TOKYO, Japan — Japan has been having a tough time in recent years. Amid a record number of tourists the past year (11 million foreign tourists visited Japan in 2014, up 27 percent from 2013), the final quarter of 2014 saw the world’s third largest economy slip into its fourth recession since 2008. “The economy is down, the country is depressed,” said Misha Janette, bluntly.
I am in a café perched on the corner of Bunka’s 23-storey Quint building, in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, with Misha Janette, the ingénue who left her hometown in Washington and swiftly made her name known in Japan through her bold, avant-garde style and her blog Tokyo Fashion Diaries, which she started after the catastrophic Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. “I wanted to get more news about Japan out to the world, in English,” she explained. “But I also wanted to communicate in Japanese, to educate the Japanese about the rest of the world, as well as their own culture.”
Janette moved to Tokyo in 2004 to pursue further education at the prestigious Bunka Fashion College. “I was doing graphic design in the US before I came here,” she revealed. “But I quit, because I was bored of sitting in front of the computer all day.” Today, the 32-year-old polymath holds a career that spans styling, reporting, editing, hosting TV shows, as well as designing wigs.
“I quickly learnt that in the fashion world, if you don’t already have connections or a fortune, then you have to stand out,” said Janette. “When I decided to move to Asia as this little American girl, I felt like I was already halfway there, because I stood out. But still, I asked: What else can I bring to the table? That was my challenge.”
Where did her interest in Tokyo originally stem from? “My fourth grade teacher in primary school initiated this programme where we had Japanese pen pals in a school in Kobe, and they always wrote to us using the cutest pens and stationery,” said Janette. “I just thought, oh my gosh! This is so cute! We would just write on boring lined notebook paper and be, ‘Hi, this is me.’ We were so boring in comparison to these Japanese school girls, who were sending us beautiful letters.”
“I was always more of an observer. I observed the yatsus, I observed the Harajuku kids. I can talk about the subcultures, but I was never part of it.”
Janette soon decided she was ready to move, but the transition from America to Japan was fraught with many hurdles to overcome. “There wasn’t much information online or the websites were difficult to navigate. And the thing about going to a Japanese school is that you have to take the Japanese version of SATs, which I’d obviously not done before,” reflected Janette. “Things were so different. In math, for example, the Japanese don’t use calculators. You have to do calculus, pre-calculus, geometric and algebra, all in your head.”
Behind Janette’s calm exterior is the same instinctual survivor that pushed her to pass all the country’s entrance exams, and helped her learn to navigate in a strange city in a foreign language. While undertaking a styling course at Bunka, which rattles off an impressive of alumni including Nigo of Bape, Junya Watanabe, Kenzo Takada, Yohji Yamamoto, and Tsumori Chisato, Janette started working as an assistant for The Japan Times. But, towards her graduation in 2007, she felt that her Japanese vocabulary was still lacking, so she took a job at a Japanese export company handling fashion goods, as a secretary. “At this export company, I learnt simple tasks like how to professionally answer the phone, how to invoice in Japanese, how to request for business trips and holidays, and basically understand how you run a business,” she said. “I spent a year learning it. There are different levels of [formality in] Japanese, so I learnt how to speak at a business level, so I could converse with both a business man and a normal person.”
Shortly after, she received an unexpected phone call from The Japan Times. “[They] called me and said that the fashion editor who I previously assisted was leaving and they were looking for a writer. They said, ‘You can write about Japanese fashion, right?’ By then, I had already spent three years doing nothing but reading and writing Japanese.” And with that, Janette started penning a regular column for the newspaper.
Janette’s stature started to rise and she began contributing to a number of international publications, including The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, Wallpaper and CNN Travel, as well as local magazines like Vogue Girl Japan, Numero Tokyo, Kyodo News and So-En Magazine. “I was always more of an observer. I observed the yatsus, I observed the Harajuku kids. I can talk about the subcultures, but I was never part of it. But then I started to get requests from magazines asking me about kawaii fashion and Kyary Pyamu Pyamu and Harajuku. That was the first time I felt like I was somebody who was actually [a part of] it. They were actually asking for my opinion.”
“There wasn’t a blog about Japanese fashion that I wanted to read, so I thought well, I guess I’ll have to write it.”
Yet, despite all the writing opportunities that arose, she felt that it wasn’t enough. “I think it’s because a lot of Japanese people can’t say their opinion, or won’t say their opinion. They don’t have that viewpoint. I really wanted to write about the underground stuff that was happening, like this lurid pink shop called 6%DOKIDOKI, which was on one of the back streets. I remember saying to them, ‘Who are you?’ And they said to me, ‘We’ve been here for over 16 years.’ I was so fascinated, and that’s why I started Tokyo Fashion Diaries. There wasn’t a blog about Japanese fashion that I wanted to read, so I thought well, I guess I’ll have to write it.”
Written in three languages, Tokyo Fashion Diaries quickly garnered a strong following for its fashion-forward posts on Japanese street wear and designers. In 2011, it was named ‘Top Tokyo Blog’ by Vogue Japan. But 2012 was the year that cemented Janette’s status in the industry as one of the most prominent fashion writers in Japan. She collaborated with Coach on a custom ‘Legacy’ bag, which was auctioned for charity; she was the only journalist flown from Japan to attend Gucci’s AW13 show in Milan, as well as a trip to their factory in Florence; and she was invited by Prada to attend their Spring/Summer show, held in Tokyo, as a top global blogger, alongside Bryan Boy, Susie Bubble and Diane Pernet of A Shaded View of Fashion Film.
As Janette’s career quickly progressed, the Business of Fashion placed her on the BoF500 list, a comprehensive index of the most influential people who are shaping the fashion industry. “I met Imran, the editor in chief, once at a Diesel young designer’s competition in Italy, and we had a short conversation. It was brief,” said Janette. “A few months later, during Paris Fashion Week, I was sent a link of the top 500 people and I clicked on it. They had Rei Kawakubo, Junya Watanabe, Yohji Yamamoto, Rinko Kikuchi – and suddenly, there was me! I was categorized as a newcomer, somebody to watch, but it was awesome.”
“Some people ask me if I’ll ever go back home and I’ll be like, ‘to do what?’ This is my career now. You can’t just leave and start over again.”
Today, in addition to running her website, Janette has founded her own business called Plumb, selling unique, fashion-forward wigs. “It’s funny, I needed a cool wig and I asked my followers on Twitter if they knew where to buy one, and it all snowballed from there,” she said. Needless to say, in order to match Janette’s own standards for fashion, the wigs are of optimal quality, and the styling effects and colours are set to last as needed. Janette also works as a freelance stylist, her biggest clients so far being American singer Olivia, Nicki Minaj, and Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi.
As Japan’s economy starts to look up, with exports and retail sales having grown for a sixth straight month in December (evidence of a gradual recovery), what does the future hold for Misha Janette? “Some people ask me if I’ll ever go back home and I’ll be like, ‘to do what?’ This is my career now. You can’t just leave and start over again. That’s not to say I’ll be here forever, but this is where I am right now.”
“To be honest, I didn’t come to Japan because of the fashion,” Janette admitted. “I came to Japan because I liked the culture and it meshed well with my personality. In Japan, you don’t have to be loud, but you can be thoughtful and creative, and through the quality [of your work], you can get recognised. That’s how you slowly work your way up.”
Words by Kati Chitrakorn