Kawaii culture: The fashion trend that went global

(Image courtesy of matcha-jp.com)

3rd June 2021

By Subuola Makinde

Without a doubt, Japanese fashion and culture has become one of the biggest statements of the past decade, with icons like Rei Kawakubo spearheading the global obsession with Japanese fashion through her revolutionary work relating to the “Art of the In-Between”. Leaf Xia remains on brand with the hybrid themes present in much of Asian fashion. In her Spring/Summer 2020 collection, she puts a fantastical spin on the term ‘Kawaii’, which literally means ‘cute’. With an almost clinically white runway, contrasted with a collection which presents a genius mix of colours, textures and concepts; Xia’s show was none other than a reflection of the complex and intricate history of the trend we all know and love: Kawaii culture.

When we look at the realm of Kawaii from a contemporary view point, we imagine dainty, adorable pieces, characterised by bright colours, childlike accessories, and appealing schoolwear. However, Kawaii goes far beyond this, and far beyond the constraints of the word ‘trend’. During the 1960s the ‘All Campus Joint Struggle Committee’ or the ‘Zenkyoto’, was born with the purpose of protesting against the government, and rising university tuition fees. Students would skip classes, and spend their time reading made-for-kids manga comics. This saw university students and recent graduates begin to break free from conventional notions of how an adult should behave.

(Images Courtesy of nowfashion.com)

Their new found liberation eventually led to the student drawings of cute symbols (kaomoji) within their handwriting, (which would go on to be developed into emoji by Shigetaka Kurita in 1999). Basically, early Kawaii highlighted a shift in how Japanese adults were thinking, and although Kawaii culture is probably the least intimidating thing you can think of, it was in fact, born out of mutiny against oppressive structures in Japan.

Once Kawaii began to gain popularity within Japan, it quickly went from a marginalised movement to a potentially lucrative industry. The commercialization of Kawaii culture saw the creation of the wildly popular cartoon character ‘Hello Kitty’; who, although not human, or real, can be described as one of the most prominent figures within the landscape of Kawaii. Hello Kitty was conceptualised in 1974 by Yuko Shimizu, and pretty much embodies the “feeling of elation” that Kawaii fashion can invoke, according to renowned designer and art director Sebastian Masuda. Having made appearances in multiple spaces from theme parks to airplanes in Asia; Hello Kitty has indisputably maintained legend status within the Kawaii community. Leaf Xia’s New York Fashion Week incorporation of the adored cat into her Fall/Winter 2019 collection, which was met with an overwhelmingly positive response, very much confirms it.

The Parsons alum went with a ‘trip down memory lane’ themed show, with each look seemingly becoming more child-like, and kawaii infused than the last. From the colourful fabric strewn runway, to the electric purple and blue lighting, Xia creates a truly kawaii inspired environment.

(Image Courtesy of ‘Moom’)

The appearances made by Hello Kitty corduroy and plush teddy bears, along with the vibrant prints and playful colours presented not only stay true to the kawaii subculture, but pull the character into the world of futuristic fashion, another aspect of fashion that has been heavily influenced by Japan. The use of lacy and whimsical fabrics, paired with the archetypal style of the puffer jacket serve as an romantic ode to Xia’s relationship with New York city, mixed with her Asian roots: essentially, New York through her eyes. Again, this epitomizes the far from straightforward nature of Kawaii culture.