Japanese fashion rarely makes it to the West these days - it's simply too expensive for most consumers. But it has reached New York, where a number of styles are showing in an exhibition at the Museum at the FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology). Japan Fashion Now, curated by Dr Valerie Steele, examines the development of designers such as Issey Miyake since their heyday in the 1980s, and also looks at new designers such as Undercover. The show, on until January, also examines radical street styles including the Gothic Lolita look and the newer Forest Girl ensemble. 'I began by wondering what happened in the 30 or so years since the Japanese fashion explosion of the 1980s,' says Steele. 'There have been a few shows on contemporary Japanese fashion, but they have mainly focused on the big three designers from the 80s - Comme Des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake. I decided it would be interesting to design an exhibition that would be a virtual trip to contemporary Tokyo. 'I wanted to show the whole spectrum of Japanese fashion, beginning with the big three and finishing with today's new designers. I also wanted to represent the many street and sub-cultural styles,' she says. The exhibition is split into two rooms, with the first acting as a kind of prequel by highlighting the now-classic 80s fashions. The importance of works by Miyake, Comme Des Garcons and Yamamoto - who were called the 'Crow Tribe' because of their fascination with black - cannot be underestimated, says Steele. 'Japan was the first Asian country to have an impact on global fashion. That happened in the 1980s with the so-called Japanese fashion revolution. It had a different relationship between body and clothes, and a different idea of beauty,' the curator says. 'There was a lot of black, and the clothes didn't make the body look sexy. It was linked to a new idea that fashion was like art. It was a huge success, although it was also controversial. Now it's viewed as a major turning point in fashion history.' Steele says that even the fashion crowd was 'freaked out' by this style. 'It was so different. It didn't show the body, the skirts weren't short and the pants weren't tight. It was black, and that was very radical back then,' she says. 'Westerners said it was a depressing fashion - some said it was a form of revenge for Hiroshima. Because the clothes also included elements of deconstruction, some people thought they would even destroy fashion. Today it all looks very elegant and it has been assimilated.' The main gallery shows work that dates almost exclusively from the previous century. It begins with Miyaki and 80s labels, then examines radical new ideas from design houses such as Sacai and Undercover. A podium is devoted to menswear, where unusual takes on the coat and parka by labels such as Phenomenon can be seen. The final part of the exhibition examines street fashion and sub-cultures: the Speed Tribes, the Gothic Lolitas, the Princess Decoration style and the Forest Girls. 'The big themes of the exhibition are the relationships between street fashion, sub-culture style and high fashion, and the relationship between uniforms and uniformity,' Steele says. High fashion has always had a relationship with street fashion, such as the Gothic Lolita look, a combination of girly styles and the macabre. The exhibition shows how this crosses over to catwalk fashion, Steele says. 'The Undercover designs are a good example. Undercover is connected with Comme Des Garcons and it's very radical. The designs are described as cute but scary, which is also the way the Gothic Lolitas are described. There is, for instance, a pretty little dress. But then you notice it has brains over the breasts, and the buttons are eyeballs. So there are certainly crossovers.' Japan is a country of uniforms, whether they are those of the schoolgirl or the besuited salary man. School uniforms of both sexes are shown at the exhibition, tucked away in a corner. 'Uniforms are a way of life in Japan. The radical high fashion and street fashion styles are a reaction to them,' Steele says. 'There's a kind of tension between the will to conformity and the will to non-conformity. This results in an aggressive style statement.' It's not so much about expressing individuality as it is in the West, Steele adds. Instead, the street clothing adheres to the style rules of a particular youth group - or tribe - like the Speed Tribe, the Japanese biker gangs of the 1980s. 'The idea of style tribes, which is a bit similar to Britain's Mods and Rockers in the 1960s, has really been taken to heart in Japan.' Quality and craftsmanship are also long-standing themes of Japanese fashion. 'There is a real obsession with detail and quality and getting it right in Japanese fashion culture,' Steele says. 'They really want things to be made well. Take Japanese jeans. Some designers bought old looms from America so they could weave denim correctly. They wanted to replicate the weight and the feel of old-fashioned denim. They even got the old clasps to replicate everything exactly.' Japanese interest in fashion goes back a long way, says Steele. 'Japan has been a fashion-crazed country since the 11th century. As far back as then, court ladies were making fun of other court ladies who weren't up-to-date in what they were wearing. Fashions changed every year. By the 1920s, young people in the cities who were working and making money started adopting Western clothes as a form of individuality and self-expression.' That's especially noticeable in the outr?street fashions that began in the 1990s. Street style is usually the preserve of young men, but in Japan it's a woman's game, with teenage girls wearing costumes that make them look like anime animals or Marie Antoinette, for instance. This phenomenon is known as 'cosplay', which is short for costume play, and kawaii, which means cute. The clothes aren't do-it-yourself jobs like much of 1970s punk rock clothing was. Instead, they are bought from certain stores and mixed and matched. 'Japanese subcultures are extremely consumerist compared to those in the West,' says Steele. The curator says Baby The Stars Shine Bright is a popular design company in this field, while the Princess Decoration style - the Marie Antoinette look - is in vogue. A newer look that's taking hold is the hippyish Forest Girl style, which is sold at the Grimoire store. 'The Forest Girl look is inspired by the Black Forest,' says Steele. 'It first appeared last year. The clothes come from a small store which mainly has second-hand stuff. They go to Eastern Europe and San Francisco to find items for it. It's a bit hippyish.' It seems like Japanese fashion has a lot of life left in it yet.