Take a Click to Zozotown

Everyone has no doubt heard of Harajuku and Shibuya, but you may not have heard of Zozotown. This little town is equally as trendy, with over 160 funky shops, an active community of people, and a fun, colorful atmosphere. People come back for the wonderful shopping experience it offers, and it has two million regular visitors. So why have many tourists never been to Zozotown? Because it only exists virtually.

Online shopping is hardly a new concept, but for Japanese people it is still a new phenomenon. What makes Zozotown different is that it replicates a town with various genres of clothing stores all in one city.

These are not any old stores, however, but lauded indie labels such as United Arrows, Hysteric Glamor, no44 and – more recently – Undercover and A Bathing Ape (Zozotown being the only outlet aside from its own store that you can purchase A Bathing Ape products).

Going to the HQ of Zozotown in Makuhari, we go up the elevators to the wonderwall-designed floor. Like all wonderwall designs, the space is minimalistic, futuristic and elegant, with stunning views of the surrounding area. The walls are adorned with Kurt Cobain and Thom Yorke homages, and fine art photos of nude women.

We are here to meet Jun Watanabe, the art director of Zozotown, and one of the key figures driving the website’s success. This success, in fact, has a 230 million dollar price tag on it, making Zozotown the most powerful internet shopping “town” for young fashion in Japan.

“In the beginning, people couldn’t believe anyone would buy clothes on the net, and thought the idea wouldn’t sell. In 2004, Zozotown was established, and before that, there were separate shops according to genre, like there was street, ladies, and hip hop, and Zozotown combined everything to make one town. That was when it took off.”

“I think selling clothing on the net is still a challenge. When people go clothes shopping, they like to try things on, check the material, and get a good feel of the product. To try something like that on the internet is to give clothing a new value, and that is a challenge.”

Nowadays, you would think that online stores with little overheads would be the biggest threat to existing stores, especially with areas like Ura Harajuku that cater to street wear and a clientele looking for imported items. Speaking with many of the business directors of street wear labels in Harajuku, they only confirm this suspicion. However, Japanese shoppers are notoriously set in their ways, quite detail orientated and extremely fussy consumers. When Zozotown started, most people thought it would tank.

However Zozotown’s main USP is that they feature stores that actually exist in real life as well, in categories such as “urban”, “designer”, “advanced” and “glamorous”.

“I think that it is a similar concept to Harajuku”, Watanabe explains,  “Except that it is on the net. It’s almost as though the Omotesando, Harajuku area has been recreated virtually. It’s just another town.”

He takes us to the office where most of the workers are stationed. The company now employs 250 people, but Watanbe’s  office is easy to spot a mile off: rows of candy colored sneakers line the window, a painted skateboard, lithographs, toys, a shelf full of storm troopers and star wars figures adorn the space.

“When [Zozotown parent company] Start Today was really in it’s infancy, they had nothing designed. Business cards, envelopes… absolutely nothing; they had all these things made with word processing software.”

“So I came in and sorted that out. Fixing a seemingly small thing like that meant the company image changed dramatically. It now looks really cool. I want to continue helping the company move forward by helping out with design.”

Watanabe also has his own design projects and is known for his work with various street clothing labels, designing toys, characters, sneakers with local brands MAD FOOT!, as well as websites for street labels like Stussy Japan.

Whilst working with some of the largest street wear labels in the world, Watanabe is simply working with friends he met whilst going to band gigs, and seems to like this casual attitude towards his work relationships,

“I like to work with anyone that does things DIY. When I was in high school I was listening to punk and hardcore. The people that started the major street brands were all in bands. My boss Yusaku Maezawa, too, was in a band. He went on to start Zozotown, but the other band guys started brands.”

“The guy from MAD FOOT! Sneakers is also from a band, although he is more hip hop. The brands those guys come up with are really interesting.”

Street culture was initially introduced into Japan with the film Wildstyle in the early 80s, and quickly became a dominant youth movement. Many of the artists in Wildstyle came to Japan, catalyzing a b-boy scene in Tokyo with pioneer beak-dancers such as Crazy-A of the Rock Steady Crew dancing at Yoyogi park, whilst DJing and J-rap followed directly after.

Considering the affluence of Japan during this period, most hip hop was not, as with other countries, an expression of socio-economic status (Tokyo – devoid of anything resembling a foreign ghetto – was definitely not born in the hood). As a result, the fashion, such as expensive dreads, fake tans and consumerism took something of a forefront as a means of expression.

However, as street culture progressed, it developed an autonomous style, and Japan – especially the Harajuku area – began it’s own street culture beyond simply mimicking America. Gradually, Japan began to incorporate elements of Japanese culture into the streets, and it began to take on an inherent form.

Whilst embracing Japanese pop aesthetics is not on Watanabe’s agenda, his creations are cute, colorful and vibrant. They reflect the Tokyo street image, and are hence popular in the foreign market, with street scene luminaries such as Kanye West being a fan of his collaborations.

A big, pink paint bottle with a face drawn on, (which is actually a full face helmet with eye slots) sits on top of his other creations.

“I have a character that is the bottle for plastic model paint” he says of the bottle head, “this is because painting plastic models has been one of my hobbies since I was a kid. I like pop things. I think pop is one of the characteristics of the Japanese street culture.”

His influences range from heavy metal CD jackets, the manga Dragonball and, most feverishly, Star Wars.

“Star Wars is something that was originally influenced by Japanese culture,” Watanabe explains, “so for Japanese people to watch it, it probably gets accepted quite naturally. Apparently, it was influenced by Kurosawa Akira’s The Seventh Samurai. With the Jedi Knight, the root of the word “Jedi” is “judo”, and their clothing is judo gear.”


Photos by Geoff Johnson
From J SELECT Magazine, October 2010