Lola Lita Underdrive
Whatever happened to J-fashion in the USA?
Special Correspondence by Kame from San Francisco
In August of 2012, I celebrated my recent relocation to San Francisco by setting out to explore old favorite destinations from my high school years for the first time in nearly a decade. Highest and most important on the list, the place that had had the most striking impact on my teenage self: the Japantown mall and Kinokuniya Bookstore.
Japantown was not as I had remembered it. But then again, all my previous visits had been conducted as a lowly teenager from the wilds of agrarian SoCal. I had thought, as a teenager, honestly and sincerely, that the California coastal towns of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara were overwhelmingly large cities. Clearly I did not stand a chance against any sector of San Francisco.
In reality, San Francisco’s “Nihon Machi” is an eerily quiet place. A ghostly emptiness haunts the neighborhood, an atmospheric remnant of the 1942 interment order from which the town’s livelihood never recovered. Though the streets are pristine by San Francisco standards, walking through the Peace Plaza on an average day feels more like setting foot in an abandoned theme park village than finding a quiet, cultural escape from the noise and filth of the City.
I found Kinokuniya to be oddly shrunken and shifted about. It may still have the same square footage (I have no idea), but split between two floors with nothing where my muscle memory said it should be, it was an entirely new place. My heart sank when I found the music section had fallen victim to the same plague hitting most contemporary music stores: shriveled to insignificance as Pandora and iTunes lessen the demand for CDs and self-driven musical discovery.
The other record stores were gone entirely, replaced by colorful tchotchkes from the universes of Sanrio and anime. All this time, my whimsical inner-teenager had been naively hoping that those indie record stores, my former windows to the Tokyo underground, had continued to fire up creative inspiration in new waves of curious misfits. Instead they had been swallowed by the desire for Pocky and cartoon manic pixie dream folk.
But still reaching for parts of Tokyo that aren’t Akihabara, stores full of quirky, Takeshita Street style accessories had popped up, and, more significantly, the New People building across the street from the mall’s main entry. Clearly, an appetite for Harajuku culture was still very much around. What was it feeding into?
Searching for an exit from the mall’s fluorescent hallways, I was surprised to stumble on a group of lolitas quietly shifting about between stores. There was a stylistic contradiction I noticed in this gathering: a glaring discrepancy between the expensive and meticulously tailored brands they adorned themselves with, framed by an absentmindedness of presentation. In stark contrast to the Japanese lolitas, these American lolitas paid scant attention to their makeup, hair, or any part of their outfits that could not be purchased over a brand name counter advertised in The Gothic & Lolita Bible. An uneven hair dye job and light smudging of eyeliner seemed, at most, all that could be asked for. As if, in a sense of geeky humbleness, the girls feared outshining the art of the dresses themselves and chose to hide themselves behind an awkward plainness, deflecting all attention from their individual personalities to let it rest solely on the glory that is Baby, the Stars Shine Bright.
I found the mall's exit and crossed Post Street to see what New People had to offer.
A glossy, modernist building, New People opened in 2009, boasting a film complex, café and various clothing and cultural shops – most famously the North American flagship store for Baby, the Stars Shine Bright. The mission statement of the building’s parent business, New People, Inc., echoes strongly the original claim of SoCal’s Pacific Media Expo: to promote “the latest examples of Japanese popular culture expressed through film, art, fashion, and various events”. In other words, unlike most of Japantown or your standard anime convention, New People is not an anime store. It’s intended to be a full-spectrum cultural shopping center.
While clothing boutiques have cycled in and out of the building over the last four years, Baby the Stars Shine Bright has remained an unfaltering staple. Gaggle of lolitas in the mall aside, if there was a large enough contingent of shoppers in San Francisco laying down a steady stream of cash to keep the store in the black, lolita fashion would be distinctly more prominent around the city. Since this is clearly not the case, how does the equation balance out?
The answer was so obvious I had to smack myself on hearing it: online sales. In truth, the boutique had struggled miserably until it occurred to the management to open it up for online sales. Now, the store flourishes with fans of the brand all over North America latching on to the ability to place orders without having to pay shopping service commissions and overseas shipping.
Ten years ago, enthusiasm for lolita fashion outside Japan existed only in scattered clusters throughout Internet forums and Geocities fansites. At its most concentrated, it would occasionally come out to see the light of the real world at anime conventions. Fans of the subculture traveled to convention gatherings from miles around just to see one another in the living flesh; it was the only opportunity to be amongst peers. Echoing the double-life aspect of their subculture, even in person they would continue to address one another by the screen names they used in their BBS communities and chat rooms. Though many of us as teenage misfits traveled to these conventions just to, for one weekend, experience a world where the social scene was our very own, there was a strange shyness among many of the attendees towards integrating fully with a reality beyond cyberspace.
Fast forward back to 2012 and I knew that the BBS communities had been dead for several years. I wondered if the appearance of the Baby, the Stars Shine Bright store in San Francisco meant the cyber social scene had finally migrated into real-world circles. No, it seemed the old communities only faded out as the older users lost interest and vanished, while a new generation of fans cropped up with a new generation of the Internet. While American lolitas might cautiously gather to visit Kinokuniya for a day, their world, I gathered, still existed mostly in Facebook groups, Pinterest boards, and Tumblr accounts.
Nevertheless, the New People boutique brings lolita to the real world in San Francisco. After having visited so many knock-off kiosks and shoddy lolita brand imitators over the last decade, I was impressed with this incarnation of Baby, the Stars Shine Bright overlooking Post Street. Small and sparsely visited, the store lacks the fully fleshed-out spirit found in Laforet and the dearly departed Marui One – Tokyo’s main department stores dedicated to subculture fashion – but San Francisco’s Baby, the Stars Shine Bright holds to is purpose and carries the ambassadorship well. The décor has authentic flare, the staff are elaborately dressed, and, as is the custom in Japan, you have to take off your shoes to enter the fitting stall.
It is a surreal experience to walk into a place so distinctly tied to Japanese subculture, but realize you are still in an American city, with American staff, American English, and American customs. A former Baby, the Stars Shine Bright sales clerk told me that while she worked at the New People shop, she frequently saw tourists come through and react with rage or disappointment over finding out the Baby store there is not an exact replica of the store depicted in “the Kamikaze Girls movie”– demure Japanese shopgirls and all.
No, Baby, the Stars Shine Bright is a Japanese transplant in an American city. The boutique maintains the authenticity of the brand and mixes appropriately with the American culture of the staff and patrons. Trying to aggressively keep it any more “Japanese” would create a disturbing quarantine. The purpose of bringing such a store into an international alternative fashion scene is, I would hope, not to create a fantasy playground for fetishistic otaku, but to make the style more visible and accessible to the networked underground of alternative cool.
Had Japanese subculture obtained visibility outside the nervously walled-off crowd of anime convention-goers? In the last decade since I had visited Japantown, did the weirdness of J-Rock and Harajuku find fringe acceptance (and reinterpretation) in the famously weird underground of San Francisco?
Six years ago, I lived in London, where decadent frills that had leaked from Harajuku ran rampant through the Camden Markets. Transsexual lolitas hooked up for a quick wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am in the bathroom stalls at Slimelight, and once a month, J-Rock fans would gather at the infamous Devonshire Arms pub to drink beer, dance, and socialize under the auspicious video projections of a visual kei DJ. Throughout the goth scene, in the city that had birthed the Batcave, influences of the Tokyo underground were difficult to miss. Now in San Francisco, I wondered if I could find similar traces through the underworld.
Riding Muni to the Stockton and Sutter intersection, worlds away from Japantown as far as the geography of San Francisco is concerned, I saw a sign flash past the bus window that made my skin tingle with a slight Camden Town déjà vu. In pink, black, and white: HARAJUKU HEARTS / ANGELIC PRETTY blared from an awning over an after-hours shuttered store front.
A few weeks later, I was having coffee on Valencia Street with two first year students from UC Berkeley. A pair of 5’10”, pale, doe-eyed identical twins who I had known previously as ballet students down in SoCal, the girls were self-professed preppies who exuded such a strong semblance to a living Abercrombie & Fitch advertisement that in fact, they had already turned down several recruitment contacts from the company.
We were discussing frilly dresses. The idea came up of going over to Saks Fifth Avenue for salivatory window shopping of designer fantasies, when I remembered the HARAJUKU HEARTS / ANGELIC PRETTY sign on Kearny Street. If the twins really wanted to see frilly dresses, what better place was there to go?
Having never heard of the lolita style before, the girls pulled up Google Images on their iPhones and gasped.
“I've never seen anything like this!”
“Amazing! Look at this dress! I have to have it!”
Concerted squees from the pair ushered our departure from the coffee shop to catch the next BART to Union Square.
Union Square, situated next to the city’s Financial District, is a money-spending playground for San Francisco’s pre-tech wealth, flooded by uninspired tourists with excess vacation money to burn. Boasting Barneys, Tiffany’s, and Saks Fifth Avenue all within a stone’s throw of one another, the neighborhood caters to the well-heeled elite who pooh-pooh Manhattan weather while smugly indulging in the same moneyed luxuries that provide fodder for particular Candace Bushnell novels. Tourists come in droves, either immediately before or after ticking Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square from their lists, and the fact that they should be so eager is a sad irony, given that establishments uniquely tied to San Francisco are rare amid the big-name franchises.
Nestled at the edge of this extravagant shopping district is 15 Kearny Street, a sheer oddity in a land populated by prescribed labels and mainstream tourism. The black and pink striped awning over 15 Kearny’s store front is divided in halves, blasting the bold and graphically conflicting logos of the two businesses within: Harajuku Hearts and Angelic Pretty USA.
While the expensive price tags on lolita labels feel right at home around Union Square, the fashion’s over-the-top bizarreness is anything but. Too bad the store is so tucked away, so lost in the chaos of downtown San Francisco, that its window displays are unlikely to exert influence on unsuspecting passerby looking for the next element of avant-garde to add to their personal style.
Inside 15 Kearny, I confronted the same ambient displacement I had found at Baby, the Stars Shine Bright in New People, compounded this time by the presence of Japanese shop staff dressed to look as if they’d been borrowed from behind the counters of Closet Child, Tokyo’s chain of funky second-hand stores dedicated to visual kei and fashion subculture. What’s more, the staff inside 15 Kearny were speaking to each other in Japanese, and not the strangely accented Japanese heard around Japantown. Rusty language gears in my brain began to kick and stutter and the instinct to retreat out of linguistic embarrassment took hold for a split second, before I remembered I was still in San Francisco and English was expected of the clientele.
To the right on entering 15 Kearny, a deliciously gaudy pink wall hugs the length of the retail space, proudly enshrining the sugary frills and cake frosting bows of Angelic Pretty. To the left, Harajuku Hearts boasts its stock: a variety of labels, including Atelier Pierrot, Putumayo, and, until the brand’s recent bankruptcy, Black Peace Now (which, prior to Harajuku Hearts, had also been part of the original line up at New People).
The twins were ricocheting about the room with unbridled enthusiasm, lost in a seven-year-old girl’s dress-up fantasy. Matching dresses—one pink, one white—were produced from the Angelic Pretty racks, but suddenly the girls became nervous to try them on. I convinced the more daring of the pair to take the pink dress into the curtained fitting stall, where, like the fitting stall at the Baby store, no shoes are allowed and the use of face covers is required. Once again, an artifact of cultural displacement.
The first half of the Abercrombie poster-pair emerged, as I had hoped, looking like an illustration from the Gothic & Lolita Bible come to life – long, waifish limbs exaggerated by layers of poof and frill.
“This is so much fun!” she exclaimed, twirling around the store. “I feel like a manga character!”
The other twin, seeing her sister’s glee, gradually tip-toed into the fitting stall where the white dress awaited her. When she emerged, the result was equally delightful.
The staff member assisting us told me this was usually the response she saw from people who wandered into the store without knowing what they were seeing. Who ever knew it was so much fun to wear frills.
The twins, still twirling, were making plans to have a tea party for their birthday. Their birthday was over six months away, but it seemed the strongest argument to convince their parents to allow them to purchase the dresses (early birthday presents), and they were scrambling for an excuse to wear them.
“Actually, we should just have tea parties all the time.”
“There’s a monthly Meetup kind of like that,” the sales associate said.
“A what?” I asked.
“A Meetup,” she said. “You know, Meetup.com. A bunch of lolitas get together for dinner in Japantown on the last Friday of the month through that website. I’ve never been, but if you like these clothes, you should check it out.”
The twins had enough funds between them to purchase necklaces from the center display tables, but the dresses had to be reluctantly hung back on the racks.
“We’ll convince our parents,” they said resolutely. (But sadly, their parents later proved unwilling to acquiesce)
Taking the sales associate’s advice and burning with curiosity to meet the lolita subculture of San Francisco, I registered for an account on Meetup.com, marveling once again at how the Internet landscape had shifted over the last few years – obscure forums to localized social networks.
There was a Meetup group for J-Rock, too, I noticed. Skimming quickly through the members list gave the impression that it consisted of the expected mix of anime geeks and fringe members of the Death Guild crowd, San Francisco’s longest running goth event and one of the last few holdouts of the genuinely weird over the apathetically cool in a rapidly gentrifying city. The J-Rock group’s activity, sadly, was non-existent.
The lolitas, on the other hand, were extremely active, and so when the next last-Friday-of-the-month arrived, I donned my finest Atelier Pierrot and headed back to New People, the designated meeting spot where the group would gather before heading to a sushi restaurant for dinner in Japantown. In case conversation bait turned out necessary, I tucked a Buck-Tick shoulder bag under my arm.
“My god where did you get that dress?” I was greeted with this question almost immediately.
Taken aback by the ravenous stares, I answered, “the Atelier Pierrot store... in Laforet...” becoming hesitant halfway through as I suddenly wondered if I’d just introduced myself as That Asshole who brags and name drops and stuff.
The ravenous stares then turned to wistful longing. “Ah, you’ve been to Tokyo? Do you know Tiffa?”
“No...” I said. “...should I?”
“Oh... wait... she’s gone back to Tokyo I think...” and there was no more explanation.
Conversation was quickly dominated by a topic I’ve had only marginal dealings in: video games. It remained that way all the way to the restaurant. At dinner, conversation about video games morphed into conversation about cosplay. And convention drama. And more cosplay. The girls talked at great length about techniques for wig cutting and armor making. They showed incredible photos of their work. They were talented cosplayers, no doubt, but cosplay is copying an already existing image, rather than a need for radical self-expression. Lolita, for this group that I found myself dining with, had nothing to do with one’s stylistic outlook or taste in music; it was simply another opportunity for costume play. These clothes, to them, were not outfits, but costumes. And as my 40-something year old ex-club kid (he used party regularly with the characters from Disco Bloodbath) coworker loves to say: there is a fundamental difference between an outfit and a costume.
By the end of the night, I was growing fidgety, wondering if there was some secret visual kei fan among the group, who still held out for dreams of Tokyo nightlife and had simply not yet had a reason to speak up. I decided to try the conversation bait.
One girl sitting by me had said earlier on that she’d recently finished a stint with JET in Gunma. “If you lived in Gunma,” I asked, “do you know this band?” I showed her the Buck-Tick bag.
She took a moment to register the name scrawled in white paint on black canvas, then giggled.
“Yeah!” she said. “I think I’ve heard of those guys! They’re really old!”
“Who is?” asked another member of the group.
“That band,” Gunma said, pointing to my bag. “They’re called... Buck-Tick? With the weird hair?”
“Oh yeah! Those guys are old! Wow, are they still around? Do they have fans? Their fans must be soooooo old!”
Questions were thrown at me with pointed curiosity. “Do you know what their fans are like? Are they old?”
“Not exactly ‘old,’” I said, laughing inside.
If the group I had met that night was the full representation of all there was to a Harajuku fashion subculture in San Francisco, then so much for exposure of the scene outside that nervously walled-off community of anime convention attendees. But some of the ladies, I had noticed, were quiet on topics related to cosplay, video games, and other standard aspects of geekdom. So... they just really liked the dresses?
The next month, I went back to find out.
This time, the lolita Meetup crowd had rotated to a mostly different set of faces, the vibe now entirely changed. Video games were mentioned again, but woven into a fabric of conversation about labels, styling, what it was like working at the Baby, the Stars Shine Bright store, and my goodness where did you get those leggings I just love the way they contrast with your boots. It was the sort of conversation I had expected to hear at a social gathering based around a breed of fashion.
At dinner, I asked the girl seated to my right what had pulled her into the scene. She was dressed in a darling combination of eBay purchased Victorian Maiden and thrift store finds, which she had spruced up herself with pins and flowers.
“I just like fashion,” she answered with a faint Carolina drawl. “My friend on the Internet sent me some photos of EGL and I fell in love. I don’t know much about it beyond looking at pictures though.”
Hence, the mish-mash modified outfit that she’d assembled so elegantly. She’d taken creative inspiration from one idea and made it her own. And that, it seemed was the theme among that night’s crowd: these girls liked to dress pretty, and “pretty” had a theme of giant bows and petticoats.
“You don’t know much about Harajuku?” I asked her, “or visual kei?”
“No,” she said. “What’s visual kei?”
I gave a brief history of the music and street fashion scenes that lolita had risen to popularity in conjunction with. Surprised and fascinated, she took notes on band names to look up later.
And throughout conversation that evening, there was another theme about being pretty I noticed among the crowd: thank god everyone here is willing to come to this Meetup, otherwise when would we ever find opportunities to wear these clothes?
Halloween, for goths, begins a few weeks earlier than for most other people. Two week in to October following my Meetup excursions, I arrived at a friend’s Halloween party to help decorate. The celebration was being thrown by a friend from Texas, an ex-Austin DJ who makes it a point to know everyone and all the happenings of every gothic subculture everywhere she goes. Often described as “aggressively friendly”, she is the perfect gothic socialite. If Martha Stewart used Voltaire's gothic home decorating manual Paint it Black as her Bible, she would be her.
The only other guest present during setup at Gothic Martha’s party was a shy, wiry, barely-turned-twenty-and-brand-new-to-the-city art student who had a distinctly Bambi-like quality about her... if Bambi had managed to be a mouse as well as a baby deer.
I was jet-lagged as fuck, and by the time other guests started arriving, time displacement was enveloping my world like a gelatinous cube.
“Sorry if I start to stare at you blankly in the middle of conversation,” I told one guest, “it isn’t personal, it’s jet lag. I’ve only been in the country since Tuesday.”
“Oh! Where did you get back from?”
At which Bambi, nearby, jumped up and made as excited a noise as possible for a quiet baby mouse-deer.
“Tokyo? You were in Tokyo?! Oh I’m so jealous, I want to go so bad. What was it like? What did you do?”
I struggled through the jet lag to find comprehensible words. “Friends, shows, looked at trees...”
I couldn’t read from her expression which topic she was trying to dig for information on.
“What is it about Tokyo that gets you so excited?” I asked.
“Oh I just like... well... Japanese stuff... I mean... fashion. I really like Japanese fashion. The Harajuku lolita stuff... you know.” She looked like she was about to die from embarrassment.
“Oh!” I said, “The music too? Or just the clothes?”
“There’s music too?” she asked with wide-eyed wonder.
“Yeah, lolita fashion rose to popularity alongside a music movement called ‘visual kei.’”
Wide-eyed wonder continued. I listed off some band names for her to look up later, which she eagerly noted down in her iPhone.
“What got you interested in lolita fashion, then?” I asked, even though I had already guessed the answer.
“I just... really like fashion,” she said. “And the frilly dresses, they’re so much fun.”
“Do you wear the style out ever? Like, go to the Meetups or anything?”
“Noooo,” she said, still possessed by the embarrassment of having admitted her interest.
“Well, if you’d like, we could go out for tea some time,” I suggested, “and dress up in frillies.”
She nodded eagerly.
With every lolita aficionado I was meeting, I caught a clear pattern in behavior: “I like the weird clothes, but music, what music?” And somehow the idea of a social subculture beyond specifically organized outings didn’t register. Over the last ten years, perception of lolita fashion outside of Japan developed into something entirely different from where it seemed to be heading in the mid-2000s. With the Internet becoming more mainstream and lolita brands setting up shop overseas, awareness of the lolita style spread through alternative culture, but the roots and the reason are long since lost. I applaud the curious fashionistas who have been inspired by their own personal reactions to the style, adapted it, and carried it on to something new. That’s how art evolves and new movements are born, one new interpretation piling on top of another.
But there is an overwhelming timidity towards personal discovery that I keep encountering. A timidity that makes would-be trendsetters feel they can only wear their fancy clothes to pre-determined events arranged through online social networks. A timidity that makes them afraid to admit to anyone outside their known circle that they are drawn to anything from “weird Japan.”
Part of it, Gothic Martha pointed out to me, is the stigma alternative “cool” people hold around anything Japanese. If it’s Japanese, it’s anime. Japanese subculture equates, in the minds of the uninitiated, to the socially awkward otaku fetishizing of obsessive convention attendees addicted to the fantasy interpretation of a foreign culture: the image of Tokyo projected by holding the Anime Expo showroom up to one eye, and San Francisco’s Japantown mall up to the other.
As a lowly teenager from the wilds of agrarian SoCal, I fell in love with visual kei because it was strange and flamboyant. A few years before, I had fallen in love with San Francisco because it is a city that embraces the strange and flamboyant. My first visit in high school to the Kinokuniya Bookstore and indie record shops in Japantown had promised to me that there was room for the flamboyancy of visual kei and that of famous art cities like San Francisco to meet in a happy union. Gradually the cult genre from across the Pacific would break free from the restraints of obscurity in the West, find new pockets of expressiveness, new local interpretations that would spin off into new genres, in the ongoing process of subcultural evolution.
The only steady success J-Rock found in the West was as a sort of sideshow entertainment on the anime convention circuit. And the convention circuit, with its obsessive consumerism, is not an environment that fosters creative evolution. The music and fashion became caught in a catch-22. To find success overseas, visual kei had to claim an association with the anime industry, but because it was associated with anime, it could never be anything else.
Dir en grey, at least, refused to take that route. In the mid-2000s, as bands like Psycho le Cému and D’espairs Ray started to tour the anime convention circuit more and visual kei began rapidly catching on as supplemental event programming, rumors began to fly around the Internet of Dir en grey making a US debut. Fans waited tensely with bated breath, mouths foaming, preparing to spring and claw their way to the first few spots in line.
Passions erupted as Dir en grey announced their US debut in late 2005. They arrived in Austin at SXSW in 2006, followed by a show at New York City’s Avalon, and a concluding show in Los Angeles. The bi-coastal tour sold out in only a few hours. Fans paid hundreds of dollars out of pocket for press badges that would grant them access to the SXSW show. Tickets for the Avalon, originally $30, were immediately up on eBay for several hundred. The American media was baffled. Even Wired picked up on the story. The Los Angeles show was quickly rescheduled for a larger venue, and police control had to be brought in for the Austin performance.
It was an intense debut, which many fans saw to be as pivotal for themselves as it was for the band. At last, American followers of visual kei were no longer a small presence in the recesses of the Internet. No longer a forgotten subset of a massive circuit of geek conventions. On the sidewalk, outside the concert venues, groups of teenage misfits found that the time had arrived to brazenly assert their presence to the physical world, unafraid to shout out what they felt and believed, because at last their rock gods were there to back them. Sitting in the freezing Manhattan cold on the sidewalk outside the Avalon, it felt as if we were witnessing the start of a subcultural revolution.
Dir en grey has continued to tour the US regularly ever since. They broke their ties with visual kei and presented themselves instead to American audiences as an alternative metal act. Other bands from Japan failed to find similar success overseas as disorganized, unprofessional concert management thwarted one announced debut after another.
What of the fans’ emotional focus? In December 2011, I was invited last minute to see Dir en grey play at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. Dressed in sneakers and track pants, they were almost unrecognizable to me, but the crowd was bustling with enthusiasm and for that, I was pleased. After the performance, a pair of breathless teenage girls asked if I knew where the nearest McDonald’s was. I didn’t, but I offered to look up directions for them.
“How did you like the show?” they asked as we waited for Maps to load. “Have you seen them before? This was our first time!” They looked on the verge of fainting from ecstasy.
“How exciting!” I said, genuinely happy for them. “This was my fourth or fifth, I think. The first time I saw them was in New York on their first US tour.”
They were amazed to have suddenly had a brush with history, which wasn’t at all what I had been thinking of it as until that moment. I was happy to see that Dir en grey had been successful at pulling in a new generation of enthusiasm.
In November after Gothic Martha’s Halloween party, Gothic Martha and I were out getting drunk on the town (known in San Francisco as “having dinner”).
“You doing anything on Saturday?” she asked.
“I’ve got a ticket to a show at the Regency Ballroom,” I said, not mentioning the band’s name on the assumption that she hadn’t heard of them
“Oh! What band?”
“Dir en grey.”
“Oh! I remember them!”
“Yeah, back when they were on the radio and stuff. And all the weird spooky kids were so into them.” “Spooky kids” being her default term for teenage misfits aligning to any degree of gothic or punk rock persuasion.
“... what? When?”
“A few years ago. I don’t remember. Back in Texas.”
“They were on the radio?”
“We’re talking about Dir en grey? You know they’re Japanese, right? Are you sure we’re talking about the same band?”
“Yep. Only Japanese band I know.”
At the Regency Ballroom that Saturday, I sensed the familiar bewilderment and obsessive focus from excited fans as I passed the front of the line. The frozen procession snaked into a back alley, where I took my spot and waited. I listened to nearby fans talk about school, work, how they were getting home from the city. Anything and everything but topics related to the band.
The show was severely undersold. There was a frenetic energy at the front of the crowd where fans fought tooth and nail over drumsticks and water bottles, but stepping back from those pockets of intensity, the energy in the theater was subdued.
A pesky tech worker wouldn’t stop talking to me, so I decided to see what cultural information he could provide me with regarding the current fanbase.
“How do you know about Dir en grey?” I asked.
“Anime,” he said, with a tone that indicated “of course.” Groan.
“Would you say this is an average sized crowd for one of their shows?” remembering venues I’d been in where the crowd packed so tightly I’d been lifted helplessly from the ground. Not that I missed that, exactly.
“Yeah,” he said. “Packed isn’t it?” The main floor of the ballroom was about a third of the way filled.
“How long would you say the first people in line had been waiting?”
“Oh, like, two hours I bet. They’re crazy obsessive.”
“Two hours? You don’t think like... twenty-four?”
“Ha! Where did you get a number like that?”
I told him about the early tours, to test his reaction.
“I don’t know what the Limelight is,” he said. “Or anything about New York, really. I don’t know anything about clubs,” this last note matter of fact, as if it were an understanding that we were both in on, that only wild freaks from twenty years ago knew about clubs.
I wanted to believe this pesky tech worker was freak anomaly, but judging by the crowd’s energy, the bored conversation in line, the general apprehension towards the bar (you know, the one that sells alcohol) in front of which I’d planted myself, this pesky tech worker seemed to be much more an extension of the evening than a contrarian aspect.
On my way home from Regency Ballroom that night, I detoured to SoMa to stop by Cat Club. The goths were having a Doctor Who anniversary party, and this was a level of delightful geekery not to be missed.
Halfway through the front room, a drunk Amy Pond came careening out of the crowd at me. “Your dress! Oh my god... your dress! Where did you get that?”
“Oh! There’s this great store on Kearny Street that sells all this frilly kind of-”
“-right! Right! Angelic Pretty, right?!”
“Yeah,” I said, surprised.
“I recognized the fabric print as soon as you walked in,” she said. I was curious to know what it was about the black with white polka dots I was wearing that was distinctly Angelic Pretty as opposed to any other black with white polka dots, but she hurriedly continued.
“I was just trying to remember the name of the print. Do you know it?”
“Well I’ve got a different dress, but the same print, only it’s in red! That’s why I know it so well. I wear lolita, too! I’m a cosplayer!”
Suddenly, I wondered if we’d met before. “Are you part of the Meetup crowd?” I asked.
“Oh no I keep meaning to make it to one of those, but I haven’t yet. I’m very involved with the LiveJournal comms and there’s enough drama there!”
The lolitas were still on LiveJournal after all. Some things never do change.
We were joined by representatives of the 10th and 11th Doctors. After a brief conversation, (“Are you a polka-dalek?” asked one Doctor, noting my dress) I headed for the back corner couches where I found two gentlemen goth friends of mine, dressed in sharp black suits with pencil thin ties, looking entirely unhappy.
“We just went to a party, and it sucked, so we came here,” said Gentleman Goth #1. Neither knew a thing about Doctor Who and they had come to Cat Club expecting a regular night of Cat Club. So both were looking bewildered and uncomfortable.
Gentleman Goth #2 sat silently fuming, while Gentleman Goth #1 continued his complaint.
“We were really excited about that party. Our friend threw it. It was ‘spy’ themed. Everyone’s supposed to come dressed as spies. Cool right? We’re mod spies.”
“Mod spies,” echoed Gentleman Goth #2, pleased.
“We went shopping together for this damn party.”
“Yeah. I showed him how to pick out a suit.”
(These dudes are both straight, just sayin’)
“And we were the only two people there who fucking bothered to dress up. Everyone’s known about this party for like, two months, and we were the only two who bothered to prepare for it! What the fuck is up with that?! People are so boring now. They dress boring. They act boring. Roll out in their work clothes and go straight home as soon as the bars close, always before 2am. Used to be everyone cared about shit. You put effort in to going out and seeing people. When the party’s over, you go the after-party. When the after-party’s over, you go to the after-after-party. Now, they just watch Netflix.”
I sat with the two gentleman goths and listened to them bemoan the death of subculture in the city. An all too common tune to hear sung these days.
The Amy Pond cosplayer stumbled by, having now achieved That Drunk Girl status while her boyfriend attempted to shield her from any wayward cocktail tables that threatened her path. I thought back on the phrasing of her words: Not "I am a lolita", professing membership in a subculture, but "I wear lolita", donning costumes on themed weekends.
It may feel safe to parade under the shell of a costume, but it is terrifying to admit who we are underneath. Fashion is meant to help us speak, not to speak for us. When rules and apathy are used to mask insecurity over expressing ourselves, we risk losing personal meaning. The purpose of building subculture is to create our own place of acceptance when we find overarching norms in conflict with our character. But if we refuse to take ownership of our circles and our own personalities, the subcultures we create disappear.
It isn’t just one small quirky subculture of frills and theatrical rock music I’ve seen lose heart over the last few years. Echoing the complaints of the two gentleman goths, it’s true that a blandness has come to take hold of San Francisco, seeping in to the cracks and spreading through its core like an uncontrollable rash.
“It isn’t like this in Tokyo,” I said to a former DJ and producer at a gallery show a few weeks later.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“There’s still energy there,” I said. “You don’t just go to see your friend’s band play because you were asked to, have a couple drinks and go home. Events go on all night. People get very invested in them. There could be multiple bands, performance artists, fashions shows... Whatever seems interesting and exciting. And everyone gets very dressed up.”
“Ah,” he laughed, completely missing point. “The Japanese sure have a knack for taking things too far, don’t they? They always have to be at least a little bit over the top. Crazy.”
I tried the same conversation on several other occasions with various members of the alternative underground. Every time, I was met with the same absent-minded laughter that scoffed at so-called “Japanese intensity.” Sometimes, I experimented by saying I was in the process of kicking off such an event here in San Francisco, to see if making it a seem more of a reality might change their responses. It didn’t.
I asked a few lolitas if they would go to such an event. They were confused what to say, startled at the suggestion that nightlife and music could ever augment their interests.
As the underworld of SoMa nightlife shrinks under the relentless onset of rapidly multiplying luxury condominiums, high-end restaurants, and swanky office buildings, Death Guild enters its third decade of existence. Though not immune to the surrounding change, the longstanding goth event has somehow held its ground more resolutely than most other forms of alternative nightlife in the city.
Go to Death Guild often enough, I learned, and it is possible to eventually spot the rare gaggle of lolitas. Not lost behind their clothes like the group I first spotted at the Japantown mall, but dancing wildly beyond the confines of their complicated corsetry and Victorian heels.
When I ask, they say they don’t really know the music. They came to see what a goth club was like. It sounded fun, and they wanted to dress up and spend time with one another. When I ask if they are enjoying the club and plan to return, they smile and say yes.
Under layers of poof and frill, dark swirly dancing to industrial stomping music, the scene they cut could have been lifted from a basement nightclub in Shinjuku. Cultural displacement, once again. But not quite the same. Mixed and matched with the revered Harajuku labels are splashes of Haight Street funkiness and DIY accessories. Each girl having made the look entirely her own.