Has Your Wardrobe Got Enough Kawaii Going On?

If not here's some cute garb to fill it with pronto


by Nellie Eden |
Updated on

Are you pawing a gem-encrusted iPhone case as you read this? Are your faux talons making texting difficult? Did you succumb to a coloured faux fur coat this winter? You may too be inadvertently participating in some Kawaii. AKA, the cutesy Japanese vibe that’s taking over fashion right now.

What does Kawaii mean?

Before we go any further, let’s discuss what Kawaii means. Because while the literal translation of Kawaii is ‘cute’, in Japan the word carries a much more profound meaning.

‘People associate the word Kawaii with things or people that are innocent and sweet. It embodies childlike qualities and feelings of joy,’ Manami Okazaka, a specialist in Japanese street culture, author of the book Kawaii: Japan’s Culture of Cute and a contributing journalist to The Japanese Times, says.

The Kawaii movement

The Kawaii movement has seen a resurgence in Japan recently. Some commentators even believe that in the three years following the Japanese tsunami, the Kawaii movement has become linked to a new sense of nationalism in the young. ‘There was a surge in Japanese nationalism post the earthquake and tsunami, and the way these girls are approaching it now is a individual expression of identity,’ Thomas Card, a photographer who has chronicled the movement in Tokyo Abroad, explains.

‘They have a sense that this is a very Japanese thing and a very proud part of Japanese culture. They feel a sense of nationalistic pride by participating in this Japanese cultural event.’

‘Kawaii means cute – but it has the connotations of being cool and awesome. In the West, cute is associated with something being sexy and hot, whereas there it is cooler’

And as the movement has grown in Japan – with some Kawaii icons finding internet fame thanks to street-style blogs – it’s taken hold here, too. A Google trends map reveals the term is now used three times more than in 2011 online. High street brands such as Vivetta and Au Jour Le Jour have started selling out of princess faux-fur, oversized polka dots and penguin-patterned Peter Pan collars.

Young label Lazy Oaf, Isolated Heroes and to an extent, Shop Jeen and Nasty Gal are very Kawaii. As is Illustrated People’s collaboration with Phoebe Lettice, which is entirely Kawaii themed (seriously, watch the video. It’s Kawaii-in-London to a T. Or, K.) As Phoebe herself put it: ‘Japanese girls wear whatever they feel like – they see clothes as a form of self-expression and freedom.’

Kawaii controversy

But if you’re going to go down the Kawaii route, take heed. It can go seriously wrong, seriously quickly. As Avril Lavigne found out with her controversial Hello Kitty video, which was swiftly removed from the internet after many accused her of racism.

There’s another controversy within the Kawaii movement: the fact that many find the term ‘cute’ and deliberate girliness of the Kawaii trend disturbingly Lolita-ish. That’s missing the point though, says Okazaka.

‘Kawaii fashion lovers in Japan are painfully shy and use gregarious fashion to express themselves. Not much skin is on show as it is about embracing one’s inner child – it is feminine without being sexy.’ And Card agrees. ‘Kawaii means cute – but it has the connotations of being cool and awesome. In the West, cute is associated with something being sexy and hot, whereas there it is cooler.’


So who does do Kawaii right?

Look no further than Japanese pop sensation Kyary Pumyu Pumyu. The video for Kyary’s 2011 ear-worm single PONPONPON – which sees her jumping around on a pogo-stick, farting rainbows (yes, actually) and vomiting eyeballs – has had over 65 million views on YouTube.

Part of Kyary’s intrigue is her utterly surreal garb – think skirts made from packets of food (Walkers skater skirt, here we come) combined with patent pink DMs. The other is that she shows Kawaii in its best sense: not perverted cute, just some kickass fun.


Gazelle OG Trainers, £65 Adidas Originals at very.co.uk; Eye Ballin’ Basketball Shorts, £49 Phoebe Lettice x Illustrated People; Multi Tulle Alphabet Skirt, £340 Au Jour Le Jour at Avenue32; and Shelling Out Bag, £26.80 Nasty Gal

Follow Nellie on Twitter @nelliefaitheden

Pictures: Getty, Jason Lloyd-Evans

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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