What started as an idea in the overactive brain of Honolulu Museum of Art director Stephan Jost is now a frilly, flouncy look at how Japan has become a dominant global style influence—Harajuku Tokyo Street Fashion opens Nov. 19. Presented by Hawaiian Airlines, the exhibition has been almost three years in the making.
Sara Oka, the museum’s curator of textiles, went to Tokyo in March 2013 to scout out the city’s street style scene. After researching the different styles and genres of street fashion, and having Blythe dolls creative producer Junko Wong open doors to a few designers, Oka returned to Tokyo in May 2014, this time with Kiyoe Minami, the museum’s Asian art researcher and fabulous guide, and Shuzo Uemoto, museum staff photographer.
Now Oka is in the homestretch, working on the physical design of the exhibition with installation designer Larry Maruya. As her intern, and Harajuku aficionado Erika Enomoto, researched the outfits that are going on view, Oka answered some questions about her colorful road to her latest exhibition.
How did being in Japan guide your process in the development of the exhibition?
One of the fun things is we left our afternoons open for serendipitous meetings. One day we crashed a photo shoot that was happening at a department store. We were going to ask if we could take their picture as they were leaving and we got kicked out before that could happen. In the meantime we met these kids who exchanged emails with Kiyo. Then a few days later they contacted us and said they were meeting at a pirate restaurant and asked if we wanted to come. We got lucky that way.
Another time we were just standing in the street trying to photograph people and we asked guy where he got his clothes. He said, at Cotton Candy, where he works. I asked if he could take us there because I hadn’t heard of it—so he took us and we met his coworkers. And another contact we met through Minori—she had mentioned that she was going to meet the people behind tokyofashion.com and asked if we wanted to come along. We were able to be spontaneous and people just opened up.
What are you working on now?
I like to work in 3D, to be able to see the space. To prepare for the exhibition, I did a rough layout and gave it to Larry. He came back and said let’s make it look a little more urban, and congested, to give the feel of a crowded street, then he came up with several ideas while retaining the themes of the exhibition.
[The Installation crew] is building a sort of lazy susan as part of what is almost a layer cake to hold a ring of mannequins dressed in complete outfits, and it will be colorful. Because it’s eclectic, our crew can have real fun building the displays. Like we’ll have arms sticking out of nowhere, and lots of surprises that you might not see on your first visit, but will become apparent in subsequent visits.
How did street artist Minori come to be part of programming for the exhibition?
When you meet her it’s an experience you’ll never forget. Even in Japan, everybody would stop in their tracks when she passed by. She’s a tiny girl but has a big presence. We thought it would be great to have her as part of the opening festivities and have her give a workshop on shironuri—the style of white makeup she uses. She’s excited to be part of the show.
How did the designers and practitioners of Harajuku styles respond when you said you were doing research for an exhibition?
They did think it was interesting that we would be interested in them. But I think that’s why they were so welcoming. Most companies were so accommodating and generous. Kiyo was a big part as a researcher and guide, helping us navigate the city and the fashion industry.
When we met with the people from TokyoFashion.com, they were the ones who introduced us to the brand Dog, which is where a lot of celebrities go, like Lady Gaga. Those are the things I cherish—the chance meetings.
Did you make any suprising discoveries in our research?
Kiyoe and I went to Osaka because some important brands are based there. The first brand we visited was Ahcahcum Muchacha. I couldn’t believe the stuff Masako Shinya designs. We went to her studio so I got to see what inspired her—she had Barbies hanging from the ceiling and doll-head lamps.
I noticed the incredible workmanship that goes into Japanese clothing, and these design companies have been keeping alive Japan’s lace-making tradition. These brands can order original teddy bear lace to coordinate with a dress, or ice cream cones. I wish I had met a lacemaker because I think they’re becoming rare.