Kōenji’s Kitakore BuildingCulture
Harajuku and Shibuya are not the only sources of Japanese fashion.
A six-minute ride from Shinjuku Station on the JR Chūō Line brings you to the shopping districts of Kōenji, a popular hotspot among young people. Here you will find the Kitakore Building, which is today attracting the attention of the fashion world.
This two-story building sports a big, handwritten sign out front, and appears not to have a conclusive start or end. The overlapping post-construction additions give the building a bizarrely irregular shape, and one corner hosts a billboard for a local late-night bar. We asked Gotō Yoshimitsu, owner of Hayatochiri, a shop on the first floor, to tell us about this curious building that looks more like some kind of hideout than a shopping center.
Shops and Products that Love Remodeling!
“Right now, there are four other apparel shops in the building besides mine: Southpaw, Garter, Secret Dog, and Ilil. At first glance, the building seems to be a row of separate shops, but they’re actually all connected, divided only by flimsy interior barriers.”
Gotō used to work at a vintage clothing store here in Kōenji. Three years ago he found this building, which was being used as a gallery, and opened Hayatochiri after remodeling the inside himself. He says that the prewar structure may now look old and rundown, but that’s actually what he likes about it.
“The landlord said I could do whatever I wanted with the space I rented since the building is so old, so it was pretty easy for me to turn it into something I like. There aren’t so many buildings out there where you can just knock down a wall,” says Gotō with a smile.
His shop focuses on selling remodeled items, as that’s what he knows best. The floor is painted pink and the walls are covered with pages ripped from comic books that he bought in the ¥100 discount section of old bookstores.
The quirkiness of the décor is reflected in the selection of items on sale, too: the shelves are lined with one-of-a-kind remodeled items, including a jacket pieced together from vinyl mats in the shape of letters. The unique items also include art objects made by artists he knows and miscellaneous kitschy goods. The overall unique atmosphere of Kitakore is in large part created by the lively, fresh presence of the well-stocked Hayatochiri.
Individual Personalities Invigorate Each Other
After he set up shop, Gotō contacted some of his friends and convinced them to join him in the property. This led to the launch of the shops Southpaw (formerly Nincompoop Compacity), Garter, and Secret Dog in rapid succession. In March 2011 the boutique Ilil, which had been open only on weekends, changed to daily business hours. This brought about the Kitakore business lineup seen to this day.
Before Kitakore was remodeled, Southpaw was a home-delivery curry shop, Ilil was a residential bathroom, and the space occupied by Garter and Secret Dog was the garbage disposal area. These were not places people came to in general, much less for shopping.
The reasons why these shop owners wanted to set up in Kitakore in particular was not just the cheap rent. More than that, it was the freedom to renovate the space as they wished. “The most attractive thing about the property was that the building itself and the shops inside were not completely finished. We continue to make changes even now, bit by bit, here and there,” says Secret Dog’s owner, Kai.
The final look after renovation is different in every shop, but that is what makes each of their individual presence stand out. In contrast to the kitschy feel of Hayatochiri is the stylish image created at Garter, with mirrors hanging in a completely white space. The monotone, edgy look of Secret Dog is offset by the colorful, pop-inspired interior of Ilil. Southpaw, designed to show the inner workings of a left-handed person’s brain, takes you into a fancy yet somehow miasmic world. The product lineup in each shop is different, with the one common thread being their refashioning of vintage clothing.
“What’s interesting is that each shop redoes clothing in a completely different style. Kitakore offers a lot of pieces that you can’t find anywhere else, and that makes shopping here fun for customers,” says Cathy, Southpaw’s manager.
“Everyone goes after what they like, and that’s a source of great energy. We’re constantly spurred on by the pieces that the other stores bring in. I get excited thinking about making what I want most to achieve in an atmosphere that makes me feel that anything is possible!” exclaims Rachel, the owner of Ilil.
Loved by Lady Gaga
Kitakore blends a variety of individual styles. Gotō says that this independence can only be pursued in Kōenji.
“This isn’t a place that is influenced by trends. There are a lot of unique, interesting shops here, thanks in part to the fact that most of them are privately owned. Besides that, we’re more laid back here than in Shibuya or Harajuku, and the free and easy interaction between neighbors is really great.”
A lot of things come out of the connections with local residents. Hayatochiri makes clothing for the locally based band Dotsuitarunen and represents Kitakore in the vintage fashion show put on by Suginami’s ward office. The shop also makes original items for the Kōenji festival held every year in autumn.
This rich individuality is attracting attention from outside Japan as well. Inspired by Kitakore, the Australian brand Di$count and the London shop Primitive collaborated with the Kōenji shops to put on an exhibition of remodeled pieces, entitled Three, in March 2011. Fashion designer Jeremy Scott and recording artist Pharrell Williams, who also has his own clothing brand, both enjoy shopping at Kitakore when they come to Japan. Global fashion icon Lady Gaga has also worn pieces from Garter and Secret Dog.
The Kitakore Building’s reach may soon go far beyond the local fashion scene. Offers to establish branch stores are pouring in from all around Japan, and requests for interviews from foreign media outlets continue to come in. Ideas for the next exhibition abroad are also taking shape.
“In 2011 Japan and Germany celebrated the 150th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, so I’m thinking about holding an exhibition in Berlin,” says Garter’s owner, Ebata Kōshirō.
In trying to offer up fresher, more interesting products, Kōenji’s Kitakore Building is a scene of great contrasts. Its expressions may seem to be relaxed, but the people working in this scene are playing aggressively to their own tune. While the large fashion centers of Shibuya and Harajuku push forward with homogenization through fast fashion branding, unique local shops with strong community roots like those seen in Kōenji today may turn out to be surprisingly strong players in the Japanese fashion industry.
(Originally written in Japanese by Majima Emari. Photographs by Somese Naoto.)