Social media may have revolutionized the way designers share their work and inspirations, but for true style-watchers, all the noise tends to obscure one enduring question: What are the world’s best-dressed people actually wearing every day? Now, a new app promises to do for personal style what Instagram did for the selfie—and it’s already a hit in Japan, where the style tribes and shopping habits are famously next-level. Called Wear, now available for iOS and Android, delivers a steady stream of fresh-from-the-sidewalk looks to seven million users in 21 countries—like a Fashion Week style blog in real time, year-round. And the best part? Each outfit is as easy to shop as it is to Like.
“It’s way more focused than Instagram—it’s for people who love fashion,” explains Masahiro Ito, the man spearheading Wear’s Stateside expansion. Ito understands this distinction: He is CEO of engineering for Start Today, the $5 billion Japanese fashion conglomerate that started Wear, and whose best-known brand is e-commerce giant Zozotown. For Japanese shoppers, Zozotown is a bit like a cross between Net-a-Porter and Amazon: It sells 3,500 brands through 867 virtual storefronts to the tune of $1.5 billion per year, runs its own distribution center, and is growing at a rate of 20 to 30 percent annually. These numbers are all the more remarkable considering Zozotown’s rather rock ‘n’ roll origin story. In the late ’90s, Yusaku Maezawa, a young professional drummer and record collector who had spent time living in the U.S., began a small mail-order business selling imported and rare vinyl and CDs he’d acquired abroad. Over time, he quit his music career, took the project online, and threw some items of clothing into the mix; by 2004, the fashion arm was so successful that he spun it off as ZOZOTOWN. Six years later, its parent company went public, and Maezawa, at 40, is now one of Japan’s most charismatic billionaires, making headlines for his art-buying habits (he once spent $98 million in two days at Christie’s) and celebrity love interests. He founded the Tokyo-based Contemporary Art Foundation, which exhibits and supports the work of young artists, and plans to open a museum in Chiba to house his own collection.
In 2013, Maezawa and one of his engineers got to talking about how it might be nice to be able to see looks on people their own size, as opposed to models—and also how the younger generation simply didn’t share their enthusiasm for high-quality, out-of-the-ordinary clothes. “Our engineer is 38 and our founder is 40,” explains Ito, who, having attended international schools in Tokyo, serves as the company’s de facto English spokesperson. “They remember lining up in the most fashionable district in Tokyo in front of these fairly indie designer stores to buy new releases. Now, there is no line in Harajuku because a lot of millennials are simply buying from fast fashion.” Maezawa thus conceived Wear, which launched in December of that year, as a sort of democratic showcase for emerging labels and innovative looks—a social network that shares some of the same features (Likes, hashtags, feeds) as other photo-sharing platforms, but whose sole purpose is displaying and promoting personal style. “They really wanted to revive that interest, get that spark going,” Ito says. “In their opinion, brands nowadays are making clothes that sell and not making clothes that they want to make. There really is an inherent need for a place where people really enthusiastic about fashion can get together and share their style, their looks, their individuality.” And while the platform is thoroughly, ingeniously shoppable—a database connected with Zozotown in Japan, and with another partner for the U.S. launch, allows users to click through to purchase in-season items in a look—it’s also entirely transparent. That means no algorithms determine what you see, or might want to buy. “There are no ulterior motives,” Ito says. “It is not ad-driven, not sponsored; it is a very pure place where the purpose really is to get people excited about fashion.” One way Wear intends to achieve this in the States is through the Kikonashi Challenge—named after a Japanese word that means, loosely, how well you’re wearing your look, how you’ve put together an outfit that really suits you and expresses your style. Starting in mid-July, the websites of Vogue, W and Teen Vogue will post hashtags—say, #whitekicks or #monochrome or #alexanderwang—and dare their readers to post looks around that theme on Wear. Users can then vote on who has the best kikonashi, and the most popular posts will appear in one or more of the online magazines—and could even land in an article. This will continue for six months: Street-style spotters, consider yourselves alerted. Wear has already spawned its share of homegrown celebrities in Japan. Its top 400 users are called Wearistas, and some are now household names; others have landed book deals, TV shows, and fashion collaborations. The format promises to make street style an even more democratic phenomenon—after all, the current system tends to favor those who have professional reasons to attend the global circuit of Fashion Weeks, or the means to buy (or borrow) runway-fresh camera bait. With Wear, anyone anywhere, at any time on the fashion calendar, can catch fire. As Ito says, “It’s just really cool people who were discovered by other people,” and that’s what truly makes it addictive.