September 1st, 2008


Fake de rue

What a co-incidence! I had a vague yen this morning to write something about street fashion (I'd call this recurrent urge "floral"; it's based on the desire to put up some pretty pictures and see people as, essentially, flowers), fired up Neojaponisme, and found a Marxy post entitled Street Professionals.

Surprisingly, Marxy begins by commending a diss I made of The Sartorialist a while back. I'd described the New York fashion blog as a "bully butler", but Marxy says a more common complaint is that, while it poses as a street fashion blog, The Sartorialist is actually showing, a lot of the time, fashion professionals. (I've made this criticism myself.) The idea is that the top-down, elitist Western fashion system is simply giving itself spurious grassroots legitimacy by showing us snaps of its elite on the street, rather than at the catwalk marquee they're heading to or photographer's studio they were at ten minutes before.

I've often contrasted this Western elitist fashionista decadence with Japanese magazines' much greater emphasis on street photography, with particular reference to Shoichi Aoki's stable of street fashion mags (FRUiTS, Street, Tune). When -- quite by chance -- I was photographed for Street magazine myself, I commented: "That's the thing about Street; you don't wake up and remember you're going to be photographed for it that day. It just happens by chance, unexpectedly. Your path crosses the Street photographer (in this case New Yorker Fumi Nagasaka), she thinks you're interesting, the editor likes the shot, you're in. No advertising, no product placement, no stylist."

"The beautiful fantasy of street photography is that there is no fantasy", says Marxy, and goes on to debunk the illusion by saying that this notional "site of amateurs" actually often features fashion college students, stylists and product placement. He welcomes a new Japanese street fashion blog called Style from Tokyo because it lists the occupations of the people it shows, revealing many if not most of them to be fashion industry insiders -- shop staff, hair dressers, stylists and the like: "junior officers of the fashion army".

"The narrative framing of Japanese street photography leads us to believe they are 'everyday kids'," says Mr Marx. "This adds to the power of their fashion as true grassroots style and democratic creativity." But -- thanks to Rei Shito's revealing captions at Style from Tokyo -- we can now see that "amateurs are window-dressing for what is very much a professional game".

This charge repeats several points Marxy has been making over the years in his various blogs: that Japanese culture is top-down and conformist ("orthopraxic" rather than "orthodoxic"), that things marketed "based on a true story" usually aren't, that professionals determine amateur culture, and that Japanese creativity is, if not vastly overrated, at least widely misunderstood by the admiring, exoticizing, projecting West.

Now, how relevant this message is depends on how much correction your starry-eyed vision of Japan requires; it's a glass-half-empty, glass-half-full kind of thing. Yes, there's styling, sifting and product placement in some street fashion shoots. You only have to look at the frequency with which Osyama and Yama from Tokyo Bopper turn up in street fashion shoots to see that

a) most street fashion from Tokyo is shot within cat-swinging radius of Cat Street, and

b) clever retailers dress their staff up and send them out to get photographed as a kind of free advertising, and

c) all you need to do to find a street fashion photographer is go to the corner of Meiji Dori and Omote Sando.

So, sure, to some extent the "grassroots, democratic" element to street photography is an illusion. The question is, is it a beautiful or useful illusion? Should we use the partly-illusory nature of street fashion photography as a pretext to rush headlong back to the catwalk shows, the paid celebrity endorsements, the Vanity Fair society pages featuring unbearably arrogant designer X hobnobbing with worthless aristocrat Y, or discussing with fabric manufacturer Z what exact patterns will sell in what exact quantities in the autumn of 2010? I think the answer is that the grassroots metaphor is a beautiful and a useful illusion, and that we can love street fashion even when we know that it's not as amateur as it may at first appear.

My current favourite street fashion blog is a completely fabricated and illusory one: MiLK magazine's Look de Rue. When it comes to expressing their individuality through clothes, children are quite possibly the least creative, least empowered consumer group known to man. How the hell can you use clothes to "say who you are" when you've just been born, have a different shape of body from month to month, don't make your own purchasing decisions, aren't considered legally or financially responsible in any way, and basically trail alongside your parents wearing whatever they pull over your head? Childhood is certainly a problematical area for cherished Western notions of individuality.

Yet the adorable thing about Look de Rue is that the captions present the kids as tiny, fully-formed individuals, masters of their own destiny. "We hadn't thought about suggesting tying your summer scarf this way," raves the magazine a propos the little girl above, and goes on to compliment her for "the audacious mixture of rabbit motifs, dots and bows, wisely united by dominant violet shades. Summer hasn't been a time for her to set aside her fashion attitude, quite the contrary!"

Now, you could say that this patronising tone -- the tone the fashion industry takes towards us all, complimenting us on the good sense we show in following its dictates, telling us we act the way they suggest "because we know we're worth it" -- actually implies the little girl's complete non-agency. Not only do we know that the outfit was bought and put together by the child's parents, the audacity being lauded is the courage to fail to put aside a fashion attitude: this little girl is being praised, in other words, for staying tuned for the latest updates from the chief monkey in Paris. What is "fashion attitude" (as distinct from "style"), after all, but this constant, semi-passive receptivity, this flexibility, this pliability, this limited competence to chose from a limited, legitimised range of colours, shapes and forms?

But what's so adorable about seeing an unfree agent praised, precisely, for this unfreeness -- and, by the same token, what's so unpleasant about pure expressions of individuality -- is that the clothing of a child represents something successfully communal: the relationship between a group of people who love each other. What you see in the clothing of a child is not the little tyke's will and sense of self, but an adult's love for the half-formed little creature.

What do we know about love? That it's blind, that it projects like crazy, that it's easily deceived. It may be that the cult of Japanese street fashion is based on the same charm we see in Look de Rue: that palpable sense of love, projection and deception. There are three love relationships keeping Japanese street fashion vibrant and relevant: the indulgent love of aging Japan for its shrinking, fleeting, narcissistic youth, the love of the fashion industry for the street, and the orientalist love of the West for Japan. Clothing as an expression of close communal relationships of love and protection -- rather than, say, authenticity, freedom and individuality -- is something Marxy is no doubt keenly aware of: he recently became a parent himself.