the tokyo shop workers shaping the future of japanese fashion
Introducing Harajuku’s stylish community of shop staff, and exploring their influence on style in Japan.
In most cases, however you dress it up, retail isn't at the top of everyone's dream job list. With a job description that might best be described as a testing experience with the general public and the horrors that happen in changing rooms, it's widely-accepted that a shop job is something you endure rather than enjoy. This otherwise universal truth means nothing in Harajuku, where things are a little more glamorous for a certain circle of retail workers. Known locally as 'shop staff', the kids happily hanging shirts for minimum wage in Tokyo's fashion district aren't your average turn-up-for-work-hungover employees, but a unique community of employees hired to be brand ambassadors, models, and de facto 'faces' of the brands they work for. This all-encompassing role is testament to Tokyo's typical culture of hard work: Japanese hipsters don't do the whole model/blogger/DJ thing - they also have day jobs.
It follows that netting a shop staff position in Harajuku takes more than catching the bus into town and brandishing your CV at whichever shop won't pop it straight through the shredder. Babymary Faline, the owner of influential boutique Faline Tokyo, has a hiring criteria which extends to more than just knowing how to fold a t-shirt, and sounds more like trying to get through to the X-Factor finals. "To be shop staff in Harajuku you have to be the star of the shop, really," Mary explains. "The best shop staff are more like icons than sales people. They need to be models, DJs, social media influencers and socialites. It takes a lot more than your average salesperson… they need to have some magic." That magic comes in many forms, but a "unique image" is the fundamental ingredient - a reason that shop staff populate the pages of Japan's top street style blogs Fruits and DropTokyo.
This idea of shop staff being pseudo-celebrities isn't new, and has a history rooted in Tokyo's department stores that goes back to the Harajuku street style boom in the 90s. Formerly known as 'charisma clerks', trendsetters were hired to totter around offering 'big sisterly' style advice to customers who came seeking it (and of course get them to spend as much as possible).
Nowadays, the cult status that certain employees enjoy means that social media promotion is integral to the shop staff world. Instagram works its whole 'organic PR' purpose well: the staff promote the brand they work for on their personal account, and vice versa. And their followers trust their advice. Baek Yoona, who works at minimalist punk boutique Never Mind the XU, says "the more followers the shop staff get, the more popular the shop [they work for] becomes."
Still, it's ultimately the shops who are reaping the financial benefits from these relationships, and retail assistant roles aren't exactly famed for their generous wages, even in Harajuku. So if these kids are so influential in their own right, then apart from chalking up their Instagram followers, what's really in it for them? Quite a lot, according to Yoona: "shop staff in Harajuku are seen as a community, and a lot of them have connections with people from other fashion-related industries, such as photographers and make-up artists." For Babymary's Faline employees, that can mean regularly meeting designers, stylists and musicians. Whether it's "Jeremy Scott or Rihanna coming to visit the shop", or to "fashion parties where they get to drink with Kim Jones or Ricardo Tisci," Faline's staff have access to circles most retail workers couldn't imagine. Not bad for a shop job. From there, once that book of contacts is a few pages thick, the sky is the limit: "It's just a matter of how well they can live up to that position and how far they can push themselves," says Mary.
For a lucky few, that all-important introduction into the inner sanctums of Harajuku's heady fashion scene has meant unbridled success. Peco and Ryucheru - arguably Japan's most eminent young couple - met whilst working at Harajuku teeny-bopper store Super Wego, and have since amassed over a million Instagram followers between them. While still relatively unknown in the west, Peco has been touted as the next Kyary Pamyu Pamyu-esque 'face' of international Japan, has her style referred to as 'Peco Kei' by fans, and currently runs her own fashion brand, Peco Club, out of Harajuku's famous Bubbles store. Ryucheru is known for his trademark Genderless Kei aesthetic, and is an increasingly familiar face on Japanese television shows and adverts.
Even so, Harajuku's shop staff aren't all saccharine & polished - the best are the ones taking Harajuku out of its kawaii funk. For the next generation of the capital's shop staff, the future is already looking pretty good. Here's i-D's pick of the crop…
Naoki H, works at Chance Chance
With an enviable dose of boy-next-door looks, Naoki, known on Instagram as Naopis, takes style inspo from Leonardo DiCaprio circa Romeo & Juliet (he does the bleach-blond curtains and raspberry pout thing well). Starting out working in a clothing store in his native Kanagawa after becoming interested in fashion through his older sister, the 23-year-old model now works for Korean brand Chance Chance out of Harajuku's La Foret department store, and blogs for Nylon Japan. @naopisgram
Baek Yoona, works at Never Mind the XU
A 17-year-old high school student and a shop worker at minimalist punk brand Never Mind the XU, Yoona stands just over 5 feet in her signature all-black-everything complete with impeccable vampish bob. Scouted to work at XU last year as shop staff and a model, Yoona promotes the label's aesthetic through her Instagram, somehow managing to marry classic Harajuku kawaii with her own brand of nu-grave darkness. @12by15
Elleanor, works at Aoi Coffee Stand
Not all of Harajuku's up-and-comers work in clothes shops. 21-year-old Elleanor started working in a coffee shop in La Foret because she "wanted to be involved in Harajuku in some way." Building a strong online following and garnering attention from street style blogs, Elleanor now works at Aoi Coffee, and has starred in music videos, scored DJing gigs, and was recently featured in Chelsea Handler's Netflix talkshow on Japanese street fashion as one of the faces of Harajuku style. @elleanor1222
Kenken, works at Faline Tokyo
"As soon as I met him, I knew he was the one." That's how Babymary describes her first encounter with Kenken, one of her prodigal employees at Faline. Mary discovered him at a launch party at her store in Nagoya and recently relocated him to the branch in Tokyo. As well as working the shop, Kenken is part of a Tokyo fashion DJ duo with new Faline intern Yoshiaki. @kenkenlayos
Yutaro, works at San to Nibun no Ichi
While 18-year-old Yutaro still works at under-the-radar vintage store San to Nibun no Ichi, his fame recently rocketed; after being featured heavily on a string of street style blogs, Yutaro was picked up by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's talent agency Asobi System and is now in high demand in magazines and on Japanese TV. @aaaoe__
Eno, works at MYOB
Eno manages the MYOB store out of La Foret, contributes her emotive artwork to their clothing, and manages to seriously pull off a mugshot-worthy skullet. If Eno's style is moody, her sparkling grin is anything but - she recently had her teeth done at Y's Dental Cure, a futuristic celebrity dental clinic that has Eno to thank for its art direction. @eno_tokyo
Supercup Matcha, works at Fake Tokyo
Shop staff at Shibuya's luxe brand store Fake Tokyo by day, international DJ and club kid by night (he doesn't just drink green tea), Matcha's mishmash getups are a common sight on Tokyo's top street style blogs. @supercupmatcha
Text Ashley Clarke