The Japanese ‘Lolita’ Subculture Takes New York

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A line of women in bell skirts, petticoats, bonnets, and bows wound down Allen Street between Rivington and Stanton on Saturday morning. Many of them (and a few men) had been waiting in line for just under three hours for the official reopening of Tokyo Rebel, a Manhattan-based shop that specializes in cult Japanese streetwear brands.

While fans sported a variety of their favorite Tokyo designers, many were self-identified “Lolitas" (named, truly, without Nabokov's iconic character in mind). The Lolita subculture took root in Japan’s Harajuku shopping district in the 1970s, when Japanese designers reportedly picked the name for its cute, girly ring. (The signature Lolita look is hard to miss: ruffled blouses, massive bows on top of banana-curl wigs, and, depending on the Lolita’s taste, loudly patterned smock dresses in shades of either pastel or red-and-black Goth colors, always poofed out in a bell shape with layers of petticoats.) 

Lolitas love all things related to tea parties, so Tokyo Rebel employees handed out mini-cupcakes to the hundreds of attendees waiting in line — which included everyone from high-school students to corporate executives. One woman wore a bird headdress, while another had stuffed tiny toys into her massive updo. Passing brunch crowds and tourist buses stopped to snap photos.

Tokyo Rebel is the brainchild of husband-and-wife duo Jeff Williams and Masayo Fukuda-Williams, who opened their first shop in Alphabet City in 2009, developing a cult following during their three years in business. This new, much-anticipated Lower East Side location (the couple has run a successful e-shop since their first store closed in 2012) crams nine imported brands into 800 square feet, half of which is allocated to the cult-favorite brand Baby, the Stars Shine Bright (called simply “Baby,” for short).

Franchised here for the first time on the East Coast, Baby is a Lolita fixture. The brand launched in Tokyo in 1988, and is signature of the "Sweet Lolita" vein of the subculture — heavy on the pastels and cupcake motifs. Dresses are intricate and hand-stitched in Japan, cut from custom-printed fabrics, and seldom sell for less than $200. Since the late '80s, Lolita has splintered off into subgenres, such as Alice and the Pirates (Baby’s own Goth line), punky Sex Pot Revenge, and, most recently, a post-Lolita aesthetic called Mori Girl. Tokyo Rebel stocks all of these styles, plus some Ouji, a more princely trend, known for its pantaloons and vests.

As a streetwear style, Lolita began to gain popularity in the United States in the early 2000s — via imported fashion magazines and on internet message boards — and today, strains of it are even evident in high fashion. Lolita-curious teens and twentysomethings seek street-style inspiration from Tumblr, and take notes from YouTube stars like Lovely Lor and Peachie Princess.

Yanise Cabrera, a 24-year-old Lolita from Queens who showed up on Saturday in multilayer chiffon dress with gold-dot embellishments, explained that New York Lolitas have to develop thick skins when it comes to subway heckling and fending off the Nabokov references. Still, “I get this itchy feeling, and I have to dress up,” she said. 

Because, for Cabrera and many others, dressing Lolita is a feminist statement. Raven Zoh, the designer behind the Brooklyn-based (and Lolita-influenced) line Morrigan, describes the aesthetic as “sweet, but with teeth.” She loves the bell-shaped skirts, because they take up more space than contemporary styles and give her a powerful stance.

According to Ashley, another Queens-based Lolita who came out on Saturday, “Women use Lolita subversively. Even though they dress cute, they are still empowered.” She added, “It’s about being an adult lady, and wearing these clothes because I want to.”

Click through our slideshow to see the crowd, in many different strains of Lolita style, who showed up on Saturday. 

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