Why Lolita Fashion Is Taking Over Catwalks

Why you should care

Because Nabokov never would have anticipated this. 

Ashlyn Smith thought very carefully about what she’d wear to Disneyland. Flicking through her closet, she paused at her teddy-bear-print sundress, ruffled shirts and knee-length baby-pink boots. Finally, she settled on the winner: a baby-pink waistcoat and a knee-length rose-print dress with large bows at the waist, neck and hem.

Turns out, the ensemble is not “too young” for a 19-year-old these days, and for that you can thank Japan, globalization and, of course, Vladimir Nabokov. “Lolita fashion” originated in Japan during the late ’70s, but the trend has picked up in the States, even getting play on New York catwalks in recent seasons. Smith, a student at San Jose State, was off to Disneyland to celebrate the fourth annual “Lolita Day,” bursting with young women who had eschewed the princess regalia for parasols, petticoats and ruffles. “Lolita makes me feel feminine, creative and unique,” says Smith, who defines her fashion as a fusion of Victorian and Edwardian aesthetics. “I’m dressing 100 percent for myself, without trying to impress anyone else.” 

[Lolita style offers] a sense of magic and playfulness that lets women escape into a softer and funnier universe.

Genevieve Flaven, CEO, Style-Vision Asia

With Lolita-style skirts costing $200 and up, these togs are pricey items for their intended market, and yet the American fan base keeps growing, a testament to the enduring appeal of anime, manga and ’90s Harajuku culture. In 2012, Frill, the first Lolita-only convention, took place in Atlanta; now frillseekers can attend similar events around the globe. And Japan keeps stoking the fire. In 2009 the country appointed Lolita fashion model Misako Aoki as its ambassador of pop culture. And since every fashion trend could use some solid academic underpinning, the Omula Fashion Design College in Fukuoka stepped up in 2013 and established the Japan Lolita Association to promote the style.

Why the fuss? It’s because there’s serious money in all that finery. Japanese fashion exports are expected to rise from $595 billion in 2015 to $625 billion in 2025, while experts forecast that China’s online fashion revenue alone will grow from $125.8 billion in 2016 to $285.3 billion in 2021. (America’s fashion revenue is expected to increase half as fast during that time frame.) And Sanrio, the pinnacle of Eastern cute with its Hello Kitty franchise, is raking in big American bucks — according to License Global: In 2015, the company was ranked seventh in the world for global licensors, taking in $5.9 billion to Disney’s league-leading $52.5 billion.

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Japan’s Lolita style fashion leader Misako Aoki signs an autograph for an 18-year-old fan.

Source Toshifumi Kitamura/Getty

Early adopters are glad that their fashion is more accessible, but they’re not thrilled by the associations that come with it. “[Lolita fashion] is often grossly misrepresented and furthers stereotyping,” Smith says. She objects to Nabokov references and to those who equate the fashion with a pedophiliac fetish for 12-year-olds. Purists complain that fashion fangirls often pay lip service to the style, picking and choosing items and ignoring the detailing that’s intrinsic to the look. (It’s divided into three subsets — classic, sweet and Gothic — and attention to details like coordination, patterns and hem length is paramount.) Others insist the picayune doesn’t matter. “I find that most of the time, people’s ideas of what makes a Lolita outfit ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ boil down to personal opinions,” says Chobi Smith, who’s been part of the San Francisco Lolita community for the past six years. “Fashion is subjective; there’s no right or wrong way to develop an interest.”

When you see models not wearing the right shape of petticoat, it makes people worried.

Genevieve Flaven, CEO of Style-Vision Asia, a Shanghai-based trend agency, thinks that the Lolita look offers “a sense of magic and playfulness that lets women escape into a softer and funnier universe.” Flaven says that prestige brands have embraced Lolita’s childish aesthetic on fashion catwalks, showcasing “ruffles, lace, egg shapes, bags with charms, cartoon and candy colors … ” Fashion designers Betsey Johnson and Jeremy Scott are well known for borrowing these tropes. But Flaven says that Asian purchasers are getting edgier, so keeping cute-cool involves continual design innovations.

In the West, though, ruffles are the look du jour. In the 2016 edition of the spring/summer New York Fashion Week, “authentic” Lolita designs were on display for the first time and heralded the growth of Asian brands as a style force to be reckoned with. During the 2017 NYFW, models wearing knee-length petticoats, Victorian bodices and ruffles at their wrists strutted down the runway as part of a show curated by the China Fashion Collective. Every showcased designer trotted out Lolita styles. 

But hard-core aficionados have mixed feelings about the Fashion Week catwalks. “I think they did a good job of representing designers who wouldn’t otherwise get noticed by the press,” says 24-year-old Brittany Felts, the marketing manager for Lolita Collective, an online boutique. But she does feel there were styling issues. “When people talk about Lolita, it’s about maintaining the look we agreed on. When you see models not wearing the right shape of petticoat, it makes people worried.” Flaven was even less impressed by the Lolita look’s apparent NYFW runway success — she calls the designs a “cheap copy of Dolce & Gabbana, with a touch of Japanese kawaii.”

As for Smith, she’s hopeful but wary. “NYC Fashion Week offers validation to our fashion as something more than a costume,” she says. She’d like to see the public discourse about her style change from “knee-jerk assumptions about the background of the name” to a nuanced understanding. 

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