Harajuku-Style Fashion is Coming to Honolulu Museum of Art

Textiles curator Sara Oka talks about the two years she’s put into the Honolulu Museum’s new exhibition on Japanese street style, which opens Nov. 19.

Editor’s Note: Through our partnership with the Honolulu Museum of Art, HONOLULU Magazine publishes a monthly blog written by Lesa Griffith, the museum’s communications director and a talented Hawai‘i writer on arts, culture and food.


May we help you? Staff at the Angelic Pretty shop in Harajuku.

If you’re even a little bit into fashion, you’ve probably heard of the trendsetting street styles found on the streets of Harajuku, in Tokyo. Pink hair, white makeup, combat boots, super-cutesy doll looks—the district includes some of the world’s most distinctive, over-the-top fashions. An upcoming exhibit at the Honolulu Museum of Art takes a closer look at Harajuku style and how it became such a dominant global style influence. And a Gwen Stefani song.


To research Hawaiian Airlines Presents Harajuku Tokyo Street Fashion, Sara Oka, the museum’s curator of textiles, made multiple trips to Tokyo to scout out the city’s urban street-style scene. After making an initial exploration in March 2013, she returned to Tokyo in May 2014, this time with Kiyoe Minami, the museum’s Asian art researcher and fabulous guide, and Shuzo Uemoto, museum staff photographer. She also had the help of Blythe Dolls creative producer Junko Wong, who opened doors to a few important Tokyo designers.


Now Oka is in the homestretch, working on the physical design of the exhibition with installation designer Larry Maruya. We asked Oka a few questions about her colorful road to her latest exhibition.


Q: How did being in Japan guide the development of the exhibition?

A: We left our afternoons open for serendipitous meetings. One day, we crashed a photo shoot happening at a department store. We were going to ask if we could take their picture as they were leaving, and we got kicked out before that could happen. In the meantime, we met these kids who exchanged emails with Kiyoe. Then, a few days later, they contacted us and said they were meeting at a pirate restaurant and asked if we wanted to come. We got lucky that way.

Another time, we were just standing in the street trying to photograph people, and we asked a guy where he got his clothes. He said, at Cotton Candy, where he works. I asked if he could take us there because I hadn’t heard of it—so he took us and we met his co-workers. And another contact we met through [street artist] Minori—she had mentioned she was going to meet the people behind tokyofashion.com and asked if we wanted to come along. We were able to be spontaneous and people just opened up.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I like to work in 3-D, to be able to see the space. To prepare for the exhibition, I did a rough layout and gave it to Larry. He came back and said, Let’s make it look a little more urban and congested, to give the feel of a crowded street. Then he came up with several ideas while retaining the themes of the exhibition. [The installation crew] is building a sort of lazy susan as part of what is almost a layer cake to hold, and it will be colorful.

Because [Harajuku fashion is] eclectic, our crew can have real fun building the displays. Like we’ll have arms sticking out of nowhere, and lots of surprises that you might not see on your first visit, but will become apparent in subsequent visits.


Q: How did street artist Minori come to be part of programming for the exhibition?

A: When you meet her, it’s an experience you’ll never forget. Even in Japan, people would stop in their tracks when she passed by. She’s a tiny girl, but has a big presence. We thought it would be great to have her as part of the opening festivities and have her give a workshop on shironuri—the style of white makeup she uses. She’s excited to be part of the show.


Q: How did the designers and practitioners of Harajuku styles respond when you said you were doing research for an exhibition?

Inside the studio of ahcahcum muchacha designer masako shinya. 

A: They did think it was interesting that we would be interested in them. But I think that’s why they were so welcoming. Most companies were so accommodating and generous. Kiyoe was a big part as a researcher and guide, helping us navigate the city and the fashion industry.

When we met with the people from tokyofashion.com, they were the ones who introduced us to the brand Dog, which is where a lot of celebrities go, like Lady Gaga. Those are the things I cherish—the chance meetings.


Q: Did you make any surprising discoveries in your research?

A: Kiyoe and I went to Osaka because some important brands are based there. The first brand we visited was Ahcahcum Muchacha. I couldn’t believe the stuff Masako Shinya designs. We went to her studio, so I got to see what inspired her. She had Barbies hanging from the ceiling, and doll-head lamps.

I noticed the incredible workmanship that goes into Japanese clothing, and these design companies have been keeping alive Japan’s lacemaking tradition. These brands can order original teddy bear lace to coordinate with a dress, or ice cream cones. I wish I had met a lacemaker, because I think they’re becoming rare.


Lesa Griffith is director of communications at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Born in Honolulu, one of her early seminal art experiences was at the Honolulu Museum of Art, when on a field trip her high school art history teacher pointed out that the ermine cape in Whistler’s Portrait of Lady Meux was not just a cape—it was visual signage leading viewers’ eyes through the painting.