Genderless fashion big in Japan

Models in floral silkscreen-printed garments and combat boots by Japanese designer Tsukasa Mikami at Tokyo Fashion Week.
Models in floral silkscreen-printed garments and combat boots by Japanese designer Tsukasa Mikami at Tokyo Fashion Week.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

TOKYO • No stranger to barrettes, bows and beauty products, Japanese Instagram icon and model Genking is a proud flag bearer for "genderless" fashion in which young men adopt unequivocally feminine styles and challenge traditional norms.

Although women around the world have taken to menswear in droves - sporting trousers since the 1930s when French fashion legend Coco Chanel put her equestrian clients in pants - the sight of a man in a skirt still raises eyebrows in the West.

In much of Asia, however, unisex clothing - whether in the form of a traditional shalwar kameez, sarong or kimono - boasts a long history, while popular theatrical traditions regularly feature gender-bending performances.

Genking's long bleached blond locks, curled eyelashes and fondness for womenswear and menswear testify to a self-professed identity as a "genderless" person.

In Japan, men play every role during traditional kabuki - all-male theatre - performances, while the century-old Takarazuka Revue - an all-female musical theatre troupe - sees women slick back their hair and don tuxedos to the delight of adoring female fans.

"Gender role play through fashion and performance has always been a big part of Japanese culture," said Tokyo-based style blogger and TV host, Misha Janette.

Retailers have long catered to a fashion-hungry menswear market with slick tailoring, leather clutches and luxury skincare products. Few young men, however, would have made the leap from watching male actors play women on stage to adopting "girly" accessories and wearing make-up themselves, were it not for the overwhelming influence of K-pop music and Japanese anime movies. "When K-pop became big in Japan, young men tried to copy the effeminate features of male band members," said Janette.

Meanwhile, as anime's popularity rose, boys turned to makeup in a bid to resemble cartoon characters.

"Genderless" trailblazers including singer Yohdi Kondo and style star Ryucheru regularly don schoolgirl braids, swipe on blush and dress in pink fluffy sweaters, adopting "kawaii", or cute, styles.

But while Japanese fashion seeks to overturn convention, commentators say it will take more than men dressed in skirts to transform traditional gender dynamics in the conservative country.

"The genderless trend is really a fashion moment, it's not necessarily about sexuality or any social agenda... I don't think a trend like this changes anything for women, it's not empowering (for them)," said Janette.

Designer Tsukasa Mikami opened Tokyo Fashion Week on Monday with a show featuring male and female models in floral silkscreen-printed garments and combat boots.

Hot new unisex label "ilk" offers a selection of dresses and belted tunics aimed at "customers of all ages, genders and sexualities", according to designer Koji Ota.

Meanwhile, in a nod to the trend's growing reach, retail giant Zara last week launched a unisex line of sweatshirts, tank tops and sneakers called "Ungendered".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2016, with the headline 'Genderless fashion big in Japan'. Print Edition | Subscribe