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Oct 21, 2016
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Okinawa fashion: new style for Japan's tropical islands

Oct 21, 2016

Okinawa, the Japanese archipelago home to thousands of US troops and popular with scuba divers, is looking beyond its beach resorts and World War II battle sites to bag a spot in high fashion.

A two and a half hour flight from Tokyo and closer to Taiwan, Okinawa couldn't be more different from the Japanese capital, where the fashion set reach for tights and tailored jackets on even a balmy autumn day and look down their noses at homespun "resort wear".

But rather than bend to Tokyo's will, two fashion houses on Okinawa have wider horizons: putting the sub-tropical island chain on a map of its own.

Lequio spring/summer 2017 - Tokyo Fashion Week - Lequio

Both directors jetted into Tokyo for fashion week to meet buyers and journalists, but instead opted to stage their runway shows on Okinawa Island -- live streaming them online to reach a wider audience.

"Fashion is not only for people in Tokyo. That's what I want to prove," Roberto Yoshida, creative director of Okinawamade, tells AFP.

Holding shows in other parts of Japan, a country made up of hundreds of inhabited islands with a population of 127 million -- around double that of Britain -- will make fashion week more interesting, he says.

The 38-year-old, the grandson of a Spanish woman, who also designs biker gear for Honda and runs a high-end line patronised by the likes of US rocker Lenny Kravitz, is holding his catwalk show on Saturday in an old elementary school with Okinawan women starring as his models.

"I wanted to establish a brand that represents Okinawa," he says. "It has been my dream since high school."

The brand is officially menswear, but his appeal is broader: 70 percent of his customers are young women from their teens to 30s, he says, and 30 percent come from outside Japan, mostly China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

- US influence -

For fellow label Lequio it's also about more than the island's blue skies, crystalline sea, hibiscus flowers: it's about promoting the island's unique culture and history.

"We want to present original products that can be made nowhere else," director Yoshinari Kakazu tells AFP.

Lequio spring/summer 2017 - Tokyo Fashion Week - Lequio

Lequio's spring/summer 2017 collection features a traditional Okinawa indigo dye and Kakazu wants to move into agriculture to support its production with farming on the wane.

He shows a beautifully soft indigo T-shirt dyed with intricate white patterns, which come from a kimono his mother wears for doing traditional dance.

Lequio also has a second line, Made In Occupied Japan, that fashions US military attire into bags. The same cloth has been made into a hooded sundress for spring/summer 2017.

Around 47,000 Americans troops are stationed in Japan, more than half of them on Okinawa, which was occupied for 27 years after World War II.

While US culture has deeply influenced the island, rapes, assaults and hit-and-run accidents by troops, their dependents and civilians have also fanned controversy and protests.

"We're using this name ironically to turn negative heritage into a plus point," says Kakazu.

- Global ambitions -

But neither Kakazu nor Yoshida want to be drawn on what they think of the bases, which also provide local jobs. Both have American friends and say US culture has been a huge influence.

Lequio's show was held in the courtyard of an old American officers' mess in what Kakazu calls "the Beverly Hills of Okinawa". It was live streamed on Monday, the first day of Tokyo Fashion Week.

For his AFP interview Yoshida wore his own sweater printed with Mickey Mouse and Okinawa, as well as wide-brimmed rapper-style cap.

He is inspired by French designer Hedi Slimane, who in 2016 took Yves Saint Laurent's runway show to his home base in Los Angeles.

Yet unlike the unrelenting US drive towards mass consumerism, he has his eye firmly on cultivating exclusivity.

Okinawamade sells online but has just one, tiny Tokyo shop, which only opens at weekends and where he says people queue for the limited chance to snap up the clothes.

"A small brand that competes with major brands is more interesting," he said. "If I continue this way, I hope someday Nike or Supreme might ask me to collaborate in the future."

Lequio also has big ambitions.

"Our clothes are luxurious resort wear with a casual twist," says designer Hiloki Deliva. "I want people all over the world to wear them."

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