Harajuku: the epicenter of the Japanese streetwear phenomenon

December 20, 2020 14 min read

Harajuku: the epicenter of the Japanese streetwear phenomenon

Going to Harajuku is a trip to the end of the world: literally and figuratively. This Tokyo district is the crossroads of Japanese fashion, and a fantastic world where artistic expression is purified of modern dogmas.

Everything in this article will lead you to one conclusion: Harajuku is a unique place. We let you discover this wonderful Japanese city without further delay.

Harajuku, an unusual city

Located in the middle of the capital of Japan, Harajuku is a real artistic center. Its reputation precedes it: it is a city where the way of dressing reflects the mood of the inhabitants. A place where the outfit you choose is not guided by social constraints, but rather by the creative impulse you feel.

Harajuku, an unusual city

Where is Harajuku ?

The Japanese Archipelago proves that the size of a country does not determine the impact it can have on the world. In a few decades, the influence of Japanese culture has reached all corners of the world.

The same is true for Harajuku, a micro-city in the middle of nowhere that has propelled Japanese style onto the international scene. This small Tokyo neighborhood is located in Shibuya, one of the capital's districts.

Before the 60s, the streets of Harajuku were unrecognizable. Very sparsely populated and underdeveloped, the city was assimilated to the remote suburbs of Tokyo. Its development began some time before the 1964 Olympic Games held in Japan. But the real renaissance of the city took place when it became the new fashion district of the 90s.

Why is it so well known ?

If you plan to go to Japan one day, Harajuku is a must-see. The city has maintained its position as a modern fashion capital for years. It is the artistic footprint of Tokyo, and the very origin of Japan's offbeat fashion trends.


To fashion lovers, Harajuku is a symbol of a revolution. It is a fantasy world in its own right, a portal to a parallel reality projected into the future, where shades are more cheerful and dreams are within reach.

Its atypical side is largely responsible for its popularity. It is the avant-garde Japan that we are shown in documentaries and depicted in films. A very small district that hides a whole universe in the underground.

In Harajuku, one is not bored

As you can imagine, Harajuku is a city rich in entertainment and tourist sites. There is no lack of activities, so if you plan to go there, be prepared to have a busy agenda !

takeshita street

Here are the 7 things you shouldn't miss in Harajuku :

  1. Takeshita Street: there's no better place to admire the diversity of Harajuku's styles in all its splendor! Vintage, streetwear and haute couture stores: it is the crossroads of fashion trends.

  2. Purikura: in Japan, everything is pushed to the limits of the imaginable, including photomatons. Scattered all over the place, these little rooms that don't look like much give you the opportunity to take crazy pictures and edit them instantly in Harajuku tones. Their kawaii filters are combined with special effects to create the perfect souvenir of your stay.

  3. Kawaii Monster Café: Japanese people are known for their themed cafés and restaurants, and this one is not the least of them. Everything is in the kawaii theme: the food, the decoration and even the staff who works there! Well dosed in colors and cult references, you'll feel like waking up from a sweet fantasy dream after coming out, the very goal of its creator Sebastian Masuda.

  4. Omotesando Avenue: a small architectural masterpiece that is still compared to the Champs Élysées. Its shopping mall is the most characteristic monument with, at the entrance, a breathtaking kaleidoscopic optical illusion.

  5. Harajuku Bridge: sober and imposing, this place comes to life during cosplay events. Animated by the soul of cosplayers of all kinds, the festivals and parades that are organized here are a unique experience in the world.

  6. Daison 100 yen: you were wondering where you could find all the super original Japanese items for cheap? Only one address, Daison stores that sell the best souvenirs for less than 100 Yen. Figurines of fictitious characters, kawaii toys, little gizmos that you get at the checkout without really knowing what they are for: everything is there !

  7. Meiji Shrine: In contrast to the hustle and bustle, this is a haven of peace and a landmark of modern Japan. It is one of the oldest, most famous and most sumptuous emperor's temples. It is really worth a visit !

Fashion, the beating heart of Harajuku

In Harajuku, everything revolves around fashion. If the lifestyle is so extravagant, it is above all because its inhabitants make their clothes the reflection of their personality. Everyone has their own style, but they all share a common passion: to dress according to their desires.

harajuku style

Who would have thought that giving free rein to one's imagination would pay off so well! The power of the crowd has succeeded in reversing the balance. In Harajuku, the street style dictates the fashion stores' needs, unlike in the Western world where the latter impose their tastes.

How did they get there? We go up the river at the source to understand the splendor of Harajuku fashion.

The origin of fashion in Harajuku

On the border between fantasy and reality, the daring styles of Harajuku are not lacking in creativity. We rewind history to the moment when it all began: the street artists of the 80s.

Along Omotesando, the city's main street, cafes and high-end fashion stores had just opened. Very fashionable, the decision was quickly made to close the access to cars on Sundays.

harajuku style

It takes so little to encourage the youth of Harajuku to go out and parade along the alley every week. It was a meeting place for fashion enthusiasts to indulge in their favorite hobby.

With absolute freedom of artistic expression, these weekly gatherings were a festival where people proudly displayed their best creations. Unfortunately, the Harajuku fashion shows died out in the 90s. Since then, there are fewer independent street artists, but just enough to keep the culture shock effect for tourists..

 

History and evolution of fashion in Harajuku

The fashion gatherings were suspended, but the identity of Harajuku was not lost. New fashion trends are still being born there like mushrooms for decades to come.
harajuku gathering

In the early 90s, Japanese ura-harajuku streetwear took off. Rooted in the marginal districts of Tokyo, it became a global trend that dominates the fashion industry to this day.

More than just outfits, dressing in Harajuku takes on a spiritual dimension. It is a state of mind, a way of being that one acquires naturally. Hairdressing and fashion salons where you can spend hours getting ready are springing up.

In Harajuku, we are attached to this aspect of everyday life which has a real emotional value. It reinforces a sense of belonging, and creates a true Japanese artistic community.

As strange as it may seem, in Harajuku, it has become a normality to dye your hair fuchsia pink, dress like your favorite anime and wear extravagant accessories. We live in a bubble where the creativity of fashion trends has no limits.

The characteristics of the clothing styles in Harajuku

Still don't understand why everyone is so excited about Harajuku fashion? Let's just say that they have that little extra something that makes them downright irresistible. The charm of Harajuku's clothing styles is indescribable.

style harajuku

If it could be summed up in one word, it would be creativity. With a strong visual, their outfits contrast geometric structures and bold colors with a neat aesthetic and a cute look.

Even if we have an idea of the cartoonish style of Harajuku, we will never be able to pinpoint it. Its strength lies in the diversity of the looks you find there. Take our word for it, walking through the streets of Harajuku and having the chance to appreciate the resulting mosaic is really something.

The rule is to have no rules! It's a neutral zone where almost anything goes.

The subcultures of Harajuku

Harajuku is an ecosystem in itself. What gives it its worldwide reputation is its diversity. There, the conventional framework no longer means much. Indeed, no limit hinders the spirit of raw creativity of its avant-garde prodigies.

Harajuku is the city where every conceivable style of clothing meets. Their diversity is what makes them so charming. Whatever your taste, in Harajuku you are sure to find minds as creative as yours.

Ready to discover the iconic styles and movements that have left their mark on the world? Here's a little guide to help you find your way through Harajuku's subcultures!

 

1. Lolita

Lolita is one of the biggest subcultures in Japan today. This iconic Japanese fashion was born; yes you guessed it, in Harajuku. Inspired by the classic Victorian and Edwardian style, you've no doubt seen these women in lacy dresses with pink hues before !

lolita harajuku Style

Indeed, these young women looking like real large dolls do not go unnoticed. The best place to meet this ultra girly style is in Harajuku!

Although the Lolita culture is not new, the movement will be officially recognized only in 1987. Today this fashion is still evolving and growing. Many sub-classes were then born, like the Goth lolita or the Sweet lolita.

2. Visual Kei

Who says Visual Kei, says Japanese culture par excellence. Indeed, this movement is so influential in Japan that we can say without restraint that it is the source of a large part of contemporary Japanese fashion.

Visual Kei tenshi

With the rise of glam rock bands in the 80's, this style is taking over the fashion scene. Mixing several ideologies of heavy metal and punk, it transcends all norms to mix music and fashion.

This is the reason why we often say that Visual Kei is the most complete Japanese movement. Indeed, it contains so many sub-styles that we could dedicate an entire article to it. Even today, it serves as a starting point for many other contemporary Japanese subcultures.

In a nutshell, this culture is defined by very exaggerated makeup and hairstyles, completed with a fine gothic touch. From the 2000's, this movement is renewed by the Neo-Visual Kei, incorporating theatrical costumes. This culture is not going to disappear anytime soon!

To give you an example of how emblematic Visual Kei is, Lolita fashion, for example, is a derivation of the gothic and aristocratic tone of this movement.

 

3. Rockabilly

Do you miss the rock'n'roll style of the 50's? Well, that's your lucky break, because Japanese rockabillys have brought it back to life! Although it's far from being a Japanese invention, Japanese fashion enthusiasts have adopted and transformed it in a spectacular way.

Indeed, about 35 years ago, the Rockabilly style hit Harajuku, the fashion nation, hard. Like Visual Kei, this subculture crossed a unique bad-boy style with the American rock culture of the 50s..

Rockabilly style

If you go to Japan, you won't be able to miss a Rockabilly when they pass by. Leather jacket, blue denim jeans and an Elvis Presley hairstyle, we're not kidding when we tell you they're easy to spot!

If you're in Harajuku for the weekend, be sure to check out Yoyogi Park. You're almost sure to find a group of Rockabilly dancers. They perform almost every weekend of the year. This is a must-see show for lovers of good old fashioned rock music.

Once again, the Rockabillys show us that fashion is more than just clothes. It's a way of thinking and a way of life!

Although, like many fashion styles, its popularity has waned over the past few decades, you'll still find a few dedicated to keeping the tradition alive here in Harajuku.

4. Mori Kei ou Mori Gal

Are you a lover of nature and the great outdoors? Are you a fan of quiet corners? If so, then Mori Kei is the Japanese subculture that will complete you!

Unlike the other subcultures on our list, Mori Gal is much more complex to define. It is a fairly modern culture that took off in 2007, when a certain Choco laid its foundations.

Mori Kei ou Mori Gal style

Simply put, "Mori" means "forest". Everything in this style is said in harmony with nature. More than a simple movement, it is a real way of seeing life and the world.

Thus, the basis of the Mori Kei style is vintage clothes with flowery and green colors. When you say it like that, it may seem that it is only a feminine style. Think again, the whole aesthetic is very neutral. You should know that the Mori Gal is superimposed on the Mori Girl.

 

5. Street Kei

Inspired by American streetwear, the Street Kei is the ultimate Japanese expression of urban fashion. It is a timeless classic of Japanese style!

Street Kei doesn't differ too much from classic streetwear with sneakers, hip-hop pants and accessories. The only distinction of this subculture is its unique Japanese touch.

street kei

You must know by now, in Japan we are very detail-oriented! combined with the Japanese attention to detail. That's why the foundation of the Street Kein movement are the sneakers of great creators and designers.

If you have a good eye when you are waiting in line to buy the latest Supreme or Comme des Garçons, you will recognize a Street Kei. Indeed, the lovers of this subculture have a lot of resemblance to the US hyperbeasts.

6. Fairy Kei

Yes, the fairy in Fairy Kei is for fairy, and that sums up the essence of this style perfectly. Pastel pink and blue, tutus and stuffed animals: it's a fairy tale lover's paradise.

Fairy Kei

This whimsical style is simply magical! This may be the only look where you can wear unicorns or kittens as accessories, so don't overlook it.

7. Cosplay

It's impossible to pass by Harajuku without seeing the famous cosplayers. These lovers of Japanese animation of all kinds embody the role of their favorite characters to perfection.
Cosplay harajuku

Don't you dare compare them to French cosplay fans, because the choice is quickly made. The competition is not at the same level: their costumes are super well made, and the finishing touches are mega realistic. All this, without forgetting the Harajuku touch which gives life to Japanese cosplays.

Honorable Mention : Gyaru —Yamamba —Kigurumi —Kireime Kei

Harajuku subcultures are far too numerous to be covered all at once. We have detailed the biggest one, but many other less popular styles deserve to be drawn attention to. We quote :

  • Gyaru
    gyaru
    For the california girls wannabe. A tanned complexion summer and winter, blond hair, and super short jean shorts, it's a pretty weird style, but rather original in Japan.

  • Yamamba
    yamamba style
    Not to be confused with the previous look! On this one, flashy colors are the order of the day, and the girls use white makeup for the lips and eyes instead. This difference is due to the fact that the style is inspired by a witch of the Japanese culture, Yama-Uba.

  • Kigurumi
    Kigurumi style
    They're not fury or cosplays, but a style in between. Remember when you had animal pajamas at age 5? Well we made a fashion statement out of it. Their outfits are pretty sweet and super comfortable. What more could you want? You can finally make your dream of going out in pajamas come true.

  • Kireime Kei
    Kireime Kei
    As unlikely as it may seem, Harajuku still has enough space to accommodate classic style. Quite traditional and very neat, it contrasts with the usual over-the-top looks. In Harajuku, all trends are welcome !

This diversity, which connects opposites and completes the subcultures of Harajuku, is what makes its charm.

The birth of Japanese streetwear in Harajuku

Harajuku is also where Japanese streetwear started. It might surprise you to learn that BAPE, Undercover and Neighborhood were all born in the small streets of ura-harajuku.

bape streetwear brand

More modern and more worked than the other Japanese styles of the moment, it is the star of the 90s. Their down-to-earth and lo-fi side soothes the sober side we know from the Asians. Very inspired by the West, but faithful to the values and concepts of Harajuku, it is the new favorite of young people.

What is today an international success was only a small store printing custom T-shirts. The humble beginnings of Harajuku streetwear were saved by the touch of originality and great design work behind it. It was the graceful aesthetics and pure urban origins that helped it make its mark in the fashion industry.

Modern, creative and sensational: this is the most popular style of the new Harajuku.

Harajuku, home of designers

Without renowned designers, the most beautiful styles would never have been created. And fashion designers, there are a lot of them in Harajuku. Their signature is the pride of Japanese fashion, which is quite an achievement. !

Kenzo Takada
Kenzo Takada

In the collective subconscious, Kenzo Takada will forever be known as the visionary of the international fashion brand Kenzo. Handling flashy colors to perfection, and pairing them with jungle motifs inspired by his countless travels, he knew how to pick the winning ticket.

His designs are strongly inspired by the spirit of Harajuku. After arriving in France in 1965, he became the first Japanese designer to make a name for himself on the Parisian fashion scene. Clothes, perfumes and accessories: he really touches everything !

Kensai Yamamoto
Kensai Yamamoto

Kansai Yamamoto is famous for having created the stage costumes of the singer David Bowie, embodying his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, in the early 70s. From there, he has had success after success.

After a good start at the London Fashion Week in 1971, he became popular worldwide. This Japanese designer has collaborated with prominent figures in popular culture, including Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Lady Gaga.

Nowadays, he squats in Harajuku from time to time. Needless to say, he is welcomed like a star there.

Nigo
nigo bape

Nigo is the creator of the men's streetwear brand Bathing Ape (BAPE). Worn by many rappers and hip-hop singers, such as Kanye West and The Notorious B.I.G, it is one of the most popular Japanese urban brands. Yet they had a shy start in ura-harajuku a few years ago.

The brand is characterized by the recurrence of the famous gorilla as a logo and motif. Their most famous creations are the hoodies with camouflage texture and sneakers called the BAPESTA.

In 2014; Nigo left BAPE to run the streetwear brands Ice Cream and Billionaire Boys Club with singer, rapper, producer and stylist Pharrell Williams.

Hanae Mori
Hanae Mori

Hanae Mori is a multi-award winning designer who is also one of the first women to pursue a fashion career in Japan. She also holds the international distinction of being the second woman to participate in the Paris and New York fashion shows.

After a career as a costume designer for Japanese films, she moved into haute couture. What motivated her to take the step? A visit to Coco Chanel's store in Paris. Yes, just that, and it totally changed her perception of things.

Her trademark is Japanese flowers and symbols revisited by Western styles and techniques. She is also known for designing the costumes for the musical Evita and the Opera Madame Butterfly.

Wondering where you can find her designs? Well, she has a whole chain of stores in Harajuku if you want to have a look.

Dressing like Harajuku

We're getting to the part you've been looking forward to: the guide to forming Harajuku-like outfits! The good thing is that everyone can be inspired by Harajuku styles. Just don't get too caught up in it, but most importantly, have fun and release your inner child.

Our tips for a successful Harajuku look are :

  • To have a rich color palette, the flashier the better ;
  • To put 2 - 3 Japanese accessories, just to get the harajuku vibe ;
  • To wear as many custom accessories as possible, to make your own mark ;
  • And most importantly, let your imagination run wild, and follow your instincts!

For a hybrid streetwear Harajuku style, don't hesitate to use the tips we gave you. You know, lots of oversize, layering and athleisure. It can lead to some fascinating results, so give it your best shot.

streetwear harajuku

Looking for new items that might help you build that style? We might have a model or two that would interest you from our Tenshi streetwear collection.

For footwear, there is nothing like Nike Air Force 1's. We have two customized models, the Nike Air Force 1 "Orange Cartoon", and the Nike Air Force 1 DBZ that would be perfect for a Harajuku inspired style.

For the top, our SHARI T-shirt in yellow or green would be a great choice. An alternative would be our OKASHI Hoodie or MISHIMA Hoodie, paired with bottoms like our REVIVALISM Jogging Pants, or REFLEKTIV reflective pants.

Don't hesitate to check out our site if you're in need of inspiration. New arrivals of Japanese streetwear will be available very soon.

Is the Harajuku style doomed to disappear ?

Is the crazy passion of Harajuku slowly dying out? What was once inconceivable is a real threat. For some people, the energy level of the city keeps decreasing. The creativity of the past is no longer seen, and Harajuku is slowly losing its essence.

Are these rumors true? Let's say that opinions differ.

Harajuku, the district that has been home to the most eccentric trends, is not immune to the mainstream. With globalization, fast fashion stores have invaded this haven of peace that the most daring artistic movements have taken as a refuge. As a result, the unusual side has regressed compared to the indomitable beginnings of Harajuku fashion.

The other factor that compromised the originality of Harajuku was the huge influx of tourists. Little by little, souvenir stores have been set up on every corner. With their ultra-cheap prices, it gave a real blow to independent designers who wanted to make their way.

the harajuku style

On their side, Harajuku lovers do not lose hope. Fashion is above all a phenomenon in constant evolution. Hoping to keep the old Harajuku forever is to curb its artistic free course. Sure, the colors are faded and it's less inspired by anime culture, but it's no less impressive than before.

There has been a wave of sobriety that has added value to Harajuku, without sucking out its soul. Might as well appreciate the renaissance and new fashion formats, and encourage new talent that takes the torch to a whole new level.

And not to show off, but Harajuku Fashion was ranked the 5th most popular Google fashion search in 2019. Not bad for a dying fashion, right?

Photo credit : @tokyofashion


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