Exploring the fashion at Anime NYC beyond licenses
By Lisa Granshaw
For a second year, Anime NYC took over the Javits Center in November for a celebration of Japanese pop culture. This was my first time at the event and I couldn’t wait to explore the panels, exhibitors, and artists at the convention. Keeping an eye out for fashion, I saw some expected items. Ita-bags, an increasing trend, were being sold at various vendors and worn by many attendees. Apparel and accessories inspired by franchises like Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon were available at multiple booths. What caught my eye the most though was the range of items available beyond licensed works at booths and being worn by those at the convention.
Original anime designs unconnected to any property graced T-shirts and accessories alongside a range of Japanese fashion. Boomslank was one of the booths selling original anime shirts. Created by three brothers, Boomslank co-founder Justin Anyanwu told GeekFold in an interview after Anime NYC that they avoid featuring known properties because of “the burden that comes with negotiating licenses.”
“Doing licensed artwork means that we just join the noise of the crowd and we don’t stand out so as a result we won’t have any unique selling point. We took a risk and decided maybe we should just try to create our own original art based on anime and see where that goes and we started off with T-shirts,” Anyanwu said.
The company now sells posters, phone cases, sketchbooks, and stickers in addition to shirts all displaying David Anyanwu’s unique art. When they started Boomslank, Justin found there weren’t many companies selling original anime art shirts and feels that they were among the first group of companies that made it ok to sell original anime art on T-shirts. He said there was more fan art then, but now people are more interested in developing their own personal brand based on their original style within the anime genre which has led to companies like OMOCAT.
“What I’m noticing now is an increase in the number of people who are becoming more entrepreneurial with the anime subculture and I think it’s interesting, but at the same time makes me realize we have our work cut out for us,” he explained. “We’re no longer just doing this ourselves. Now it’s actually a very popular thing to do so it kind of forces me to think of really creative ways to stand out.”
Another company creating original anime designs is Sugoi Shirts. Founder Ryan McCarthy told GeekFold during an interview at Sugoi’s booth that when he started the company in 2015, he decided to stick with original work since that’s what he liked to do and, like Anyanwu, he saw that not many people were doing that at the time.
“My own personal taste was that I really wanted to wear that kind of stuff, but it was hard to find unless you’re shopping online and there were far and few sites at that time. That was the inspiration. I said well, I have the ability to do these designs and I’m going to take a chance at it and try to go from there,” he said.
Sugoi also started with T-shirts but has since grown to currently offer hoodies, sweaters, tote bags, hats, and more as they took the chance to expand when customers requested more items. They’ve also stuck with original designs since McCarthy said getting licenses can be difficult as well as expensive to obtain. Since that beginning, McCarthy has seen the landscape of what’s offered change quite a bit.
“There’s a lot more support around it and what I mean by that is there’s just a lot more people that are into it. People are a lot more accepting of wearing something like this around. It’s become a little more cool I guess is the way to put it,” he said. “It’s a great time to be in it because so many people are finding the aesthetic look of it very awesome which makes me really happy because I’ve always loved it. It’s so cool to share that with other people. The fact that it’s grown to the point where so many people can embrace it is what’s really different now.”
Beyond original anime designs and licensed work, Japanese fashion was also widespread at Anime NYC. Obi Wan Kimono was a booth that sold designs including authentic kimonos and more mass manufactured items like kimono-inspired robes to attendees. The company was started by Diana Hong after she was looking for kimonos for herself and started collecting them. She offers mid-priced kimonos with the occasional slightly more expensive option. Hong has seen most people buy items like the kimono-inspired robes though due to their affordable pricing and the likelihood of using them more often.
Hong told GeekFold at Anime NYC that what she discovered with her business was that there are a lot of kimonos in Japan that “people frankly aren’t using because it’s not as much of a tradition to wear anymore.” According to Hong, they might be worn for a certain day or to dress up for something touristy, but, from what she’s heard, on a day-to-day level they’re not really worn anymore.
“There are so many beautiful kimonos both working kimonos as well as dress up kimonos that people just weren’t using and there’s such a hunger in the international market like in America for things that are unique, traditional, and cultural so that’s how it got started. I started talking to people over there and they were willing to help me collect and ship over wholesale items. Then I started vending at anime cons mostly because I was an anime fan so I was attending them as a fan,” Hong said.
Since starting out, she’s seen a rising interest in kimonos from people attending the East Coast conventions where she vends. However, she also mentioned the issue of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is a problem that often still arises in fashion and has been discussed widely at many outlets like Refinery 29 and Vox. While these examples look at the range of the topic, there have also been articles written specifically about Japanese fashion from outlets like The Otaku Journalist. The Boston Globe also covered the issue of cultural appropriation and kimonos specifically due to the 2015 protests over the “Kimono Wednesdays” event at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the continued disagreement on a panel the following year.
“I’m 1/16th Japanese. The rest of me is actually Korean. Japan and Korea have this fraught history. It used to be a shameful thing for us and now I’m just embracing it. The reason I bring that up is you talk to people back there, anybody on my family’s side or people that they know back in Japan, and because no one’s really wearing kimonos anymore they’re not as concerned about appropriation,” Hong said. “They see it as a sign that people are interested in our culture, and the deeper you get into kimonos the more you learn about the symbology of what certain flowers mean or colors mean. I find that when I encounter someone who’s really excited about all the different color patterns and the ways to wear them and what they mean, I actually find it a point of respect almost rather than appropriation.”
Hong however appreciates when people ask her questions and hopes it continues since she sees it as a sign of interest and curiosity. She receives more questions at smaller cons she attends than large ones like Anime NYC, and sees answering them at her booth as a “sort of cultural ambassadorship.” She hopes that in the future more people will approach her already knowing about Japanese culture, kimonos, and what they’re for because misperceptions come up. She carries other types of traditional clothing as well from China and South Korea due to questions she’s received from people.
“I kept on getting people who were getting their wires crossed about ‘oh do you have this type of dress?’ Like in Ranma ½ it’s a high-collared Chinese mandarin dress. Rather than discourage that, I was like ok great, we’ll just tap into it,” she said. “We’ll be kind of a more Asian fashion one stop shop, but I do hope over the years people will get more that that’s definitely a Chinese pattern and that’s a Japanese kimono.”
Un-Re Designs was started by Terryann Harding and offers kawaii, alternative, and Japanese fashion. Her shop sells pins, bracelets, tops, leggings, necklaces, and more along with custom commissions. Harding has been to many conventions, 15 in 2018 alone all over the tristate area.
In our interview, Harding spoke about negotiating customer expectations, especially surrounding Lolita fashion. Lolita is a Japanese street style inspired by Rococo and Victorian designs that often emphasizes a cute look. It includes unique substyles within it as well like Gothic Lolita. Since starting her company, she told GeekFold she’s heard more people say they know what Lolita is but there’s still misinformation about it, due to the name especially. More people are realizing it’s not a negative thing and she would love for more people to understand and accept it. Some in the community have also found ways around the confusion by not using the term at all, according to Harding. She’s heard people just say they’re wearing “Japanese street fashion based on Victorian clothing” instead of calling it Lolita fashion.
Harding’s own interest in Lolita began around the time she started Un-Re Designs. The company began after Harding saw one of her favorite singers wearing a ring she thought looked like a giant tea pot (it was actually a baby head with a spike on top.) Wanting a jumbo tea pot ring, she made one from an old tea set and then looked for something to wear with it. She had been getting into Lolita fashion but found it difficult to find anything in her size. With a family background in sewing and fashion, she decided to give it a try herself and made skirts and dresses. She likes being the change she wants to see and offers exclusively plus sizes.
“I want cute things that are comfortable and nowhere had them so I started making them and that led to people going ‘can you make my cosplay? Can you make something for me?’ It snowballed,” Harding said.
Something that has not changed in the industry as much as she would like is plus size offerings. She said she’s seen the lies vendors tell change in regards to if their sizes will fit customers. These customers then can’t try the clothes on because there are no dressing rooms and the store won’t allow refunds or returns.
“That hurts me because I’m not a person to you. I’m just a wallet. I like a shop that will talk to me and go ‘we don’t have it, but if we hear enough outcry for it we’ll bring it’ or ‘we don’t have it and we’re sorry, but if you go to our website we do custom.’ A lot of them just want to get the product out of their booth and it’s sad and insulting to lie to people who just want things that fit,” she said.
Looking at what’s currently available, she sees a lot of the same styles based on what’s popular and has loved seeing the burst of Lolita fashion vendors. For Harding it’s still sad that she can’t fit into many of those offerings, but she’s seen more smaller shops making items in larger sizes. She knows as a company exclusively selling to plus size that there’s a market for it because she’s been at conventions where she completely sells out. Harding believes things can change if people let cons know what they want to see and if people support shops already selling plus sizes like Sweet Mildred, another vendor she mentioned that was selling all sizes of Lolita at Anime NYC. To Harding, it ultimately comes down to business and that if brands see the money going to other more inclusive brands, they in turn will start to make more inclusive items.
“If they put out a 3X dress and nobody buys it, they’ve wasted money and sometimes more money because bigger clothes need more fabric than if they had two small dresses that never sold. When you see a company doing it, support them. Tell your friends about companies that are supporting,” she said. “I’m always telling people Hot Topic is killing it with their plus size. If enough of us buy their plus size online and say we want plus size in store, they will bring it into the store where we can try it on and make decisions before purchasing it. You have to be vocal.”
When it comes to the future, Harding knows there is the constant of exclusion for certain types of people, but she’s seeing more people of color in the alternative fashion scene which she loves and hopes will continue. She wants to keep encouraging people to “be brave, be loud, take up space, show yourself off, [and] grab what they wouldn’t give you. Fashion is for everyone…you cannot exclude people from wearing clothes because of their size or their skin color.”
There is still work to do to grow and improve in these areas whether it’s plus sizes or understanding where these fashions come from and what they really mean. However, there is potential for the future to be positive.
For Hong, anime becoming more mainstream will have an impact on fashion in how it will open up people to the culture around anime, kimonos, and fashion. For original anime designs, Anyanwu also believes the increasing popularity of areas like anime, cosplay, and J-pop will have an influence. It already has impacted their own business as they try to be more precise with who they’re targeting since there are subcultures within anime that people care about. McCarthy is excited that others are getting into the area and said that one of the great things about the industry is that they all communicate and know each other to some extent.
“We all talk to each other and see what’s trending and what looks everyone’s going for and talk around it and it’s so cool to see. Their work inspires me and my work inspires them and I feel like people are going to start getting a little more experimental with products so for instance you’re starting to see full on winter jackets and stuff,” he explained. “There’s another company I follow called Kinfold and they experiment on so many different types of fabric and clothing and I’d love to eventually branch out into something like that to get something more different in terms of the actual piece of apparel you’re putting the designs on. I see that becoming a thing in the future.”
As these areas become more mainstream, it might help lead to the future Harding would like to see where people can embrace true individuality in fashion. She wants to be able to go out in full Lolita fashion and not have anyone bat an eye other than to give a compliment.
“Fashion is selfish. You do it because it makes you happy. If you like dressing down, you dress down because it makes you happy. If you like dressing up, you do it because it makes you happy. Unless you’re wearing six foot spikes on your clothes [that jam into someone], nobody’s going to be affected by your clothing choice but you…” Harding said. “We should be able to be happy and free in what we do and what makes us happy without negative criticism coming from people who don’t know our struggles and don’t know why we’re dressed that way…I’m hoping that is the future for alt-fashion in the west. We will get to a point where people don’t bat an eye and you can see people wearing their cultural garb or their fashion garb, just free. I want to say we’re getting there because with conventions being so big people just assume you’re going to a convention. It’s a good sort of scapegoat, but eventually you won’t need it. Hopefully we’ll see more people making bigger sizes and dressing in what makes them happy without any questions.”
Anime NYC will return to the Javits Center in 2019 from November 15 to November 17.
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