Fruits is a juicy pleasure cruise, a tart, sugar-crusted treat that stands in strong contrast to the mordant, beige-and-tawny-sophisticate look that still dominates much American fashion photography. Look at Fruits while drinking intensely sweet starfruit bubble tea. These sculptures with bodies underneath are fabric, fuzz, and fur, candy-bright, toothache-sweet. The mind licks its lips.
Each plate in this collection of Japanese fashion photography captures kids, alone or in pairs, on the street in Tokyo's Harajuku district in the early to mid-1990s, teenagers who cascaded through town wearing homemade costumes of delicious excess, multiple layers of texture crazy with color and complex coding. The poses are sly: some are so demure that they must be a ruse, a mockery of the archaic baby-doll cutie-femme role; others are ironically dopey or snooty, perhaps commenting on the artifice of fashion itself.
Photographer Shoichi Aoki documented this part of what he called Japan's "fashion revolution" in his magazine Fruits. The magazine's images are now collected in a hefty book, which brings Tokyo's hurricane of color and street fashion to the West in the form of a sort of unidentifiable object, just like some of the teenagers inside. Boots thick like marshmallows, blue fringe along the bottom of a skirt, an intensely colored striped sweater sleeve ending in a leopard-print wrist band, slick plastic accessories (a cherry-red cell phone functions as a pendant) together make a loud, funny cacophony that denies the existence of a singular, identifiable Japanese look.
The subjects, mostly girls, peer out from their costumes into the photographs, sometimes shyly or sheepishly, but with consciousness of their assertive creations and fashion's subversive power to mock itself. And while many of the costumes pay homage to a cultural iconographic type (detailed under "points of fashion" at the bottom of each plate in painfully small lettering) such as "cowboy" or "Barbie" or even "Cindy Lauper" [sic], others are shiftier and more elusive, such as "a cheerful person," or "stupid." In these cases, might the wearer be mocking a particular school chum? Or aggressively and angrily expressing some inner anomie? Is she living in a made-up pink world, or has she just thrown some things together to catch everyone's eye and look weirdly good?
All of the above might be true. Lots of these sculptural outfits are made from scratch, from found remnants and tags of fabric tacked together, but the wearers also combine their bric-a-brac with very expensive designer items from houses like the Tokyo-based Comme des Garçons, or Vivienne Westwood, the British doyenne of expensive punk (fashion's ultra paradox). These combos strip designer couture of its ethereal frame, and the expensive pieces' values are leveled, sucked up into a classless grab bag of colors and textural delights in which everything is of similar worth. This exciting prospect makes the book alive, and Aoki's super-clear, shadowless images keep everything glad and unmysterious.
But, as Aoki points out, intense color and avant-garde sensibility has long been embedded in the Japanese psyche: Witness the long history of the kooky, colorful kimono and the operatics of ninja wear. The arrival of Western fashion in Japan only 50 years ago made fashion a lot more drab, Aoki asserts, so the fashion explosion of the '80s and '90s reclaimed Japan's inner dreams of color and let them gush forth again, this time fueled by the excesses of imported Western-style capitalism.
Without the rarefied context of high fashion, the saturation of unstoppable layers forces us to abandon the ether of haute couture and fall into the street where schoolkids and other weird grunts come out to play. But that's not the real world, either; amid these colors there are adrenaline rushes and a denial of the comforting everyday world of home, where there are difficult mothers and friends who betray you.
Lately, Aoki writes, the mid-'90s momentum for extreme fashion has slowed, in part because the pedestrian area in Harajuku has been opened to traffic. Kids mob the district's sidewalks on weekends, which has led to mistrust from the surrounding business community and less tolerance for creative and weird teens in general. Regarding this turn of events, Aoki expresses an appropriately hysterical sense of doom: "Are we to be swallowed up by this boring, gray, mundane society?" Somehow, I'd wager not.