Ambassador of Kawaii
Interview by Anthony Al-Jamie
Fashion, art exhibition, music video, and even Christmas tree designer, Sebastian Masuda is a standout in Japan’s modern artistic culture. Since creating Harajuku-based kawaii fashion outlet 6%DOKIDOKI in 1995, Masuda has worked relentlessly to spread Harajuku culture to people all over the world. As 6%DOKIDOKI’s 20th anniversary fast approaches, Tokyo Journal’s Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie spoke to Sebastian Masuda about the beginnings of his brand, and what’s still to come.
TJ: How did you get into fashion?
MASUDA: I never aimed to work in the fashion industry at all, but I was in it before I realized!
TJ: What did you do before?
MASUDA: I was originally in the drama and modern art world, aiming to be an artist.
TJ: Do you enjoy your job now?
MASUDA: Yes, it’s fun. But as I am doing five projects simultaneously, it gets confusing.
TJ: Do you like other fashions besides kawaii?
MASUDA: I like colorful fashion very much, so cyber or rave fashion.
TJ: Can you explain what kawaii is?
MASUDA: When we Japanese hear “kawaii” we instantly alter it into kanji, and then it’s about something tiny: small animals or baby dolls. However, my idea of kawaii is “kawaii” in terms of the roman alphabet, which includes respect to Japanese people’s sense and culture, as well as producing that cute stuff. So kawaii for me, is a microcosm of Japanese culture where I can create my own closed universe.
TJ: Where do the roots of kawaii culture come from?
MASUDA: The roots of Harajuku’s kawaii is Takenoko-zoku, who performed dance routines in the pedestrian zone of Harajuku in the 1980s. There were many dance teams with colorful fashions, and they competed to stand out the most.
TJ: What’s been the biggest change over the years?
MASUDA: Harajuku’s pedestrian paradise in which the streets were closed to automobile traffic on Sundays in order to allow for entertainers to perform in the middle of the street was abandoned in 1998, and the culture of young people wound down. However, the generation that yearned for performance in the 1990s grew up, and came to spread their culture. The earthquake was another turning point.
TJ: What’s the difference between Harajuku’s kawaii culture and Japan’s kawaii culture in general?
MASUDA: Japan’s kawaii culture, which includes Hello Kitty, is something that was developed right after WWII for young girls, such as Rune Naito. But Harajuku’s kawaii culture, or street fashion, began in the early 1980s. The cultures are mixed in Japan and both cultures are based on Harajuku, and mainly the young generation. Although looking from the outside they are easily confused, they are indeed distinct.
TJ: Why did you start 6%DOKIDOKI?
MASUDA: I had wanted to be an artist or an actor and helped artists when I was young. But when I thought about expressing something myself, I really wanted to express it in Harajuku. I call my place a “store,” but really I started 6%DOKIDOKI as if it were a long-term exhibition in a booth.
TJ: Why the name 6%DOKIDOKI?
MASUDA: When you open a store in Japan, you usually put the name in English or French, but I wanted to use a Japanese-like name.
TJ: Why not 7%?
MASUDA: Because 6 has a circle, percent (%) has circles, and ‘DO’ has circles. So, together, they look cute.
TJ: What is your shop’s concept?
MASUDA: “Sensational lovely,” or “sensational kawaii.” I wanted to make my store something beyond just cuteness – something interesting and cute.
TJ: How do you describe your brand’s look?
MASUDA: People tend to think about fashion in terms of stereotypes, but with 6%DOKIDOKI fashion is much freer. For example you don’t have to put a ribbon on your head, it’s unfettered and you can put it anywhere; likewise you can wear a toy. Plus the brand is colorful.
TJ: Are you going to open more stores in Japan?
MASUDA: No, we don’t have any plans to for now. Ten years ago we had five stores in various places in Japan, such as Osaka and Kyushu. But I felt that local styles there meant [the store] was growing apart from Harajuku style. I want to stick with my Harajuku style, so now I have no intention to open stores outside Harajuku.
TJ: Do you plan to open a store in America?
MASUDA: Yes, I am eager to, if I can find a good partnership.
TJ: Tell me about your “Colorful Rebellion” exhibition in New York.
MASUDA: It was my first ever exhibition! I chose New York because it is the number one city in the world for the arts. I wanted to put my abilities and the power of art from Harajuku to the test in a place where not many people know about me or Harajuku. There were no offers on the table, so I invested the money and rented a gallery for the exhibition. It was a small gallery that only fits 5 people, but we had 1,000 visitors on the opening day.
TJ: How was the experience?
MASUDA: I never thought that everyone would respond that enthusiastically, so I have only good memories. Before that exhibition, I was known only in Japan, but those who didn’t know me then know me now, so it was good for me.
TJ: What about your show’s concept – how did you come up with it?
MASUDA: I knew that kawaii culture had spread all over the world, but I didn’t think that people knew of its roots or the reasons for the style. So, I made the concept that resides deep down under the surface of the eccentric, glittering look – like why you like kawaii clothes.
TJ: What kind of fans came?
MASUDA: During the month-long exhibition, there was an interesting phenomenon. During the first week, the majority of visitors were fans of Kyary, me, or Harajuku fashion. But later on the visitors were art students or the general public, who heard of the exhibition by word of mouth. Many people started explaining about my work without knowing I was the one who created it. I heard that NYU professors also visited my exhibition and recommended it. There still seems to be a lot of reaction.
TJ: Were there many Japanese?
MASUDA: Around 10% of all the visitors were Japanese.
TJ: Wasn’t the theme linked to the seven deadly sins?
MASUDA: I put a white bed in the exhibition, and in the colorful room only the bed was white. The seven deadly sins I used were: greed, future, dream, fate, scar, and reality – the last one being what I thought about while lying in bed. For me, another theme of this exhibition was self-portrait; something that’s not just kawaii, but is art. This included my own question that I might have committed a big sin, because if I hadn’t started making this kawaii culture or colorful stuff, my fans wouldn’t be into it and they would be able to fit in with society instead of having to rely on me.
TJ: How do you deal with that guilt?
MASUDA: Well, many people feel happy about what I create, so I am happy about what I have done.
TJ: Did you meet any famous artists in New York?
MASUDA: Cai Guo-Qiang. He complimented my work a lot.
TJ: Were you able to draw inspiration from your experience in New York?
MASUDA: The reaction from American people reassured me that what I have been making for a long time was not wrong, and that our works can be understood by anyone.
TJ: Will you continue the exhibition?
MASUDA: As the exhibition was a huge success we are going to go to Miami next, from July to December 2014.
TJ: What are you going to do after that?
MASUDA: I would love to bring my works to L.A., but nothing is specifically planned yet.
TJ: Can you tell us about the world tour in 2009?
MASUDA: First I thought that Harajuku fashion was only for Harajuku. But one day someone e-mailed me on MySpace, asking me to come to their country to sell 6%DOKIDOKI’s clothes, and promised to buy all the items so that I could afford the trip. So I went to San Francisco, and then fans in other cities such as L.A. and European countries asked me to stop by. In those places we did workshops together, and created a fashion show. That was the beginning of the world tour to spread Harajuku culture.
TJ: What do you think makes Harajuku’s fashion special?
MASUDA: In Harajuku you can express your ideas in your own way, without restriction. People there are also very liberal toward fashion. So unique and original fashion is easily created.
TJ: Why do you think Harajuku fashion is getting so popular across the world?
MASUDA: One reason is that in Europe or America when you grow up, you are required to grow up and become a mature adult. Colorful or childish fashion are no longer options. But in Japan these clothes are considered a form of expression. People all over the world relate to this culture.
TJ: What do you think of fast fashion brands like Zara and H&M?
MASUDA: Fast fashion is about mass production and mass consumption, but for designers in Harajuku or those who design for a brand, their designs carry messages.
TJ: Do you consider yourself kawaii?
MASUDA: I think I have a kawaii side. But I also have a very aggressive side.
TJ: What’s your blood type?
MASUDA: A. This is the first time an American has asked my blood type.
TJ: We interviewed Kyary Pamyu Pamyu for this issue. You helped launch her career, right?
MASUDA: She was originally our customer at 6%DOKIDOKI. I had heard from my staff that there was a girl with a big ribbon on her head that often visited our store, but I didn’t know that it was Kyary. When she made her debut as a singer, she and her agency asked me to be her art director.
TJ: What do you like about working with Kyary?
MASUDA: She has great intuition. She understands very quickly where to go with things to create artwork, and she’s easy to work with. I think she’s like no one else in this respect.
TJ: What kind of role do you think Kyary plays in kawaii culture?
MASUDA: Before Kyary, kawaii culture was something only a particular group of people in Harajuku understood. Kyary spread this understanding very quickly, through her music, music videos, and YouTube. She plays a leading role, as a flag-bearer for kawaii.
TJ: Why do you like color so much?
MASUDA: Because colors have the power to make people happy. For example, when you change your hair color or wear a bright colored shirt, you feel bouncy all day long.
TJ: What are some of your favorite colors?
MASUDA: Pink, light blue and yellow.
TJ: Are there any artists who inspired you?
MASUDA: Japanese poet Shuji Terayama. His words, drama, and films affected me.
TJ: Do other types of fashion influence your design?
MASUDA: Although I am sure my works include elements of Rune Naito and Sanrio, I would not say I was inspired by past fashion.
TJ: Are there any other artists or musicians that you would like to collaborate with?
MASUDA: I’d like to collaborate with film director Michel Gondry, or with Katy Perry or Lady Gaga. But who I’d like to collaborate with most is Bjork.
TJ: What about Hatsune Miku?
MASUDA: I like Hatsune Miku, so if they offered I think I’d like to try.
TJ: Do you enjoy being a video art director?
MASUDA: Yes, I do. It is very rewarding work.
TJ: What’s the biggest difference between designing clothes and videos?
MASUDA: As a video art director, there is always an audience to entertain, so I can use my imagination a lot. But when it comes to clothes, you need to actually sell them, which is much more difficult.
TJ: If you are designing for someone, are you thinking about them or your own ideas?
MASUDA: Them. I want to make the client happy. But no matter what I do, what I have deep down inside of me appears on the design, so I think my originality comes through.
TJ: I hear you’re even a Christmas tree designer! How did you come up with the concept for the “Melty Go-Round” tree in Roppongi Hills?
MASUDA: I think there are so many things that we leave behind as we grow up, so I bottled up those dreams and made them spin, melting together.
TJ: Where were you during the March 11, 2011 earthquake?
MASUDA: My office in Harajuku.
TJ: What was it like?
MASUDA: Roads were waving and we felt a lot of shaking in Tokyo.
TJ: Were the items in your shop okay?
MASUDA: Yes, totally fine. But we couldn’t go home that day, so we stayed at the shop all night together.
TJ: Tell me about the Mighty Harajuku Recovery efforts.
MASUDA: I got a lot of e-mails from various countries asking if I was okay, or if DOKIDOKI and Harajuku were okay. They didn’t know how far apart Tohoku and Harajuku are, so they worried that Harajuku might’ve been swept up by the tsunami. I wanted to tell everyone that Harajuku would remain as strong as before, and started the Mighty Harajuku project. I made Mighty Harajuku button badges, passed them out for free to people on the street, and then uploaded pictures of Harajuku’s daily life every day on my blog. By doing so, the town that was able to attract foreigners to return the quickest was Harajuku.
TJ: How about the Olympics in 2020? Are you looking forward to them?
MASUDA: As Harajuku is near the venue of the opening ceremony, the government is now promoting the town as a tourist site, so the town is pumped up for the Olympics.
TJ: Have you been asked to do any designs yet?
MASUDA: I haven’t, but my dream is to contribute officially to the Olympics in 2020.
TJ: If you could design any clothes for the Olympics, what would they be?
MASUDA: I’d rather design the torch or memorial monument than clothes.
TJ: How old were you when you started your company?
MASUDA: I was 24.
TJ: Was that hard for you at first?
MASUDA: Yes, it was a struggle paying the bills in the beginning. At the time, I had a part-time job making sets for TV shows.
TJ: What are some of the most valuable lessons you have learned about business and style since you started?
MASUDA: I learned that creating things to follow trends is not in fashion anymore. I think you have to create concepts and lead, otherwise you can’t survive.
TJ: I heard that you had a hearing problem when you were growing up.
MASUDA: Yes, until the age of four, my eustachian tube was thin and I couldn’t hear like an average kid. I think I can hear like an average person now, but I can’t hear high pitched sounds.
TJ: Where are you from originally? Where’s your hometown?
MASUDA: Matsudo, Chiba.
TJ: Are you single?
TJ: How did you choose the name Sebastian?
MASUDA: I wanted a name that would be easier for people to memorize than my real name. So I went to a game center in Shinjuku, and there was a machine that tells you a fortune nickname if you put 100 yen into it and enter your birthday or some other information. I tried a couple of times and got Sebastian and Gonzales. I didn’t like “Gon Masuda,” so I chose Sebastian.
TJ: What is your real first name? Is that a secret?
MASUDA: Well, yes, it’s a secret...
TJ: What are your goals for the future?
MASUDA: I hope my works and kawaii culture continue to spread throughout the world, and I hope to make people who are depressed happy.
TJ: Is there a particular country besides the U.S. you’d like to work in?
MASUDA: I think we’ll do the exhibition in Europe next year. I’d like to do it in South America too.
TJ: Are you surprised at how big the culture’s grown?
MASUDA: I’ve been waiting for this time to come since I was young and yes, I’m surprised that the future that no one ever imagined would come has come. I think I got back at those who said that it would never happen.
TJ: What projects are you working on now?
MASUDA: I’m working on a 3D film called “Nutcracker.” Sanrio used to make films and made this one by shooting each frame with a doll. They made it 35 years ago and it took them five years to make it. This stop-motion animation shot frame by frame was amazing. It’ll be out on November 29th. It’s kind of like a roots of kawaii movie. I would love to show this in Hollywood.
TJ: Do you think that young people should learn English?
MASUDA: Yes, I think it’s necessary, especially people in the art or fashion industry. When you make something, it is not the end. You then need to explain the work in your own words.
TJ: Do you study English?
MASUDA: Yes, I’ve been studying for a long time, but I have a hard time retaining what I learn.
TJ: What advice do you have for someone who wants to enter the fashion industry in Japan?
MASUDA: I suggest they express themselves freely, without being stuck in stereotypes. To do so, it is necessary to see various things and internalize them – not only fashion, but also, things such as movies, music, writings, novels and so on. Before being able to truly express yourself, you must be exposed to various kinds of culture. tj
The complete article can be found in Issue #275 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.