On the streets of Harujuku in downtown Tokyo, a fringe fashion statement is taking a turn on to the high streets.
The winding roads behind what is considered the centre of Japan`s youth fashion had been home for some years to a growing number of Gothic Lolita adherents - often called "Goth-loli` in Japanese. But with their numbers now estimated in the tens of thousands and still growing and getting older and more financially independent from their parents, shops and fashion brands have popped up all over dedicated to loosening their velvet purse strings.
These alternative fashionistas who make up the majority of the Goth-loli crowd stand out with their Victorian ruffled dresses, lace bonnets, and Mary Jane pumps with knee length leggings. Most are looking to be seen as cute and not sexy. Few really understand the meaning of the word Lolita, which in Japan has more of a sweet child connotation rather than the taboo sexual one made famous by the Russian author Vladimir Nabokov.
Dressed mostly in black in its orthodox form, teenagers -- and more and more adults now -- have subdivided this trend to include, among others, Sweet Lolitas - often dressed solely in pink and white, and Classic Lolitas - dressed in more muted browns and natural shades.
Believed to be an off-shoot of the Gothic look of many of the punk-bands of the late 1990s, the addition of the sweet and cutesy elements helped make this statement more acceptable to many Japanese who were looking for an alternative fashion statement in the nation`s often conservatively dressed crowd.
At a recent fashion show organised by one of the largest dedicated Gothic Lolita magazines, Kora (monthly circulation of 80,000), nearly 1,500 Gothic Lolita fans at gathered to watch parade the hottest brands of crinoline and pettycoat - they themselves in their best -- and most gothic -- outfit.
"By wearing this outfit, I can be myself. I can be who I really want to be," said 27-year old nurse Kazumi Aoki in a Classic Lolita look and hugging a giant teddy bear -- a common Goth-Loli accessory.
Even some of the men appear to be getting in to the act.
"Gothic Lolita appeals to adult men, too," said Yusuke Dendo, a 20-year old student said in a more punk-gothic look reminiscent of the neo-romantic movement of the United Kingdom in the 1980s.
Indeed, many of the Goth-Loli trend currently sweeping through Japan has its origins in the punk and new-age wave of the U.K -- though now it`s merged in Japan with the saccharine subculture of Japanime (or Japan-animation).
"Gothic fashion represents coolness in the darkness, which some people might find a bit scary and distant themselves from. That`s why these girls mixed Lolita fashion into it so that they can look cool and pretty at the same time," explained Naoki Matsumura, editor in chief of Kora, Japan`s Gothic Lolita Bible.
However, while this trend is likely to mature for a while in Japan - it is also growing in popularity overseas.
US pop stars such as Gwen Stefani have made them iconic and globally renown with her video clips and songs about the "Harajuku Girls". Courtney Love and other U.S. pop stars have also jumped on the band wagon.
However with few Goth-Loli shops and brands available outside Japan, unlike their Japanese sisters many overseas are said to be forced to buy their clothes on online auction sites or sew them up themselves, according to overseas websites dedicated to Gothic Lolita's.