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By Matt Potter / Kelly Wetherille     15 Mar 2016

Ten years ago, things looked bleak for Tokyo. Prices were falling, young people leaving. But the sudden availability of space has seen artists and designers flock to the city. It’s now a creative hot spot, and fashion designer Chitose Abe is one of its rising stars

What’s brought the life back to Tokyo? Like Berlin before it, the answer may be in the way it experiences space.

After the city saw ‘miracle’ growth in the 1960s–80s, the 1990s were known as the ‘lost decade,’ starting with the collapse of the asset price bubble. Massive investment in a huge public-works program was not enough to stimulate the economy. Following structural reform, deflation and quantitative easing, recovery seemed to begin in 2005. However, it has not been plain sailing. While Japanese exports rose by 3.9 percent year-on-year in July 2014 as shipments of cars and electric machinery increased, it seemed a manufacturing recovery would take longer. But this was to reckon without invisible exports—culture, visitors and art.

Tokyo Stock Exchange in 1971
Tokyo Stock Exchange in 1971

Lower property values opened central Tokyo up to artists and academics once more: at one point in 2011, it was estimated that for every office that had closed, two studios or performance spaces had opened—and often in the same unit.

‘Happy people have no stories,’ went the punk mantra, as it brought DIY-style life roaring back into global culture. For Tokyo in the 1990s, it might have been, ‘Stable, boom-time-era markets produce little good art.’ For years, there were better things to be doing. For talented young fashion designers, artists and writers, it was inevitable that the path to a regular, salaried job would seem like an easier answer.

But the massive financial shock of the burst bubble only magnified a process of reoccupation and regeneration with which Japan has reckoned for centuries.

Regeneration here is not something that happens top-down, once a century, as it does elsewhere, but on a regular, piecemeal basis. There’s a feeling of impending redevelopment—on the assumption that there will be another earthquake, sometime—that never really leaves Tokyo.

After the March 11 earthquake and Fukushima meltdown, producer Pharrell Williams visited friends in town. The encounters were filmed for a documentary called Tokyo Rising that became a fascinating document of the younger generation of Tokyoites’ response to the emergency. And of the way in which Tokyo’s creatives—artists, musicians and designers—are answering the question the city has asked itself over and over since the burst of the asset bubble: ‘Where do we go from here?’

The Tokyo Coolture blog noted that, ‘By visiting with Pharrell the art galleries built where once there was a school, or the fashion groups which have taken the place of slums and bars in the Kabukicho alleys (Asia’s largest red-light district) we discover that there can be positive side effects coming from terrible tragedies.’

This is culture as collage; as a remaking of itself through a kind of recycling. In a sense, Tokyo’s younger generations, once viewed as ‘lost’ economically, found themselves in a new narrative, outside the corporate towers.

(Nor was the asset bubble the first time a renaissance in art, fashion, culture and music had been led by a lost generation. Readers of Julian Cope’s seminal book on Japan in the 1960s, Japrocksampler: How The Post-War Japanese Blew Their Minds on Rock & Roll will be familiar with the idea of a generation who turned their dispossession, and the devastation of their surroundings, into a rich source of material, and a whole new creative industry—one that, within a decade, went from the first staging of the Western counterculture musical Hair in Asia to a flowering of world-conquering original experimental theater, music, fashion and design that could count Western tastemakers from David Bowie to Vivienne Westwood as acolytes.)

Kabukicho, often called the 'Sleepless Town', is an entertainment and red-light district in Shinjuku, Tokyo
Kabukicho, often called the ‘Sleepless Town’, is an entertainment and red-light district in Shinjuku, Tokyo

The result, as before, has been an energized city—one in which street theater, little seen during the boom years, is making a comeback, and in which cultural exports now approach an astonishing quarter of the whole figure.

Chitose Abe is one of the leading lights of this resurgence, and her path—full of remakes and quotations and samples—is an emblem of the way old spaces, old buildings and old orthodoxies are being repurposed.

First at Comme des Garçons then her own label Sacai—known for its edgy take on daywear—she has redefined fashion over two decades, and is now inspiring generations of people all over the world to question their style philosophies.

Ever since those radical, experimental 1970s, when Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo burst onto the scene with their asymmetrical, avant-garde clothes, Japan hasn’t had much of a representation in the international fashion world.

But Abe has been slowly gathering a cult following since launching her brand in 1999—amid the devastation of the crash, and in the same month that the Bank of Japan introduced a desperate ‘zero-rate’ interest policy.

This was a move designed to spur growth and embrace economic adventure at zero risk—and it’s tempting to see Abe’s spliced-together and inside-out designs, which merge such seemingly disparate elements as moto jackets and Mongolian lamb’s fur, as direct results of that sense of playful abandon. No wonder they appealed to Japan’s own lost boys and girls. But it also gives them a sense of jeu d’esprit that have made them famous worldwide. Her designs have been lauded by the likes of Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld. They’re also a favorite among celebrities, with none other than the culturally clued-up Pharrell Williams sporting Sacai cardigans both in his official video for his song ‘Marilyn Monroe’ and during several high-profile live performances.

Sacai window display in 2015
Sacai window display in 2015

Before starting Sacai, Abe worked under Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons, where she was chosen as one of three people who would help Junya Watanabe launch his namesake label. Today, Sacai’s pieces don’t particularly resemble the deconstructed aesthetic for which Comme des Garçons is known, but Abe credits Kawakubo with teaching her more abstract notions, such as how to run a fashion brand as a business without losing touch with creativity.

Judging by her striking collections and the rave reviews they have received from editors and retailers alike, Abe has had no problem with this. Her signature aesthetic involves mixing high with low, elegant with casual, masculine with feminine, traditional with modern. Not only is this clear in the designs she creates, it’s also true of her personal style. In fact, Abe says she rarely makes things for her brand that she herself wouldn’t wear. Even her many collaborations, such as with Nike, Birkenstock and Danish jewelry designer Sophie Bille Brahe, often come about because Abe herself wants to wear those things.

Abe credits her love for startling juxtapositions to the ‘seemingly endless contradictions’ of her home city. It is, after all, a city where today’s red-light districts are tomorrow’s gallery quarters; where suited execs are only ever a bubble away from making their own way through sample culture; and where the sale graph and the seismograph can start to look startlingly familiar at any moment.

The captivating art work of Japan's internationally acclaimed contemporary artist Takashi Murakami
The captivating art work of Japan’s internationally acclaimed contemporary artist Takashi Murakami

You see this potentiality everywhere in today’s city. Tokyo is often described by travelers and residents as ‘an enigma’—a place where the world’s top luxury brands sit alongside strange and wacky boutiques; where the latest technologies and super-modern design coexist with ancient Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines; where cheap fast-food joints and Michelin-starred restaurants can be found in the same building.

With her brand’s headquarters in such a dynamic and ever-changing city—and her roots in the historical moment Japan rediscovered its love of re-contextualizing, sampling, dress-up and an alternative to watching the stock market—it’s no wonder she never seems lacking in joyful creativity.

Can’t get enough of Tokyo? Check out its hidden neighbourhoods and tell us what you think at #momentumtravel.

Photo credit: Alamy

Matt Potter
Matt Potter (@mattpotter)

Matt Potter is an author, journalist, screenwriter and broadcaster. He’s reported from Asia for the BBC, writes for The Telegraph and presents for the Discovery Channel.

Kelly Wetherille
Kelly Wetherille (@kellywetherille)

Kelly Wetherille is a freelance journalist and editor in Tokyo, covering topics related to fashion, beauty, lifestyle, business, culture and travel. She is a regular contributor to WWD.

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