young women looking at japanese articles

The Larme Aesthetic: Part 1

Introduction: Sweet, Girly… Artbook?

This is the first chapter of a long-form series on Larme magazine’s aesthetic and significance in Japanese fashion and culture. In this chapter, we’ll take a look at (1) how Larme brands itself as an “artbook”, (2) how this accounts, in part, for Larme’s rising popularity, and (3) some contradictions or tensions that result from this branding.

1. Read and reflect

Frankly, in the single word “artbook”, we can see all of Larme’s aspiration and appeal. Most of us understand that an “artbook” is usually assumed to be more intellectually stimulating and valuable than a mere “magazine”. This is a flawed assumption rooted in other longstanding, but equally flawed and heavily gendered beliefs about reading and reflection.

No other issue of Larme better expresses this problem than Issue 005, which took the now-obscure Latinate term, “memento mori”, as its central theme. A historical literary and philosophical idea, the term translates as “remember you must die” and is a reminder to meditate, not gorge, on life. It was the medieval ideological counterpoint to the better-known “carpe diem”, or “seize the day”, which encouraged a more impulsive, immediate approach to life in the face of future uncertainty. 

We can be certain that the reference to memento mori was intentionally made. After all, the feature article for Larme 005, with its numerous shots of floating or submerged models, is an extended allusion to Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the trope of the drowned young woman. The editors quite cleverly translated fashion trends such as flower crowns, floral dresses, crucifixes, and used a monochrome palette into an sustained allusion to a play that takes memento mori as one of its central themes. After all, Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy is itself a meditation on life and death.

Memento mori is predicated on a capacity for deep, religious reflection that was and is, to this day, usually considered a masculine trait, not a feminine one, because women were seen as incapable of such depth of thought. For instance, Hamlet’s semi-religious meditations on life and death enable him to overcome his suicidal impulses, whereas it is implied that Ophelia succumbed to her madness and committed suicide - a forbidden act. And this capacity for religious reflection is tied to the act of reading, in part because books were primarily produced and monopolised by the clergy up until the invention of the printing press. As a case in point of how women were not seen as real readers, in the nunnery scene, Ophelia is ordered by her father, Polonius, to pretend to read a book so that Hamlet would think that she was alone.

In using memento mori as their theme, Larme magazine subverted a classical, masculine philosophy into a modern, feminine, and non-white perspective, but this seems to have been accomplished through intuition, not calculation. It’s unlikely that Larme editors understand these obscure, non-Japanese literary concepts in such detail, so my guess is that the editors simply understood that their readers would find a feature examining life and death from an Ophelian perspective morbidly interesting. (Which young woman wouldn’t, really, when so many writers and editors assume that young women have no inner lives?) Ironically, because this belief - that young women don’t reflect or read - has persisted across time and space, Larme can subvert the concept of memento mori so effectively and thoroughly.

2. Realism

The feature article of Larme 020, Blue Valentine, continues this exploration of women’s inner lives. Released in January, the issue’s feature article is a direct reference to the 2010 movie starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. To those who aren’t familiar with the movie, this may sound like a reasonable choice with Valentine’s Day and White Day coming up, but Blue Valentine is actually about courtship and the collapse of a romantic relationship. That’s some serious trend-bucking going on here when every other major women’s fashion magazine in Japan was covering what to wear for that all-important Valentine’s Day date.

Larme’s Blue Valentine feature essentially frames the magazine’s fashion using the film’s narrative, showcasing coordinates even as it charted the changing dynamics in a relationship with the passing of time. Lines of dialogue are scattered across the pages to show the crumbling relationship between the film’s two main characters, Dean and Cindy, culminating with these: “What is love?”, “I haven’t found it yet”, “But in the beginning it was definitely love” (I’m not using their abysmal English translations here). So why is this significant?

Now, with most women’s fashion magazines, there is no narrative; it’s mostly just pretty clothes on pretty models, and we skim through looking for inspiring outfits. Love and romance become, at best, stage props meant to provide some context for the clothes (e.g. a model pretending to be waiting for her date) or, at worst, a tool used to encourage young women to buy more clothes and makeup (e.g. “what to wear for that first date” articles). Either way, such women’s fashion magazines inevitably represent love and romance as static, not dynamic. There are only dates and couple trips, only sweetness and sunshine. There are no arguments, no misunderstandings, no tears, no fights, no bad days, no loneliness, and no betrayal. There is no heartbreak.

What Larme has done, as such, is depart from the norm for women’s fashion magazine in Japan. The magazine’s Blue Valentine feature exposes how even at Valentine’s, most women’s fashion magazines pack their pages with empty chatter about romance and sex, and are pretty much devoid of meaningful and reflective discourse on love. In the process, it offers its readers something new and badly needed: a thoughtful, realistic exploration of love and romance.

Some of the magazine’s readers didn’t seem to understand what was going on with the Blue Valentine feature. One amazon.co.jp reviewer roughly said, “The Valentine special was, in my opinion, unnecessary. Larme is not a magazine about being cute [in other people’s eyes], but about enjoying the fashion and makeup that I think are cute. This, I think, is what the magazine is about, and so a feature on romantic relationships strikes me as unnecessary.” Yet here, what the readers are offered is actually not the sort of romance found in mainstream women’s fashion magazines - the sort that has driven young women to seek out fashions that deliberately excise the male gaze from their lives.

The Blue Valentine feature is also impressive in another way: it re-frames the movie’s central heterosexual relationship, through female models dressed in boy- and girl- style, into a meditation on masculinity, femininity, and the permeability of such boundaries through fashion. And let’s not ignore the obvious: the casting of two female models in a romantic relationship, albeit a fictitious one, is not an everyday thing in Japan. Both of these are points that are worth discussing at some length, but I’d like to wrap up my discussion of the Blue Valentine feature by returning to the larger points I raised at the beginning of this article.

Some thorny issues

I personally think that, more often than not, we have become so inured to the rapid changes in fast fashion and popular culture that we tend to take cursory glances rather than properly examine anything to do with them. Unfortunately, that habit has meant that much of Larme’s true brilliance has been overlooked, even by its target audience. More unfortunately still, this allows the sexist skepticism towards young women’s intellectual ability to remain a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, if the readers of the magazine don’t take it seriously, who will?

We should also acknowledge the elephant in the room, namely that we cannot deny that, as a fashion magazine, Larme exists within the framework of a capitalist economy, and that one of its main purposes is to get young women to spend money on fast fashion and makeup. The magazine’s editorial team may genuinely aspire to be taste-makers and arbiters of fashion for Japanese young women, but the magazine also serves as an advertising platform for brands. There’s no getting away from this.

That said, just because Larme is working within this capitalist framework doesn’t mean that it has to be giddy or frivolous, or purely about getting young women to waste their money on fast fashion. In fact, the evidence points to the contrary: Larme, like its readers, does aspire to more than what Japanese society and economy has traditionally offered to women and women’s fashion. My intention in writing this serialised long-form article is to draw attention to how Larme navigates this minefield on multiple levels, and I think I’ve managed that much… I think?

Thanks for reading this, and do look forward to the upcoming chapter!