December 22nd, 2009


Tam O'Kamakura

"He came back from Japan looking different, somehow..." I suppose I've always been fascinated by watching someone -- a pop star who's moved up to the international level of success, or a friend who's moved to another country -- being visibly changed by the encounter. It might be someone British and working class who becomes a musician and starts traveling the world, and presently you notice exotic influences rubbing off on them in the way they dress, and the sound of their music. John Lydon discovers Jamaica!

But it's not as simple as that. In most industrialised places you travel to these days, clothes and music have a flattened, globalised feel. A Gap or Uniqlo or Muji t-shirt looks pretty much the same in Tokyo or New York; it's probably made in China, wherever you buy it. (I'm talking about travel within Europe, the Americas, Asia; India, Indonesia and Africa are different in that they still have mainstream regional dress styles, which makes them very interesting. By the same token, though, they don't consume Western pop music, which makes it harder for a Western musician to travel there.)

In this kind of global system, the sort of national identity you could consume by buying clothes on your travels is available only as a quirky niche product for tourists and internal tourists. You encounter a post-national nationalism (a coquettish nationalism primped for the age of globalism) in certain shops. In fact, they're specifically the kind of shops I buy my clothes in, which is why I've ended up looking like some sort of weird parody of a Japanese person from a former age.

The jacket I'm wearing in the photo above comes from Kamawanu, which is a little shop in trad Japanese style up a side street in Daikanyama. Visits to Cosmic Wonder and United Bamboo have left me unimpressed; both these designers seem to have made steps towards the Gap-Uniqlo mainstream by making subtle, clever or conceptual versions of global American-collegiate clothes. Kamawanu, with its rows of gorgeous tenuguis, excites me because its references are entirely Japanese. Here I can indulge my fascination with kabuki, arcane Japanese uniforms, pilgrims and monks, otherness and particularity.

Kamawanu is at the conservative end of the spectrum; their patterns, though gorgeous, are hardly innovative. For a splash of modernity with your tradition, try Sou Sou on Omote Sando. Originally from Kyoto (the mothership for trad-inspired Japanese design), Sou Sou does a great line in bold and flashy tabi shoes and socks. In the photo above I'm let down by my plastic crocs; a pair of Sou Sou tabi trainers is clearly in order.

At the Koenji-quirky end of things, the home-stitched clothes made by Trio4 are great. Trio4 are the Shiroto No Ran group led by Hikaru Yamashita who made a gaffer tape-handy JR employee called Mr Sato into a folk hero.

Their clothes similarly elevate everyday Japan, using stitched motifs (handmade combini logos, cigarette packet motifs, funny faces) to give a local specificity to the generic products churned out by the global clothes mills.

I've also been impressed by Theatre Products, an ambitious and original clothing company with a store in LaForet called Stripe ("Stripe, symbol for eternity... Stripe is continuous and never ending!"). For gm ten gallery's September culture event in the Nasu countryside, Spectacle in the Farm, Theatre Products put on a fashion show in which models pulled (sometimes reluctant) farm animals about. Sure, the herded sheep and paraded alpacas might have brought Marie Antoinette to mind rather than anything specifically Japanese, but there was also something very Terayama, very Art Theatre Guild, about it (as there is about Theatre Products' logo).

Do you want flavours to go global, or one global flavour to go everywhere? Globalisation is clearly a sword with two edges; it has the flattening, monocultural capacity to make everywhere on earth look like exactly the same place, but also the amazing capacity to spread far and wide gloriously odd specificities it took cultures centuries to arrive at. Through tourism and other forms of cultural exchange, globalisation can also make local cultures think more clearly about the value of their own specific differences (actually seeing them as "differences" rather than "errors" is already a huge step).

But there's a paradoxical universalism in this "globalism of flavour"; I actually feel weirdly Scottish dressed in my "Japanese" gear. I feel like Tam O' Shanter having visions on the road to Kamakura.

Momus performs a 45-minute live set tonight at gm ten gallery, Azabu-Juban, at 2100. Entry is 1000 yen (includes free drink).