When model Nozomi Sasaki stepped out onto the catwalk at last month's Tokyo Girls Collection (TGC) fashion event, a wave of sighs rippled through the 30,000 mostly young girls in attendance. Sasaki is one of the most popular models in Japan right now, and her presence was essential at this year's fest, a six-hour spectacle of fashion, music and film held at the Saitama Super Arena. The only people noticeably absent from TGC? The gyaru (gals) that helped create it.
Gyaru are those young women with dyed-blonde hair who used to own Shibuya, the youth-culture mecca in the center of Tokyo. You could see them flocking in and out of puri-kura (print club) arcades, and squatting in the middle of Center Gai ... sorry it has supposedly been renamed "Basketball Street" (perhaps another nail in the glittery coffin for the Shibuya scene).
Their fashion didn't just inspire the country, it often inspired the continent. Heinously short skirts, bright colors and a tendency to bedazzle everything about themselves was just the beginning. Gyaru subsects have embraced everything from severely dark tans, scrunched-up loose socks and even Pikachu costumes. Recently, gyaru style has evolved into kyabajō, which mimics the ghetto-fabulous look of hostesses complete with towering updos and specialized makeup techniques.
And where the gyaru went, so did the brands. Alba Rosa, Gilfy and Rienda reacted to weekly flights of fancy by swiftly moving products in and out of stores, with multi-outlet mall Shibuya 109 at the center of it all.
"Compared to 10 years ago, there isn't a strong gal culture anymore," says Junko Suzuki, a blogger for the more conservative, but highest-selling youth female fashion magazine, Sweet. Suzuki remembers being interested in Shibuya gyaru fashion 10 years ago as a student, but now that's all in the past. "I guess every once in a while I'll see a gal somewhere in Shibuya, but not often."
Even Japan's highbrow fashion world had latched onto the gyaru craze. Shibuya 109-born brands Liz Lisa and Vanquish were specially invited to show at exclusive Fashion Week events in Tokyo last year, and while those shows received a fair amount of buzz and were attended by more revelers than most of the week's shows, they failed to give the whole event merit. Editors complained about the "circus" quality of the program and the brands, likely realizing their target customer is in a different arena.
This year's Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Tokyo, which will be held Oct. 16-22, has moved away from gyaru influences and has instead gone high-end by inviting British luxury brand Paul Smith to stage a runway show. In an ironic twist however, this fashion week may be taking cues from TGC in a program to be held on Oct. 22 called Versus Tokyo. There, eight top Tokyo brands, including Mastermind, Phenomenon and Facetasm will show their collections to an audience of regular ticket-holding folk at swanky Tokyo Midtown. Other high-end brands such as Jun Ashida, G.V.G.V. and Keita Maruyama are also on the schedule, making for a nicely packed week that holds its own.
So where have the gyaru gone? It's not just their wild fashions that are missing, but their devil-may-care attitude toward society.
"True gals didn't care what anyone thought of them," says Sayumi Gunji, who used to be editor at gyaru-oriented magazine ViVi, and is now creative director at the newly launched Vogue Girl Japan. "They did what they wanted to, and they wore what they wanted to. They didn't care about the hierarchy of brands either. They would ever-so-casually carry a Louis Vuitton bag with a cheap throwaway outfit from 109."
In fact it was that carefree attitude that was worshipped at early TGC shows. When this writer first attended one in 2007, it was an eye-opening experience. It was filled with gyaru models and Shibuya 109 brands and each had its own DNA, such as "retro Bohemia" and "urban sex-pot." The styling was played up with the excessiveness of a parade float. In 2011, the excitement is still there, but the gyaru aren't.
One reason the gyaru may have become an endangered species is that their habitat has been encroached upon by evermore fast-fashion outlets. H&M, Forever21, Bershka and Loaves have all opened in Shibuya in the last few years and they've poached the 109 shoppers. Fast-fashion outlets are able to price their wares much cheaper and manage to keep up with trends. Despite the fact they don't have one-of-a-kind pieces (you can get that same H&M top in New York, London or Hong Kong), 109 brands have found it hard to compete with global chain stores, especially with the economy in rough shape. Customers are starting to feel that ¥4,000 price difference on the sales tags of two different dresses.
Speaking of exclusivity, Shibuya's 109 used to be a kind of fashion Mecca. But the last eight years have seen branches open in Osaka, Shizuoka, and two in Kanagawa. Most of the brands now sell online across the country, too.
Gunji agrees that the economy is a major factor in the waning power of gyaru fashion.
"Young girls want stability, not free-for-all lives, in this rocky economy," she says. "When I was working at ViVi magazine, I never heard a gyaru say 'I want to get married.' That meant they could dress however they wanted and it didn't matter. But now girls want to find a boyfriend so they need to dress to appeal to boys and their families. It is a far more conservative 'good-girl' style, like that of (model) Yu Aoi. Also, I see a lot of mothers shopping with their teenage daughters. Of course, those girls are going to choose safe pieces since their moms are right there paying for them."
While TGC used to translate gyaru fashion for the masses, it seems to show less interest in cultivating it now. The number of actual fashion shows presented on stage is down to 17 from 24, but the concentration of energy found in this type of fashion, which had made it a unique and forward-moving movement, has been diluted to a mere shadow of what it was.
Meanwhile, commercially sponsored appearances by singers or actors are given priority, and the fast-fashion brands have crept in, with H&M and Topshop grabbing large blocks of time. Despite this, tickets continue to sell out. It seems that today's young women are unfazed about the steady disappearance of the gyaru and the global mainstreaming of Shibuya's style.
All is not lost for the gyaru, though, their fashion movement is actually gaining in popularity overseas. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and the New York City-Tokyo Society have expressed interest in showing 109 brand-focused fashion in New York, and the genre is as strong as ever in Asian markets such as Taiwan and mainland China, where Japanese youth-fashion magazines are more popular than homegrown ones.
"The Japanese fashion magazines were the first to come to China about 20 years ago," says Angel Chan, Energy Marketing Manager for Nike China. "For fashionable girls in China, they either dress like they're from the pages of ViVi or they go the other way completely, like wearing edgy clothes from Paris."
Indeed, the market of knockoff gyaru fashion goods on online shopping sites such as Taobao is just as thriving as that for Louis Vuitton handbags.
While there is discussion in the United States of a hemline index theory with regards to the economy (the higher the hemline, the better the economy is doing), perhaps Japan has a gyaru index. We'll know that the nation's finances are improving and confidence is up when the gyaru come back out to play.
Gyaru style is not cute IMO so I don't care