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Thanks to his book FRUITS (more than 100,000 copies sold worldwide), Shoichi Aoki’s street magazine Fruits is now better known abroad than in Japan itself. The magazine with an almost cult-like following in Japan has been documenting Tokyo street fashion since 1996. I had an exclusive interview with Aoki.
You can’t imagine that this is the photographer of the wildest fashion Japan has seen this century, possibly ever. Simply dressed in a white t-shirt, busily pushing boxes around in his small office, Shoichi Aoki (1955) looks more like a harried graphic designer who has too much work to do.
The Roots of Fruits
Aoki first started documenting street fashion in London in the mid 80’s. “I taught myself how to take photographs from books. At the time Japanese fashion wasn’t free at all. The normal street fashion in the UK was free and really cool.” Inspired by the free street fashion of London the young Aoki decided he wanted to do something about Japanese staleness. “In Japan there was not a single magazine that showed the London style of street fashion. I figured that if I would introduce that kind of fashion to Japan things would change. I also saw the clothes as art and I wanted to preserve a record of this ‘street art’.”
To show the Japanese kids this ‘free street art’ of London, Aoki started Street magazine in 1985. It sold well and introduced the street fashion idea to tens of thousands of Japanese teenagers.
Harajuku Goes Wild
In the early to mid 90’s things were beginning to change in Japan. The Harajuku area in Tokyo had its main thoroughfare closed off on Sundays and this was attracting more and more bands and show offs. The ‘pedestrian heaven’ (hokoten) as it was called became a laboratory and incubation center for new trends in music and fashion. “In Japan everybody had always dressed the same. Whatever was popular was worn by everyone. Everybody would wear Comme des Garï¿½ons or Ivy or whatever brand was ‘in’. But suddenly Harajuku became free. People started to feel that it was cool to coordinate your own clothes. Harajuku fashion became really interesting and fun.” He recalls: “You had this small group of trendsetters, perhaps 10 to 20 people. Whenever they came up with something new, others would soon imitate them. But these imitators weren’t as cool as the original trendsetters so the trendsetters didn’t want to be identified with them. To differentiate themselves again they came up with new things. It just escalated. They kept on trying to escape from their imitators right into “decora” (editor: fashion style sporting lots of decorative stuff and strong bright colors). They figured nobody would follow them into wearing clothes that crazy.” To record this creative explosion of fashion, Aoki started up a second magazine, Fruits. Fruits almost exclusively focused on these wild Harajuku trends.
The Soul of Fashion
Fruits is not your average fashion magazine. It is printed on relatively cheap paper without all the expensive advertising of the mainstream fashion magazines. There are no fabulously looking models which you will never ever meet in real life. Instead there are real people, usually staring zombie-like straight into the camera. The first five years Aoki shot the photos himself, wandering around the streets of Tokyo day after day. It was hard work. “On an average day I’d perhaps shoot 5 people,” he recalls. He didn’t just photograph his subjects he also delved into their souls. Each photo in Fruits contains information about that person’s favorite place in Tokyo, their favorite shop and brand, what they want to buy and the kind of work they want to do in the future. “You start to understand the character of that person a little bit,” Aoki explains. “You also get to see the trends in jobs. Now everybody wants to become a nail artist.”
Think for Yourself
Since he started documenting the Harajuku trends Aoki has seen quite a few changes. “From ’96 through ’99 you had a boom of young designers like Triventi, Beauty Beast and so on. After that, second hand clothes became the cool thing to wear. Recently you see a a lot of people wearing foreign designers again.” The kids themselves also changed according to Aoki. “They are much freer in expressing themselves and can think for themselves. They even decide their own hairstyles now. In the mid 90’s it was truly revolutionary when people started to dye their hair and choose their own color. You eventually saw all kinds of colors: green, red, anything.”
The Meaning of Clothes
Unlike in the West, clothes are not a social or political statement in Japan according to Aoki. “Instead of expressing yourself, it is a way of communicating with the members of your group. A message without words. You show your feelings, your awareness of fashion. It has no social context whatsoever. They don’t care at all about how other people in society or how other groups see them.” This group feeling is so strong says Aoki that members of one group will never meet or communicate with members of other groups. “Harajuku girls would never become friends with Shibuya girls. It is a different universe.”
Aoki wonders about the future of Harajuku. Several years ago the “pedestrian heaven” system which functioned as a germinator for Harajuku’s wild fashion trends was terminated. People living in the area complained about the noise. “Now when something new surfaces it quickly evaporates. There is no place to make it grow. Fashion is like farming, it needs fields. If you have seeds but no fields the plants fade away.” There is nothing to take Harajuku’s place at the moment. “Harajuku is unique. It has Meiji Jingu Shrine nearby, many large stations and a very special spirit. Daikanyama is also good, but it is more of a quiet kind of place. It won’t go wild. It has always been that way.”
But Aoki doesn’t feel hopeless. “I feel something new emerging. I just don’t know what yet. When I see it, I’ll know.”
Originally published on JAPANESE STREETS, the world’s most popular online magazine about Japanese street fashion and street culture
FRUITS magazine covers: © copyright AOKI Shoichi.