“This is fashion, not cosplay.”
At 4 PM on a Saturday, the Merlion Park overlooking Marina Bay has been invaded by some 50 individuals decked out in multi-coloured pastel wigs, lacy outfits, coloured contacts, and chunky platform shoes.
It’s a scene right out of a cosplay convention, and attracts more stares and photographs than the Merlion itself. In reality, this is the 24th edition of the Singapore Harajuku Fashion Walk.
“People see us and think we’re cosplaying,” says Kris, 17, a participant. “But it’s different.”
While cosplaying revolves around portraying a certain theme and character, Harajuku fashion is all about portraying one’s self. Today, Kris has gone for a heart-themed outfit, inspired by the white heart she recently had tattooed on her forefinger.
Her choice of clothes is safe—a white lace shirt, skirt and red vest—but she’s gone to town with the accessories. Her hair, plaited with red ribbons and decorated with red hearts, seems to defy gravity, extending in ninety-degree angles from her scalp.
“It’s held up using hanger wire,” she tells me proudly, a trick she learnt from a friend.
In addition, she’s painted two white hearts on her cheek, and as a finishing touch, she’s added a pair of red heart-shaped sunglasses to the collar of her shirt.
Given that she spent nearly the entire afternoon planning and putting together her outfit, it’s clear that this walk is a big deal to Kris.
“On a normal basis, I don’t get to look like this. I feel good, comfortable. I feel pretty.”
The Singapore Harajuku Walk, however, doesn’t just consist of participants in pretty clothes.
There are also the photographers. Many of them—mostly male and above the age of 40—are armed with large DSLRs. Like bees to honey, they flock towards the best-dressed females of the group to vie for their attention and the best angles.
I watch as they approach Sok Leng, a 15-year-old girl, and gesture to their cameras in a silent request for her to strike a pose.
Despite her youth, Sok Leng is a regular here. She’s come dressed Lolita-style, in a poofy pink dress layered with black lace, black, see-through tights, and black pleather platform boots. Her bob is pinned straight and held in place with a satin pink ribbon. She wears pupil-enhancing contact lenses, a little blush, and a lot of mascara.
Although she’s aware of the reputation some of these photographers have, she stands firm in her belief, “Ninety percent of the photographers are really nice and passionate about photography. They’re not choosy with their models but they take pictures of everyone.”
While Sok Leng may have spent the majority of her afternoon posing for cameras, I notice that many other girls don’t get as much attention.
When I mention that to her, she brushes it off. What’s important, she tells me, is the nice pictures one gets at the end of the day.
With that, she turns to face her tenth camera of the day, a demure smile on her face.
Yet Van, 22, has come dressed in one of the most brightly-coloured and intricate looks for the walk—a jarring mix of blues, whites, purples and pinks.
She’s dressed in the style of Yami Kawaii, which combines cute motifs and pastel colours with darker, more grotesque themes alluding to mental illness. You might miss the hints at first glance (in the middle of her dress is the word 病 (sick), and in a corner is printed the red-cross symbol), but the longer you look, the more obvious they become.
Van also takes it a step further than most people. Unlike most of the participants who would only dress like this in the presence of like-minded individuals at the walk, Van wears her Harajuku Fashion as part of her daily wardrobe.
“I see a lot of people dressing up the way they want so I also don’t care, I dress the way I want,” she says.
Moreover, she’s also managed to turn her passion for Harajuku Fashion into a money-making gig. Currently, she designs and sells her own clothes through her Instagram which, in her own words, is, “Quite famous.”
For people like Van, Harajuku Fashion has transcended being “just a once in two months thing”, and become a part of her lifestyle and identity.
Even then, she adds, “I feel like the community overseas is much more interesting. Singapore only has a walk. You know Australia had a big event recently and all the surrounding hotels were booked out. To be honest, I don’t think there is much of a Harajuku community in Singapore.”
In spite of her headscarf which requires her to put more thought into her outfits, she’s found that it actually works to her advantage given the style codes and guidelines of Lolita fashion.
A member of the Singapore Lolita community and self-proclaimed feminist, Fazy describes Lolita fashion as modest pretty, and non-sexual, “It’s not body hugging, it’s not about the boobs or the butt.”
As we walk, she points out to me the different elements of the outfit—the long sleeves, wrist accessories, high socks, skirt that falls around or below the knee, the covered shoes and the covered shoulders—details that alone, seem insignificant, but are in fact crucial for pulling off a successful Lolita look.
Although participants of the walk are encouraged to be creative and express themselves, Fazy reminds me that there are still rules and regulations of each aesthetic to be kept “just like anything in life.”
Some, like this commenter on the Singapore Harajuku Fashion Walk Facebook page, can be extremely unforgiving.
Initially a photographer for the walk, he decided one day that he wanted to experience it for himself. It’s now his 13th of 14th walk, and he hasn’t looked back since.
As we cross the busy streets outside City Hall, several people stop to stare, whispering and whipping out their phones to snap not-so-discreet photos to send to their friends.
Brandon and the rest of the group, however, seem unfazed. “From my point of view, it doesn’t matter what people think. Fashion is for everyone,” he tells me.
“You want to look at me, fine, look. I have nothing to be ashamed about. Everyone has a different way of expressing themselves.”
A veteran at these walks, Brandon’s not only grown more comfortable with who he is, but has grown a thicker skin because of it.
Overhearing our conversation, Fazy chimes in.
“When I first started, I had to have friends with me who were similarly dressed,” she reveals. But as she grew older, she became less concerned with what people thought and whether they’d accept her for how she looked.
“If my standards don’t meet society’s standards then we can agree to disagree.”