The promise of mochi and chewy melon candies drew me here once a week, to a strip mall-sized pan-Asian grocery store on the southern edge of downtown Seattle. This was Mom's church away from church--a savored respite from the misty hilltop suburb where we lived--where the snacks were beautifully packaged and the produce half-priced. While she scoured the aisles hunting for duck eggs and pristine bok choy, I spent the hour or so at a cozy bookstore next door, leafing quietly through the pages of comics, photography books, and Japanese fashion magazines. One publication I happened upon here, on one of our routine visits, caused an unexpected stirring within me, like the sigh of some mysterious creature: It was FRUiTS, the Harajuku street style bible, and the colorful universe I found inside became something of my own religion.
The magazine, which launched in 1997 and ran for two decades, captured an insider's view of outsider fashion in the neighborhood's pre-gentrified golden age. From the flouncy gothic lolita getups often associated with the area to dramatic full Vivienne Westwood tartan looks, it functioned as an authentic record of up-and-coming trends through the lens of the area's coolest residents. I gazed in solitude at glossy full-page photos of girls with neon-drenched hair and boys in a-line skirts and silken kimonos: The saccharine and frenetic world of FRUiTS's fashion came as a stark contrast to the masculinities and femininities I was taught at Catholic school. And yet I saw myself there, somewhere far away, on the page as in a daydream.
I always felt like an onlooker in my little community, even within my family, and though I knew nothing of the innovative shapes created by Issey Miyake, nor the macabre joy of Rei Kawakubo's stitch, I recognized myself in the costumery I found in the folds of these pages. When the magazine announced it would print its last issue in 2017, founder and editor in chief Shoichi Aoki told Japanese website Fashionsnap with a biting bluntness, "There are no more cool kids left to photograph."
It was around that time that I purchased my first dress. At the encouragement of my then-boyfriend, a tall femme who identified as 'vers' but always had a $150 set of acrylics, I bought a sleeveless velvet shift that fell to my ankles and had coins for buttons. It was something fit for a Renaissance fair, but it crystallized an important realization for me. By playing with my outward expression, I began to unlearn essentialist gendered notions of who I was or what I was supposed to be.
Finally, I looked like I belonged in FRUiTS: Not because I dressed with abandon, but because I had a transparent clarity about who I was.
In the years since then, my presentation has shifted; I've accumulated more and more dresses, earrings, heels. And I wear them, and I write about others who wear them, too. Believe me, while I know there are more important things in the world than cleverly and self-indulgently hyperlinking all my favorite looks--though this Express Love Unites tube top moment may take the cake--there is little more powerful than confidently rocking exactly who you are. It's as the saying goes: The Kylie Jenner Lip Kit is mightier than the sword.
For that, Shoichi Aoki, I thank you for carving a path, and I also accept your challenge: There are still cool kids left that the world needs to meet. For me, they're the good, talented, hard-working people who take seriously the cultural implications of personal expression and have an active hand in breaking down and and reshaping the relationships between style and gender. I'm proud to share their stories and, one day, hope to count myself among them.
To see more from Out's Associate Managing Editor, Coco Romack, visit Out.com/LoveUnites. For every Love Unites item you purchase by July 15, Express will donate 25% of the net income to GLAAD to accelerate acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community.
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