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Mon, Nov 05, 2001 - Page 21 News List

Arab scarves a new fashion statement


A man wears a Middle Eastern scarf in Tokyo recently. The scarves have joined army-surplus gear to become the latest hot look in Japan among teenagers and young adults.


Cyber sneakers, camouflage trousers, a shock of pink hair -- and as a finishing touch, an "Arab scarf" bunched up around the chin.

That's a combination that would turn heads in many places, but not on the streets of downtown Tokyo, where Middle Eastern cotton scarves have joined army-surplus gear and neo-punk to become the latest hot look.

Half a world away from the bazaars of Cairo and the emporiums of Damascus, young Japanese throng the back alleys of the capital's hip Harajuku district, sporting what they call Arab scarves as casually as they dye their hair fuchsia pink.

A fashion statement, yes. But for fad-crazed Tokyo teens, the message is anything but political or religious.

Arab scarves -- actually called "gutra" and traditionally held in place over the head with a band -- complete a rag-bag military look that took root earlier this year.

"I didn't realize they were Arab until I went into the shop just now," 20-year-old student Munetaka Kamoshita said, squatting outside one of Harajuku's many army-surplus stores.

"I just think they're cool."

Street-fashion magazines started featuring the wraps in late August and stores have struggled to keep up with demand.

A popular magazine for surfer types this month showcased teenagers wearing the scarves in a variety of ways: bunched under the neck, slung diagonally over one shoulder and across the chest, and even tied around the hips.

One shop specializing in scarves and hats in Tokyo's trendy Daikanyama district replaced an entire shelf of elegant pashmina-silk shawls with an array of towel-like cotton fabric labeled "Afghan scarves." The store said it shifted at least 20 a day at about ?3,000 (US$25) each.

Shops say the scarves' popularity has little or nothing to do with world events in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks in the US, despite large daily doses of television footage from the Middle East.

"Most teens don't associate the scarves with Islam or with the conflict," said Makoto Fujii, a salesman at AMAC, a British-based "military boutique" that opened its flagship store in Harajuku last spring.

AMAC manager Hiro Kondo said: "We were a bit hesitant to sell them after the attacks, but there's been no problem."

The boutique started carrying red-and-white and green-and-black chequered scarves in late summer, hoping to cash in on a fad for loose, dress-down clothes that fashion watchers say has accompanied Japan's decade-long economic slide.

"When all you hear about is how bad the economy is, it kind of feels right to wear these 'survival' outfits," said Kensuke Saito, 22, a budding film maker.

Seiko Yamazaki, a research director at Japan's Dentsu Institute think tank, said the Arab scarves also carried a whiff of defiance.

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