From coquettecore to blokecore, the internet’s (read: TikTok's) rapid turnover of trends this year feels downright impossible to keep up with. Just as soon as we’ve nailed our gorp-meets-ballet get-up, the algorithm meddles once more to birth a fresh mix of microtrends, ready to be devoured. Bubbling throughout the algorithm, a saccharine style known as cutecore is doing the rounds. In what appears to be an incarnate of Japanese kawaii, an undercurrent of pastel colour palettes, accessories resembling baby animals and generally cute clothing is permeating the app under the guise of yet another -core. Put it down to TikTok’s rapid, oft-random spread of trends across our FYPs, but cutesy elements of kawaii have been cropping up outside of the substyle and into mainstream fashion as of late.
Where our access to substyle would have once been limited to local subcultures and their associated music and ephemera, social media opened the floodgates for fashion referencing. Kawaii - literally the culture of cuteness - harks back to 1960s Japan, when university students protested against prescribed academia, swerving the classrooms in favor of manga comics. In the years that followed, teenagers began developing their own styles of childlike handwriting such as marui ji, a rounded font punctuated by mini stars, hearts and cartoon faces. The style was clearly too adorable to go amiss, as it began permeating the country’s advertising. In 1974, stationary heavyweight Sanrio created the ultra-cute cat Hello Kitty, a character which retains cult status, and the title of Tourism Ambassador in Japan. Meanwhile, around Harajuku station in Shibuya, youth culture was responding to the kawaii phenomenon, brewing a style based on innocence, playfulness and overall cuteness.
Harajuku style now frequently borrows from manga, anime and Japanese cartoons, but is best known for its meticulously crafted combo of child-like silhouettes; stars, stripe and spots; wild colour palettes and unmatched levels of accessorisation. Sniffing out the countless substyles of Harajuku street fashion - from Lolita (think Victorian dolls) to Decora (heavily decorated) to Fuwa (put simply, fluffy) - was photographer Shoichi Aoki, the brains behind streestyle publication FRUiTS. What started as a locally-distributed zine became pivotal in the globalisation of Harajuku fashion, serving as a bible of 80s-2000s streetstyle which felt as relevant then as it does now.
Thanks to the legacy of Aoki’s FRUiTS - immortalised via Tumblr and TikTok - kawaii substyles have traversed the globe. You’re now as likely to see Harajuku fashionistas strolling the streets of Shoreditch or Soho as you are queues of sneakerheads. London-based streetstyle photographers like William Wright of Streetflash zine and Daisy Davidson of archive @hysteric.fashion are carrying the baton of Aoki, snapping a new gen of Harajuku fashion within London’s youth culture.
While TikTok influencers have the ability to spread trends like wildfire, the app’s lo-fi nature means it’s fair game to influence through content. Home styling videos, street style clips, hauls and thrifting how-tos serve as an open-source, real-time record of the latest trends worldwide. It feels fashion is at a turning point, where substyle - once housed within subcultures - could be flattened into a homogenised mishmash of trends if we’re not careful. Yes, the internet breeds a more fluid, accepting space for style, where a trend can be dipped into with a simple accessory atop your usual garb. But let’s not forget the origins of our beloved -cores, before the two become completely detached.
You don’t have to look too hard to find nods to cuteness in the hottest brands of the moment. You can find it in Chopova Lowena’s gummy bear charm necklaces, or their cardigans decorated with ducklings and deer; Kiko Kostadinov’s bow-clad stocking boots or Vaquera’s plush teddy keychains. Then there’s Marc Jacobs Heaven, who’s heavily curated stores feel like a teenager’s bedroom straight from Harajuku, filled with ultra-rare Japanese ephemera, 2000s toys and equally kitsch clothing. As for street style, it’s in those plush Sanrio keychains hanging from it-girls bags, leg warmers folded over chunky loafers, fuzzy teddy-ear hats and baby tees - even leaving the house with a face full of star-shaped pimple patches feels a little Decora.
Kawaii’s dilution into mainstream fashion speaks to a new era, where trends can be mixed, matched, cut and pasted without conformity. After all, its ethos has always encompassed a myriad of substyles under the unifying guise of cuteness. Maybe it’s a desire for escapism from the harrowing state of the world right now; an alignment to something positive. Maybe it’s just the algorithm’s latest fix. Whatever it is, cuteness is here to stay (for the moment, anyway).
Words - Ella Aldersey-Williams