For Nikki Azuma, Japanese fashion is a lifestyle. The 28-year-old has been obsessing over Japanese fashion for years, admiring the clothing through fashion magazines and crafting outfits of her own. “It’s my identity,” Azuma said, dressed in a red and black striped tutu dress.
It was Saturday and Azuma was attending the store opening of one of her favorite designer's first U.S. store, in Japantown's New People  mall. Naoto Hirooka's avant garde line h.Naoto  is the leading Gothic brand for men and women in Tokyo. It's worn by Japanese and American pop culture icons like X-Japan and Evanescence. The opening coincided with the brand's 10th anniversary.
Azuma compared Hirooka’s brand to a good meal, one in which each bite works together to form a transcendent whole. “Everything about each piece [in his line] compliments each other. They’re not overworked,” she said.
h.Naoto is a blend between Gothic, Lolita, and punk styles, mixing leather, lace, and chains. It's a combination of hard and soft that might seem strange with those unacquainted with Japanese couture -- but deeper inspection reveals a cohesive, original line.
More blackness from the h.Naoto New People stock. Guardian photo by Paige A. Ricks
To commemorate the store opening on the second level of the New People mall – the space previously occupied by another Burton-esque line, Black Peace Now -- there was an exhibit showcasing Hirooka designs once sported by celebrities. Mannequins were dressed quite strikingly; floor-length coats with large collars, pants held together with safety pins.
Hirooka said he hopes San Franciscans feel inspired by his clothing.
“When you wear my clothing, you can transform into someone else,” he said in the midst of his opening. “Each piece is unique and you can play a different character.”
His designs do tend to encourage playacting – they're structured and tailored, but splashed with white, pink, and turquoise, reflecting the current military and biker trends in Japan. Almost every piece in the store is black, but this colored edginess seems to most appeal to the designer's young customers.
Another of Hirooka’s admirers Susan Noh marveled at how the designer's ability to take existing styles and subvert them into his own ideals. Noh used to order h.Naoto online, even traveling to Japan buy the clothing on occasion.
But now that there is a store in her backyard she's excited to leave her suitcase empty. “I absolutely love everything,” she said of the New People collection.
It's cheaper than a ticket to Tokyo, but still not cheap. Because of the distinctiveness of h.Naoto, the clothing ranges from $100 to $300 for jackets, dresses, and blouses. (The store does sell less expensive items like t-shirts and tank tops.)
New People, second floor
1747 Post, SF