Associate Professor Fashion Institute of Technology / State Univ. of NY
Yuniya Kawamura was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1963. She earned her PhD in Sociology from Columbia University in 2001. After graduating from Sophia University in Tokyo, she studied fashion design and patternmaking at Bunka College of Fashion in Japan, Kingston Polytechnic in UK, and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in USA. She worked at the editorial bureau of Nikkei America, Inc. before attending Columbia University. She is currently a tenured faculty member at FIT where she teaches fashion/clothing from sociological perspectives. Her major publications include "SUNIKA BUNKA RON (A Cultural Discourse of Sneakers)" (Nikkei/2012); "PARI NO SHIKUMI (The Mechanism of Paris)" (Nikkei / 2004); "The Japanese Revolution in Paris Fashion" (Berg / 2004); "Fashion-ology" (Berg / 2005); "Doing Research in Fashion and Dress" (Berg / 2011); and "Fashioning Japanese Subcultures" (Berg / 2012).
Dr. Yuniya Kawamura conducts her research in New York as a professor of Fashion Sociology. She treats fashion not as a superficial phenomenon but as an abstract concept, and seeks to discover how fashion is socially constructed. We paid her a visit in her office at FIT, where she is part of the faculty, and asked her a few questions.
“SUNIKA BUNKA RON (A Cultural Discourse of Sneakers)” (December 2012, Nikkei Publishing)
Please tell us about what you’ve been up to lately.
My new book, “SUNIKA BUNKA RON (A Cultural Discourse of Sneakers)” (Nikkei Publishing), was just published in December 2012. It discusses how a simple pair of sneakers, a staple of New York street fashion, became a worldwide icon of subcultural fashion. I teach two fashion-related sociology courses at FIT. One is called “Clothing and Society”, and the other one is “Cultural Expressions of Non-Western Dress and Fashion”. When I was giving a lecture on fashion and subcultures in one of my classes, one student asked me, “Are sneakerheads in New York considered a subculture?” and she recommended me a DVD called Just For Kicks. That’s what got me interested in the topic, and I started to research how sneakers evolved from mere athletic shoes into a fashion item, and how the global sneaker communities were constructed.
“Fashioning Japanese Subcultures” (August 2012, Berg Pub. Ltd.) is based on the author’s ethnographical fieldwork in Harajuku and Shibuya among other districts, and discusses Japanese youth subcultures that are geographically and stylistically defined.
One of your more famous books, “PARI NO SHIKUMI (The Mechanism of Paris)” (Nikkei / 2004), was about how the fashion industry has become a system with Paris as its focal point. What made you decide to switch topics from Parisian mode fashion to subculture?
I have always had an interest in Japanese youth fashion and subcultures even prior to my research on sneakers in New York. I had been conducting fieldwork in places like Harajuku and Shibuya since 2004. It’s fascinating to see how the youth subcultures of Japan can vary so wildly by district, from Harajuku’s Lolita to Shibuya’s Gyaru and Gyaru-o. My focus on the sneaker fans and collectors is just an extension of my previous research. In both case studies, I make an attempt to investigate how society and fashion influence each other. I have met some American Lolita girls at FIT, and they are also manga and anime fans. They tell me that they collect information mostly on the Internet and find other Lolita fans. Grassroots fashion movements like these are taking place at the personal, micro level around the world, and people share their interests and create communities with like-minded individuals through social media. There used to be a big divide between professionals and amateurs/consumers, but nowadays consumers have access to so much information that their depth of knowledge and the level of creativity are incredible. Some sneaker enthusiasts even design and custom-paint their own sneakers. With consumers coming to possess skills like these, the professional vs amateur boundary is becoming increasingly blurry.
Changes in the information environment and communication methods have to be a major factor in that. How do fashion-conscious youths in New York collect and transmit information?
Bloggers, as always, have steady influence. It has gotten to the point where well-known brands invite bloggers to the front row seats at their shows. But most young people today gather information mainly via Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook. Some even say, “Blogs are too long. We don’t read them. It’s like trying to get through a novel. I want my info in 140 characters or less”. While that might be an exaggeration, simplicity and conciseness in communication are crucial to them.
It seems like social media is more firmly rooted overseas than in Japan. Has this changed the communication strategies used by brands or companies?
Social media has become a vital part of the fashion industry as well, and more and more companies are utilizing them for marketing and PR purposes. It’s not just a fad, but has reached the level where people are hired specifically to oversee the use of social media. Many companies are hiring social media experts as marketers. They are also used in classes at FIT. For instance, some instructors have students watch YouTube videos related to the class topic while others use blogs to communicate with students.
What are some brands that have caught your attention?
>I’m still following street fashion designers and brands as a continuation of my fieldwork on sneakers. The two that stand out are Jeff Staple and Ronnie Fieg who also design apparel. They’re hailed as “legends”, and their popularity grew through collaborations with major brands like Nike, New Balance, Asics and Converse. All their collaboration sneakers are top sellers. They make a good use of social media, and their Twitter accounts (@jeffstaple, @RonnieFieg) have over 20,000 followers.UNDFTD is also very popular. The infographics they put on their T-shirts areeye-catching. Putting words and images on T-shirts using verbal and non-verbal symbols is a common way to communicate their messages in street fashion labels. I also have my eye on brands that make social contributions, like Major, Goliath, and Bodega, with their shirts aimed at the underage smoking prevention.
What do the young people of New York think about Japanese brands?
Japanese menswear brands are very popular and are well known for their fabrics as well as the high level of garment construction details. You need to be a real fashion connoisseur to understand them. Brand names that come up often are visvim, Mountaineering, Vanquish, and Engineered Garments. Fashion conscious individuals use hashtags (#) on Twitter to exchange brand information and create their own communities. For example, “＃menswear” is used by those who are catching up with the latest menswear fashion.
What are the issues which Japanese designers must tackle?
While Japanese designers have some spectacular design elements to offer to the world, they’re not very good at getting the word out about their brand. It’s no accident that Paris has become the center of the fashion world. It happened because people within the industry intentionally made a centralized system, and that system, in turn, created the establishment of fashion. As with art, cuisine, and publishing, each field has its own system. Each system has what I call “gatekeepers”, whose job is to gauge the level of talent and creativity. These gatekeepers aren’t the creators themselves. In New York, for instance, this would be journalists and magazine editors. One of the best good examples would be Anna Wintour of Vogue magazine. If you don’t know whom you have to impress or who legitimates you, you can’t get your foot in the door of the system, and thus your brand fails to develop.
Finally, what advice do you have for people who want to enter the fashion industry?
It’s a bit cliché, but people in fashion need to learn English. English is read, written, and spoken worldwide. If you can master English, you can communicate directly with your followers on Twitter, no matter where they are. You can promote your brand and also introduce new products. Not only that, but you can directly communicate with your fans and customers. A “gatekeeper” will no longer be needed. Another thing would be to stay curious, and keep your eyes open to different cultures and fields. Being in the fashion industry, one tends to develop a rather peculiar sensibility and perspective. Relying solely on that can make you narrow-minded. Keeping an open mind to areas other than fashion is the best way to prevent that. It will also allow you to see fashion more objectively.