If you like inexpensive Japan-based brands, Uniqlo isn’t the only one available here
By Ray Zhang and Emma Ng
Uniqlo might be the biggest mass fashion brand from Japan, but they are by no means the only one. Or, to be more specific, the only brand that you can consider here. Wego, one of the many throbbing hubs of what has been known as Harajuku style (really a vague description and opened to interpretation), debuted here last June, in the now-three-year-old Lumine. Considered Japan’s earliest fast fashion labels, way before fast fashion became a dirty word, Wego is part Uniqlo, part Don Quixote (known as Don Donki here), with a dash of Ikebukuro’s Animate (manga emporium). The stores (mostly) can be either hypnotic or chaotic: it really depends on your threshold for the manic. If you are a Mustafa habitué, you might find the digging and discovering totally exhilarating. If you are a Marie Kondo devotee, these stores are no temples of retail zen. If you are mature shopper, you’ll probably walk in and walk out.
Yet, oddly, Wego here is quite unlike their Japanese counterparts. To be sure, it is still retains its trend-bent leaning, or what’s trendy among Japanese fans. But the first thing that struck us when we visited its Lumine space was how uncharacteristically neat it was and how a lot less frenzied-looking than what we’re used to seeing in their Tokyo stores—at least the one in Harujuku, at the corner of Omotaesando and Meiji-dori Avenue, where we go to only because all other stores in Ura-Harajuku and Aoyama are closed. We never found anything to buy, but we would visit, if only to acquaint ourselves with the not quite one-style Harajuku look. Increasingly, the Western media describe Wego as a “street” brand, and it does wear its street aesthetics on its sleeves like showa revivalists do with their ’60s florals. But Wego is also inviting because they are so hard to define.
Wego began life in 1994 as a second-hand clothing store in Osaka’s American Village (Amerika-mura or Amemura), which at that time was a lively mix of small malls, shophouses, and open-air markets (it’s now enjoying what some might called ‘gentrification’). It was not until 2003 that Wego established itself in Tokyo, specifically in Harajuku (we do not know where the first store was exactly), where it took root and captured the attention of shoppers, six years before H&M arrived. When the Swedish fast fashion giant debuted in Tokyo, many young Japanese shoppers already tasted and enjoyed cheap, disposable fashion with Wego. Interestingly, its Takeshita-dori store, considered a must-stop for tourists, did not open until 2008. It is now more a tourist destination than a spot that Harajuku regulars must visit.
That Wego is so identified with Harajuku—“epicenter of street style”—augments its standing as purveyor of what is truly cool among the young (it is identified on Google Map as a “youth clothing store”). To us, however, the brand captures more the spirit of Amerika-mura than Harajuku. In fact, Wego in Japan does not only sell its own namesake brand, it also offers other youth-targeting American labels such as Champion and Carhatt, just to name two, and, at one time, believe it or not, Hong Kong’s Giordano (didn’t figure that one out)! All in quite a jaunty jumble, and reminiscent of American jeaneries of yore, such as the now-defunct Canal Jean Co. in Manhattan, in the 90s. One apt description we were directed to was no exaggeration: “a riot of Japanese and American pop culture”. Simply put, Uniqlo, on their busiest day, is less headache-inducing,
But once here on our ‘fine’ island, the riot is quelled. The Wego store—corner, really—in Lumine is no way in the scale of even Uniqlo’s smallest (Changi Airport T1?). And it’s very bright and neat. When we approached the space from within Lumine, we’re surprised by how un-Harajuku-like it was. This could be one of those new shops in the also-new Shibuya Scramble Square. There was a distinct lack of buzz, in a good way. In fact, it was the orderliness and spaciousness that was a welcome sight. We could see everything at a glance without resorting to digging. Shelves were not piled high, racks were not packed tight—this was so unlike the fast fashion we’re used to. It was as if we were amid an environment that takes into consideration the needs of grown-ups.
The store is divided—but not evenly—into two adjacent areas, featuring womenswear, the larger, and menswear, the smaller. The women’s clothes look somewhat tame, as compared to what we’ve seen in Tokyo. But those who know how to turn seemingly Normcore styles into street-wear major might find the oversized sweater-vests, roomy shirts, peasant blouses, short-sleeved blazers, and wrinkled tea dresses the ingredients to a perfect riot. If you are into the Lolita look or dreaming of appearing on the cover of Larme, you’d have to have exceptional flair for styling to find pieces to test your skills. The stuff for guys, too, are cheerily accessible: huge range of T-shirts (many sized to be worn hanging off the shoulders), vintage-looking track tops, brightly-coloured drain-pipes, and short-sleeved shirts, all with the particular aesthetic that would lure the gangly teen. Approachable edgy, we would say. Unlike in Tokyo, if you’re not sure of how you’d want to look, immediate inspiration is elsewhere: There aren’t members of the sales crew who seem like they’ve just stepped off the ‘staff look’ pages of Seventeen. Sigh.
Wego is at Lumine, Clarke Quay Central. Photos: Chin Boh Kay