Over the last two decades, Japanese street fashion has undergone a radical transformation. Throughout much of the 1980s, an economic bubble in Japan fueled a fervent hunger for Western luxury labels such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Gucci, Prada, Armani, and Burberry. When that boom turned to a bust in the early 1990s, the country fell into a deep recession, driving a logo-manic rebellion among Japanese kids, whereby youthful unrest took the form of conspicuous consumption. In the West, the tradition of teenage-rebel fashion has often involved adopting a kind of underclass stance, but within the more strictly defined—and paternalistic—structure of Japanese society, really sticking it to your parents in the post-bubble era required spending money that they no longer had by devouring, customizing, prominently displaying, and sometimes even defacing the very same status-signifying brands that they so coveted. This gave rise to Tokyo’s teenage wasteland, the Harajuku shopping district, which even today more closely resembles a chaotic 24-hour open-air fashion show, but which also provided the environment in which Hiroshi Fujiwara and a group of like-minded musicians, stylists, and designers infused the scene with a different sensibility.
A budding DJ and punk-rock obsessive, Fujiwara had traveled to London and New York City in the 1980s, immersing himself in the white-lightning insurgent innovation of the cities’ respective post-punk and hip-hop scenes. For Fujiwara, the experience was nothing short of a revelation. In the early part of the decade, Japan’s primary contribution to international fashion mainly consisted of high-end modernist designers such as Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, and Yohji Yamamoto. But in hip-hop and skate culture especially, Fujiwara saw a seamless world in which music, fashion, and art formed the basis of an entire youth-oriented lifestyle. Before Fujiwara, it seemed as though most DJs in Tokyo played whatever records the bar or club they were spinning at happened to have on hand; but, inspired by the hip-hop DJs he saw in New York, Fujiwara started taking his own records to gigs and mixing obscure tracks into his carefully curated sets. He hooked up with a hip-hop label, Major Force, and began wearing Western skate brands like Stüssy. In 1989, he started his own clothing line, Goodenough, which brought a high-fashion consciousness to the design of streetwear. Both immediately achieved a cult status among Harajuku kids, who embraced what Fujiwara was doing as a movement toward fashion that was less about adolescent rebellion and more about youthful self-expression. In 1993, he helped two young style enthusiasts—Jun Takahashi, who would go on to found the avant-garde label Undercover, and Nigo, who would launch his own line, A Bathing Ape—open a Harajuku store called Nowhere, which stocked their respective wares as well as those by Nike and Adidas, and an assortment of international street brands. But more important, Fujiwara fundamentally changed the face of Japanese street style, giving easily produced pieces like T-shirts, sweatshirts, and sneakers a currency (and a price point) once reserved for Western designer goods, and he became a chief architect of the scarcity- and limited-edition-obsessed culture that now dominates street fashion on a global level.
Maintaining relevance for more than 20 years in a trend-consumed and unforgiving market such as Japan’s is quite a feat, but Fujiwara—or HF, as his friends know him—has managed to do just that. Today his influence can be seen in a multitude of arenas. Many contemporary street-influenced Japanese fashion creators have gained popularity outside their homeland in recent years, but Fujiwara laid the foundations on which they have built mini-empires. He helped write the textbook definition of clean, understated “stealth” styling by knowing just what’s right at any given time, and through his three-man operation, Fragment, he has designed and consulted for a multitude of internationally recognized heavy hitters, including Nike, Levi’s, and Starbucks. His website, Honeyee.com, a collaboration with SOPH. founder Hirofumi Kiyonaga and Visvim designer Hiroki Nakamura, has also become one of the most widely referenced street-fashion hubs on the web.
Recently on a balmy Saturday afternoon Fraser Cooke caught up with the 46-year-old Fujiwara near his Roppongi Hills residence in Tokyo for a civilized chat over a cup of tea.
I hope there’s something happening which is new and independent that we know nothing about. Maybe it’s even being done by people who see our generation as an enemy. That can create energy as well.Hiroshi Fujiwara
FRASER COOKE: Let’s begin by going back to the past for a minute to get some historical context. Many people might call you the Godfather of Harajuku—the guy who helped popularize hip-hop and DJ culture here in Japan back in the day.
HIROSHI FUJIWARA: When I was 18 years old, I came to Tokyo from my hometown, Ise, in the countryside. I’d always been really inspired by fashion and music, especially when punk came out in ’76 or ’77. So I guess I arrived in Tokyo in around ’81. Around that time, I visited London for about two months—it was the period just before Malcolm McLaren released his solo album Duck Rock. I’d met him when he came to Japan, so I visited him in London and spent one evening with him and his girlfriend over at his house. He told me, “London is boring right now. You should go to New York.” So he called a friend in New York, who I think was an old assistant or someone who helped him record early hip-hop stuff over there. I said okay and flew to New York. Once I got there, I saw those hip-hop things going on. The Roxy was really happening—Afrika Islam, Kool Lady Blue, that whole scene. I really got interested in the DJ side. I mean, I guess I was some kind of DJ in Japan already, but the hip-hop scene was naturally happening, and I picked up on that style, then brought back the information on records and technique to Tokyo.
COOKE: Was there anything like that happening here in Tokyo—like, even a few isolated people?
FUJIWARA: Nah, not really. Nobody really knew about it then, but people were interested very quickly—especially on the fashion side. But there really weren’t what you’d call street kids in Tokyo at the time. Very quickly, the DJ scene started building up. Because before that, there were no DJs carrying their own bags of records—the clubs used to hire DJs, but the vinyl belonged to the club.
COOKE: So before that, being the DJ was just a job—like a bartender almost.
FUJIWARA: Exactly. Nobody was carrying their own records. Maybe I was the first one carrying my records to go to the club once a week or a few times a month.
COOKE: Malcolm McLaren told you that London was boring. But, as someone coming from Japan, did you actually think that London was boring?
FUJIWARA: No. It was really interesting, but it was very slow. Everything closed on Saturday and Sunday. The stores closed at 6 p.m., and if you missed, even by a few minutes, they wouldn’t let you in. Even if you knew exactly what you wanted, they’d say, “No, no, come back tomorrow.”
COOKE: So it was not a convenience culture.
FUJIWARA: No. I was really surprised at that because everything was open on weekends in Tokyo.
COOKE: You stayed with some pretty interesting people in London.
FUJIWARA: Yes. I was 18 years old, first time in -London, and I was introduced by a friend from Japan called Hitomi [Okawa], who is behind the label Milk, to a group of people that included [director] John Maybury, Stephen Jones, [designer] David Holah, and Boy George. They were all pretty young. Culture Club was just beginning. Marilyn [the New Romantic pop singer] and Jeremy Healy from the band Haysi Fantayzee were there. Many people were sharing one apartment with many rooms. So I was in that community.
COOKE: The profiles of those people were pretty elevated at that time via style magazines like The Face and i-D—although they probably hadn’t yet reached the level of international fame they achieved later.
FUJIWARA: They were really creative, those people. It had a real impact on me. The nightclubs like Camden Palace, Cha Cha’s—you know, it was at Heaven. So there was that. And then the next thing that had a big impact on me was Stüssy. I was really into skateboarding at that time, and what people like the Bones Brigade [the ’80s skating team featuring Tony Hawk, Tommy Guerrero, and others] were doing.
COOKE: You were pretty serious about skating, right?
FUJIWARA: Yeah. I used to skate a lot when I was a kid. I loved it and was quite good. Later, when I came back to London in around ’85, I visited the Wild Bunch guys, Nellee Hooper and Milo Johnson [DJs and producers], at their flat in Camden Town. They showed me the Bones Brigade video, and I was so surprised because I’d never seen an ollie. It was like magic for me. So then I got really into skating again. But at the time, it had no influence from hip-hop. It was just thrash rock, hardcore rock, and skulls and all black—that kind of style. In Japan, the skaters were also strictly into rock culture, too, but I was coming from the hip-hop side, so for a while it was difficult to mix both interests. But maybe a year or two later, the hip-hop influence started creeping in. And then, around the same time, Shawn Stussy’s label started happening in the States. I used to buy Stüssy at Patricia Field in New York.
I think we’re at the end of all the revivals. Now you can find collectors or friends with the same interest through the Internet at any time, so nothing is ever really gone.Hiroshi Fujiwara
COOKE: I’d heard from both Shawn and Paul Mittleman [Stüssy’s creative director] that Pat Field was one of their first New York accounts. I think she sold knockoff Chanel ball caps that inspired the Stüssy “SS” link design.
FUJIWARA: I’d met Shawn in Japan through the surf-culture people I knew. We hung out one night, and he said, “Okay, Hiroshi, I’ll send you a box.” I had no idea what he meant. But about two weeks later, a huge box full of Stüssy clothes arrived. I was really happy—and surprised—so I started wearing his stuff, and that was the beginning of the International Stüssy Tribe. I guess Shawn was mailing out packages to other guys he knew in places like New York and London. I was the one in Tokyo. What I really liked about Stüssy was that it wasn’t the usual surf-culture gear or style. I think it was really inspired by labels like Chanel and Comme des Garçons—like black shirts with a certain kind of buttons. I was very into it.
COOKE: I guess it’s fair to say that before Stüssy, streetwear was more about mixing and matching. It was about self-styling. But Stüssy managed to pull a lot of elements together and mix them up with fashion, art, and music references, etc. It was the first time that it was all presented as a package. You went on to do something similar yourself in Japan with -Goodenough.
FUJIWARA: Goodenough was definitely inspired by Stüssy, as well as the label Anarchic Adjustment from England. Shawn came from surf culture, and Nick [Philip], who founded Anarchic Adjustment, I think came from a BMX background. But I actually came from the fashion side, so maybe I knew more about fashion—and music like hip-hop because I was a DJ—so it was really successful when we mixed it all up together.
COOKE: The success of Goodenough began to raise your profile in Japanese magazines. How did that happen?
FUJIWARA: In those days, people were really hungry for information—and, somehow, I had pretty good access because I had friends in London, New York, Los Angeles, everywhere. I’d been visiting many places and talking with people, so I had a constant flow of new info. I sometimes did articles for magazines and things, and people started to say, “If you want to know what’s going on, ask Hiroshi.” So that was the beginning with Goodenough. During that time, Nigo was kind of my assistant for both deejaying and styling because he has a good sense with clothing. Also around me were Jonio [Jun Takahashi], who was starting Undercover, and Shinsuke Takizawa of Neighborhood, who was a student. I put Shinsuke to work with File Records, which handled the Major Force label, since they needed staff to work and to create merchandise. So we began to connect a few things.
COOKE: Everything sounds like it happened very naturally and as a product of your interests and connections, rather than as a plan or strategy.
FUJIWARA: I don’t have any plan at all.
COOKE: Everything has moved on quite a lot since then. One interesting thing about your work with Fragment design right now is that your staff consists of only a couple of other people. I doubt many people realize that you work with such a small team. But that wasn’t always the case.
FUJIWARA: Yeah. When I was doing Goodenough, I’d hired a few people to work in my office, but then, toward the end of the ’90s, I decided that this is not what I should be doing. I didn’t want to make a big company and have to hire lots of people. I felt like I was better as an independent or as a solo operator. So I made the decision to finish everything and work alone just with an assistant or two and just change to a design studio that sells ideas to other companies for a percentage or a guarantee. Although maybe there isn’t the potential that there is in having a bigger company, it’s good for me.
COOKE: I suppose that the way you work now is similar in a way to how it was in the beginning, when people approached you for information—your clients, like Nike or Levi’s or Burton, seek information or ideas—so that has been a consistent theme throughout your career. You quit deejaying a few years ago, and I seem to remember you telling me that it was because your heart just wasn’t in it anymore. Actually, I think you said that if you were yourself at 18 years old, looking at the older version of yourself deejaying, you would feel like, “This guy isn’t the real deal,” right?
FUJIWARA: Yeah. The biggest reason was that when I started deejaying, I’d said that the other DJs in Japan were like salaried employees who I really didn’t want to emulate because they didn’t even know the titles of the songs they were playing—just that they were playing a hot track or whatever—which I didn’t appreciate at all. You know what it’s like when you’re really into deejaying—you even know who the producer is and those kinds of things, let alone the name of the track. But I’d reached a stage where I would look at myself and think, I don’t even know the song. I was going to the record store, and through talking with the guys who worked there, I’d figure out what was good, and then I would just pick up tracks on their recommendations and bring them to the club to play. I had good enough technique as a DJ that I could mix the songs so the flow was decent enough. But I realized that I had become just like the kind of DJ that I used to hate, with no knowledge, so I decided that I needed to be honest with myself and quit.
COOKE: How do you feel about the success and rise in influence of some of your other friends and colleagues—Jun and Nigo, for example—who have achieved a certain level of recognition outside of Japan?
FUJIWARA: I think it’s amazing. I don’t feel like that kind of thing would ever happen to me, as I’m not like those kinds of designers—I don’t want to express myself in such a categorized way. I kind of want to be in the middle of the majority and the minority. I don’t really want people to know what I am.
COOKE: Yeah, they are all pretty clearly defined in what they do.
FUJIWARA: And there’s definitely a risk as well to do that. But I’m very pleased at what they’ve done and achieved. When Jonio and Nigo opened Nowhere in Harajuku, the Japanese bubble economy had just finished and everything was cheap, so the place we call Ura-Hara now was really empty. I remember helping Jonio make products like hand-printed T-shirts and stuff like that. We were quite looking forward to seeing how the customers would react. First, there were 20 people lined up; the next day, there were 40, and it just built up from there. So I feel like I saw a good 10 or 15 years of growth and experienced the whole thing very closely.
COOKE: What’s the state of the Harajuku scene right now? Do you think the people and brands we’ve been talking about are the end product of the cycle that produced them, but the scene itself is kind of over?
FUJIWARA: It’s not really finished. It just became too big—you can’t really say those are small, independent companies anymore. There should be something smaller happening, although I can’t really say I’ve found it, which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. If there’s a really good thing going on now and I don’t know about it, I think that’s kind of right. If I know what’s going on, then it’s not truly new, if you know what I mean. When we started Nowhere, maybe the fashion industry recognized something was happening, but they just thought, Oh, those kids . . . whatever. They didn’t know what was actually going on with us. Now we are those people in a sense—the current establishment. So I hope there’s something happening that is new and independent that we know nothing about. Maybe it’s even being done by people who see our generation as an enemy. That can create energy as well.
COOKE: You collaborated with Takashi Murakami a couple of years ago on an exhibition called Hi & Lo. You’ve sometimes mentioned to me that you don’t feel that Japanese people “get” art in the same way as some Westerners. Was that exhibition an attempt to open up people in Japan to something different?
FUJIWARA: Well, I’d been asked by Murakami to collaborate on something, which was an honor for me. I was really pleased. And then he had me as a guest speaker on his radio show, and we were talking about art. I don’t think he knew I was interested in the topic—he was really surprised to find out that I own some original Warhol and Richter and Basquiat works. So, in some ways, I think he simply wanted to see what I have.
COOKE: Like, “Show me what you’ve got.”
FUJIWARA: Something like that. I’m not really an art collector—I’m more of a person who picks up things. I have pieces by people like Richter, for example, but then also others by unknown Japanese artists, and not many real art collectors do that. So I think Murakami felt like it could be interesting to hook up. Maybe Japan itself is a little similar in that a lot of young people seem to have a little knowledge but not too much depth. I guess my perception of the art specialists in America or in Europe is that the art people are kind of mainly just the art people and that community is self-contained. But in Japan, it mixes with fashion and other things. There is a kind of art industry here, which is really highbrow, but my take on art is as something more fun to enjoy. I’m sure that many authentic art dealers or insiders didn’t like the way that we presented our show in this very pop-y, accessible manner—just showing parts of our collections and selling prints and collaborative products.
COOKE: New York, London, and Tokyo have provided you with inspiration for the past 20 or 30 years. But how do you feel now about the energy of those cities? How do you feel about the scene?
FUJIWARA: It has become really boring. I mean, 30 years ago, London was really happening—there was swinging London and then punk. It was really different from other cities, and so I’d always wanted to go there and see what was actually going on. After that, hip-hop was the next thing happening, so to get the records or the proper clothing, you really had to actually go to New York. But now you don’t really need to go. For example, if I see a nice photography book in New York, and I don’t want to have to carry that back to Japan with me, I just order it from Amazon when I come home. There’s no treasure-hunting anymore. It used to be like a hunt to find Air Jordans, Max 95s, and carrying them back.
COOKE: Yeah. Everything is pretty much available to everybody now. You just click online and find what you’re looking for.
FUJIWARA: It’s really convenient but kind of boring.
COOKE: Perhaps that’s why the culture is slower to change or to develop something truly new now.
FUJIWARA: I think we’re at the end of all the revivals. Punk revivals used to happen maybe every 10 years. People would forget about punk for a while, and then a magazine would do a special issue on the 10th anniversary of punk, for example, and bring it back. But now you can find collectors or friends with the same interest through the Internet at any time, so nothing is ever really gone. Everything is always there.
COOKE: It’s funny, because—talking about the accessibility of information and overground nature of everything previously less visible—I read an interesting article last year in the Financial Timesby Malcolm McLaren. He was writing about what he calls “karaoke culture,” by which I think he was referring to the instant fame of reality shows like American Idol or Britain’s Got Talent, where contestants cover other people’s music and the main goal is to be famous for fame’s sake instead of the traditional and perhaps more noble path of writing your own songs and standing for something. What’s your take on that? Do you also think a lot of what we see now is a pastiche of old references—a sort of rehash that’s almost like a karaoke dress-up party?
FUJIWARA: Yeah, but it’s kind of always been a bit like that. I mean, when Malcolm was starting out he was inspired by the Situationists or rockabilly. I guess now it’s more obvious, and people don’t often have an attitude when they steal ideas.
COOKE: Well, not everything he said was negative. He did see some true talent that has come out of these things. But he was making a comment on this karaoke culture now being the prevalent thing going on in pop culture.
FUJIWARA: I guess he kind of used karaoke culture himself, though, in the past—or maybe he just likes the word. [laughs] But everything is a copy of sorts. If you look at items of clothing like denim or polo shirts, they came from someone else’s idea and everyone now makes them, but even so, I sometimes want to buy into the newer thing because it looks good or whatever. I mean, I copy many things—almost everything I do could be called a copy in some way. But I copy with a certain respect. I have a high regard for the original, and so I want to put my twist onto that. It’s just like sampling music—when it’s done well, the new work communicates a respect for the original source material. But some of the bigger companies seem to be copying only to make money, which creatively is very bad. I sometimes wonder if they have any respect.
COOKE: I guess you could somewhat cynically view that kind of copying as not so much adding to the culture as taking from it.
FUJIWARA: It’s very difficult to judge.
COOKE: At the end of last year you did this book, Personal Effects, which is a selection of 100 diverse personal items that you feel are interesting. I actually helped clean up the English on it. But how did that happen?
FUJIWARA: A few magazine publishers were interested in me doing a book, but one in particular called Magazine House, who do Brutus and Popeye [Japanese magazines]—you know those Japanese fashion-book specialists—asked me to do a version of a book that already exists, which was originally done by a stylist called Sonya Park. She has a book where she selected 101 items, which is really beautiful, and they wanted me to do something similar. I really liked her book, which was all stuff you can buy, like a catalog or shopping-manual kind of thing. But mine’s more about things that are hard to find—or alternatively, easy to get. It’s just things that belong to me or that I’m interested in. I’m also planning to do a new concept book for sneakers, which will be kind of like an encyclopedia or a sneaker history. It’ll be like those kids’ books that show a picture or a drawing of an insect or a dinosaur with an explanation next to it.
COOKE: You’ve also got Honeyee.com, which you started in 2005 and which has since spawned a number of sort of copycat sites. How did that come about?
FUJIWARA: Well, we weren’t the first to do the website type of thing, but I guess we were waiting for the right timing. Me and Hirofumi from SOPH. and Hiroki from Visvim were meeting every month and kept saying maybe it’s time to do a website. There were some other fashion sites in Japan that were selling stuff, but we didn’t really get involved with them. It’s not that I didn’t like the other sites, but we felt that perhaps those shopping websites might kill the local stores. So we decided to do our thing. I guess I came up with the name. All of our initials begin with H—Hiroki, Hirofumi, and Hiroshi—and Honeyee.com sounds like “honeycomb” with many sections. It also sounds like the Japanese word that means “to hesitate,” so there were many meanings. And the “.com” at the end can sound like come, like, “Honey, come. Come to honey…”
COOKE: So it was a play on certain words or sounds.
FUJIWARA: Yeah, easy to remember. When we started, I definitely wanted to do a blog, but at that time, not many people were putting pictures on their blogs, so it was more like how Twitter is now—just words. But I thought that so many people around me carried digital cameras, taking pics all the time. So we asked the Web designers to create an easy-to-use format for posting pictures, so the blogs could be more visual. I think a lot of people who look at our stuff saw that and started adding that element to their sites.
COOKE: Before Honeyee.com, fashion sites were very much about just showing products—there weren’t those kinds of personal blogs and images. So it was interesting when you first started.
FUJIWARA: But I guess now what we did has become pretty standard, nothing special. I mean, it’s very easy for these sites to all look similar, which may be boring for some people. Honeyee.com is just another one of these fashion websites. But I’m always looking for how to do something new or different.
COOKE: What’s next for Hiroshi, then?
FUJIWARA: There are a few projects I’ve been working on but can’t really tell you what they are. I still feel like I’m really into fashion. I even think sneakers are a fashion item as well. I’m still into sneakers and clothes. Even though I don’t wear or buy those things, I find that I’m still like looking for them—like newer things like Cassette Playa [Carri Munden’s British streetwear label] or those kinds of things. I can’t wear it, but I still think it’s interesting when I see it.
COOKE: Checking on the kids?
FUJIWARA: Kids . . . Older people . . . whomever.
See more work by Hiroshi Fujiwara here.
Fraser Cooke is a Tokyo-based global marketing specialist for Nike, as well as a writer and sometime DJ.