – we hire specialist guides, not just general tour guides who cover only major sites like the Imperial Palace or the Tsukiji fish market. We want guides to have a strong passion and expertise for their area and content. When I met Michelle [Branch], I thought, ‘Here’s someone who really loves and wants to share Harajuku’, and that’s why we right away wanted to work with her.”
Branch suggests her desire to share her extensive knowledge of Harajuku stems from her experience working as a personal shopper/stylist. “People have come to me telling me they want to look like those people on the street but don’t really know how to do that,” she says. “If you’re going for that Japanese street fashion look, which is very different from anything seen in the States, I’ve found that you definitely want somebody along to help you.”
Though Branch’s personal shopper/stylist services are not part of her tour at Tokyo Way, her expertise may be enlisted after the tour – or at a later date – for an additional fee, either through Tokyo Way or at her own site http://michellefashion.tokyo/
On a personal note, Branch says, “I really like the goth-punk look, but I also like pastels and vintage styles – anything, really, that captures my interest at the time. In fact, I like way too many styles. Oh, and something you do want to mention,” Branch says, laughing, “is that often I like to dress weirdly and eccentrically, but people who want my advice should not worry that I’m going to dress them crazily.” Unless that’s what they want?
Copyright © 2015 Elliot Silverberg. All rights reserved.