Editor’s note: Following up on our October Q+A with textiles curator Sara Oka about the making of Harajuku: Tokyo Street Fashion, Sara comes back for a second round with more first-person detail and insight on how she put together the exhibition.
Harajuku: Tokyo Street Fashion started with a simple assignment: Director Stephan Jost asked me to visit Harajuku to see what was there. I could decide later if there was enough for an exhibition. So, in 2013, I embarked on a weeklong exploration. My adventures in Japan were fortunately timed, because that year the cherry blossoms bloomed a week earlier than anticipated—which coincided with my stay. I had heard about cherry blossom viewing (or hanami in Japanese), and reveled at the artwork, poetry and gatherings dedicated to the event. Luckily, a friend guided me around the Imperial Palace, one of the most spectacular spots for flower viewing. The grandeur and magnificence was absolutely breathtaking. Auspicious indeed.
When we arrived in Harajuku, we visited shops and walked the back streets. I was amazed at the density of the town. Escaping to a second-floor balcony to witness the hordes of youngsters shopping on the weekend helped put it all into perspective. The frenzy and crowded streets confirmed the importance of youth and the significant impact they assert on their society.
Meeting a young couple dressed in Fairy Kei fashion, a boy in blue and a girl in pink (pictured at top), was undeniably delightful. They were each adorned with angel wings over coordinated pink or blue flannel pajamas softly patterned in cloud motifs. A longhaired wig covered with plastic ornaments and stuffed animals topped it off. The final touch, Band-aids plastered over their noses, were “accessories” I was told. Self-expression was alive and well in Harajuku. It was then I decided, “Yes, I would love to build an exhibition on this.”
Chance encounters would prove to be a guiding force of my travels. At the train station we snuck a shot of the Gyaruo style, defined by dyed hair and rugged elements borrowing biker, military and rocker looks. We were witnessing street fashion in real time.
Back in Honolulu, I researched the various genres of street fashion that emerged not just from Harajuku, but from the surrounding areas as well. Some genres had already come and gone, while others were evolving into new styles. Change is ever present. Several women in Honolulu who dress in Lolita and Dolly Kei fashions became my advisors. We met several times and they described the differences in each style, and provided references for more research. I read everything I could find related to Harajuku and the fashion statements emerging from there. There was such a visual overload from my explorations clearly etched in my memory; I kept questioning whether I could capture it all.
In 2014, I returned to Japan, this time with the guidance of Robert F. Lange Foundation Japanese art research assistant Kiyoe Minami. As someone who grew up in Tokyo and knew the area well, Minami became an essential part of curating the exhibition. She helped navigate not just the cultural domain of the country, but the gridlocked city streets, the maze of subway and train routes, and negotiations with local vendors.
With the support of some local businesses and designers, we began to acquire dresses, coordinates and accessories from Osaka and Tokyo. We placed a few orders, knowing we knew we were acquiring the newest trends. My mission was to shop—who can argue with that? The collection grew slowly with each visit.
With other brands we made cold calls. We introduced our project and requested approval to include their styles in the exhibition. Almost everyone agreed to participate and we were met with warmth, generosity and sharing of their ideas. In talking with designers, it was evident that “fantasy” is an essential overarching theme in capturing imaginary worlds expressed through fashion. Mori Girl earthy styles from Wonder Rocket, Fairy Kei unicorns from Nile Perch, Gothic Lolita darkness of Atelier Pierrot, Sweet Lolita coordinates from Angelic Pretty, Decora skirts from Codona de MODA, and an assortment of platform shoes from Tokyo Bopper filled my hotel room. Later additions included a Steampunk Lolita outfit from h.Naoto and Street Gothic wearables from million dollar orchestrA.
Shuzo Uemoto—the museum’s staff photographer—joined us one week later and we hit the streets. We were armed with photography release forms and were pleased to find such enthusiastic and willing participants. Tokyo street fashion continued to impress. Over a hundred individuals consented to having their photographs documented for the exhibition.
Kiyoe, a big fan of heavy metal Visual kei bands (characterized by the use of outrageous hair styles and flamboyant outfits), provided us with the opportunity to become immersed in youth culture. We attended several concerts, both indoors and out to witness the attraction and appeal of adolescent teens and young adults. We placed an order with Roche Noir, acquiring a performer’s ensemble with a Japanese flair made just for the museum.
Local cosplayer Heidi Shimada introduced us to Minori, a shironuri (literally “painted in white” a traditional style of makeup used by geishas and Kabuki actors) artist. We met in the back streets of Harajuku and photographed her in one of her favorite alleys. Minori later agreed to attend the exhibition’s opening reception as a guest artist. She also introduced us to the photographer from TokyoStreetFashion.com and he in turn recommended we visit Dog, which Lady Gaga’s stylist frequents. We emerged from the underground (literally) merchant with a neon pink jacket. Chance encounters. Exhibition complete.