Anna Sui Classic (Anna Sui)

Whenever I’m too far down to get back up, my husband hands me the ultimate antidepressant. He goes to the bookshelf, pulls down two brightly-colored volumes, and silently deposits them in my lap. Within an hour – no matter how glum I was when he left me -- he’ll return to find me restored to good cheer.

The books? Shoichi Aoki's FRUiTS and FRESH FRUiTS.

In 1997, Aoki began photographing the teenagers who congregated daily in Harajuku, an outdoor shopping district in the Tokyo ward of Shibuya. Balanced between upmarket boutiques, downmarket pop-shops, and plastic fast-food cafeterias, Harajuku is the rainbow-bright capitol of Japanese street culture-- and this 60,000 square meter neighborhood cranks out more unique styles per minute than all the high-end couture houses of the world combined.

Every page of Aoki's books introduces you to a new superhero or heroine, clad in the self-made power suit of the day. By "self-made", I mean cobbled together from items purchased at a dozen different boutiques and thrift stores-- or sewn by hand from remnants of childhood kimono. Often, the sophistication of the resulting ensemble is startling; though seemingly random, it's the product of budding high concepts. These may be kids, but they're also full-fledged designers conscious of their potential as future brand names. They've got ideas, philosophies, look books. They're not here to mess around.

Well, some of them are. In honorable teenaged tradition, many Harajuku kids show up just to have some good, clean, absurdist fun with their friends. Both girls and boys demonstrate group solidarity via identical dress-- but unlike other historic urban fashion movements (e.g. London punk or Los Angeles gangwear) Tokyo's emphasis is on the cute 'n' cuddly (I swear, you never saw so much effort to look harmless in your life!). My personal favorites are the Gothic Lolitas-- those living bébés in Victorian petticoats, with their lace half-mittens and tiny top-hat fascinators and those wee parasols shielding their tender complexions from the sun...

But in 2004, the whole of Harajuku proved defenseless against the scorching effect of a much nearer star. The first curls of smoke coincided with the release of Gwen Stefani's album Love.Angel.Music.Baby. featuring the single "Harajuku Girls". Stefani's campaign to annex Fashion's Heavenly Acre for her own exclusive use continued the following year, when she conscripted four identically-dressed Asian "club kids" to be her new entourage. Their job was to look expressionless, remain perfectly silent, and surround Stefani with photogenic poses at every opportunity. (Possibly the worst thing I have ever seen is this videoclip, in which the Harajuku Girls actually kneel and bow down to their Great Blonde Goddess before busting various dance moves. Watch it and shudder.)

Then came those horrible, terrible, awful, no-good fragrances. If I mildly disliked Gwen Stefani before, now I really loathed her. She singlehandedly condemned the name Harajuku to be synonymous with "crap" forevermore-- and ruined perfume. Thanks, girlfriend!

I do not doubt that Ms. Stefani has more need of Harajuku than Harajuku has need of her. Such is the fertility of that creative ground that in five, ten, twenty or fifty years, we will know many names from the pages of Shoichi Aoki's FRUiTS intimately-- because they'll appear on fashion labels next to our skin, as well as (one hopes!) the perfume bottles on our vanities. Until then, anyone looking for an alternative to faux-Harajuku hijinks might do well to check out New York's own Anna Sui.

Parsons alumna, SoHo stalwart, and proponent of a very particular creepy- cute aesthetic, Sui is notable for applying a fresh coat of urban decay to the "dolly rocker" look popularized by Pattie Boyd in the late '60's. Demure up top but revealing an outrageous expanse of leg, Sui's fashions combine girly freshness with Rocky Horror glam and a touch of Siouxsie Sioux. Properly accessorized, they could hold their own in the Harajuku district any day of the week.

And what of Sui's perfumes? Just like Gwen Stefani's, they're girly-whirly, hypersweet, kitschy-cute-- but still they somehow manage to beat Harajuku Lovers by a mile. I rather like the bottle designs for the "Dolly Girl" series (2003-present), inspired by the eerie mannequins Sui designed for Pucci International in 1997. It's a pity she didn't utilize the motif for her eponymous first perfume (1998)-- a chic little goth number begging to be dispensed from a vessel resembling Louise Brooks' head! Instead, it comes in black-and-clear glass flacon that belongs on a dressing table in an Old West whorehouse. Ah, well. I suppose that's sort of Gothic Lolita-- if you overlook the opium, syphilis, and gin.

Anna Sui Classic kicks off directly with an juicy explosion of sweet orange, followed by a fuzzy red raspberry note straight off the vine. Yes, you're getting yourself into a youthful fruity floral-- but there are all kinds of youth culture, and ASC means to ally itself with the avant-garde, as demonstrated by the strange new-plastic accord that turns up next. (Remembering this very accord from Gaultier's Ma Dame, I was all ready to compare scent note lists when I found their common synthetic ingredient: supermodel Agyness Deyn, whose scary-long Barbie legs have traversed the catwalk for both couturiers.)

When all scent suddenly disappeared, I admit I was taken aback, but as I'd seen this sort of thing before (notably in Patricia de Nicolaï's Sacrebleu, for which I die) I determined to wait it out. This proved the best choice, as ASC sidled back to me minutes later, batting its smoky eyes by way of apology. Once it made the decision to stay, it got as down-home comfortable as a perfume could be-- enfolding me deep in a pillowy-warm tonka note touched with a powdery incense rose. And really, this was the part I liked best. Because when you need comfort, you go with what's gentle and colorful and cheering. Anna Sui Classic may shroud itself in gothic black lace, but oh, it's got a soft, soft heart.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, raspberry, apricot, rose, jasmine, cedarwood, tonka