There are the Issey Miyakes, Yohji Yamamotos and Rei Kawakubos trailblazing the path for Japan’s place in fashion, but you have to go to Paris to see their shows. The streets of Tokyo, however—dominated with the rainbow-haired, stuffed animal-accessorizing personalities of the Party Baby movement—could arguably be considered the nation’s real catwalk.
In his latest book of over one hundred portraits, Tokyo Adorned (out March 11), photographer Thomas C. Card explored why these women dress they way they do and found that it’s all about identity. “It’s a stark contrast of how we see ourselves in North America, where we feel that you reveal who you are by stripping down,” Card says, “versus revealing who you are by dressing up.”
Below, we caught up with Card to find out how he broke into Tokyo’s inner circle of street style icons and the sartorial appeal of the movement.
What initially interested you in Japan and how did this project come about?
I read an article in the New York Times about the crazy eye makeup that the Japanese were wearing in nightclubs, so my original idea was to photograph these people as they were going out for the evening. It never ended up happening, but after the tsunami and earthquake, I was hearing that there were new and interesting developments on the street fashion scene.
Which is all about style as self-expression. Comparatively, here in New York and most western cultures, the statements we make with the way we dress are clearly not as loud. Is our volume for self-expression just turned down?
Here, the way we dress is just one way to show who we are. For them, it’s magnified to the need to be seen for who they are. Many of these women would tell you that you can’t really see them for who they are until they’ve gotten dressed.
One woman who has a corporate job was talking about how it’s horrible that she has to wear the corporate uniform. When she gets home at night, she immediately transforms herself into her true identity, and that’s how we photograph them. The interesting thing, though, about how people relate to that sense of identity is that it changes all the time.
Since this style is so heavily based on one’s identity and is so unique from person to person, is the concept of seasonal trends non-existent?
Trends exist, but they’re ramped up on like, a weekly scale. These women will discard something and move on to the next thing in a matter of weeks. A lot of the retailers will hire the more well-known street fashion personalities to inform them on what to stock because the trends change so quickly.
How did you get a hold of these fashion icons? Some of them have huge online followings—was it challenging to reach out to them and get them on board?
It was hard. We spent more than six months trying to find a network to work with from here in New York, and just when everybody was about to give up, I got a lucky break. An assistant stylist who started working with me in the studio is fluent in Japanese, so I asked her if she’d be willing to jump on a place and go to Japan with me to explore if we could get this project produced. We spent 16-hour days pounding the streets trying to find and cast the people that we were most interested in.
But one of the biggest barriers was gaining trust to get people off the street and into a studio environment, which is essential to the idea of allowing people to feel comfortable, relaxed and present themselves for who they are. We see thousands of pictures on the street, but they’re very much fashion pictures of people in their clothes. And I wanted to get a truer portrait of the people that drive this movement.
How did these women know which look to wear the day of the shoot?
It’s all informed by how they see themselves and what they feel represents them at that moment. If you were to go back today, they would all look different.
I was going to ask how these women will be dressing 20 years from now, but I think that answers my question.
[Laughs] Yeah, no idea! One cool thing was getting mothers with their children and seeing the whole family involved in this form of expression.
At what age does do these girls start to develop their personal style?
I think that depends on the individual. In terms of the project, the youngest person we had was about eight years old, and I think the oldest women we worked with was about 39. But most start exploring when they’re teenagers.
I have to ask, after photographing hundreds of these over-the-top looks, when is it “stylish” and when is it just a costume—and how do you know?
I think it’s an interesting dialogue between style and identity. Even here we use our sense of style to project things we want to say about our identity. Whether it’s jeans and a T-shirt or dressing up for a special occasion, you’re making choices that help people understand who you are. For these girls, I think their sense of style and sense of identity mesh into this extreme projection of identity. What’s fascinating is how they find meaning in objects—whether it’s something from abroad or a cartoon—but and bring it into their own dialogue. They really do pull from everything,
I’m curious about the men in this movement. What’s their perspective?
There’s about four men in the final edit. Some of them are as outrageous as anyone else in the book, and some of the boyfriends came to the shoot as well. They ranged from guys who were also participating in this dialogue all the way to classical business guys in suits. But the movement is overwhelmingly women.
I love that some of their boyfriends are just casual guys.
Some of these women do this because they very much feel that it makes them look sexy. At the heart of it, they overwhelmingly feel empowered by honestly showing who they are—and in terms of relationships—finding someone who sees them for who they are and appreciates that. The sense of empowerment that comes from this is what drives many of them, and I think that’s regardless of culture—you feel stronger by being yourself and showing who you are.