THE SILVER CYLINDRICAL EDIFICE OF Shibuya 109 (Ichi-maru-kyu in Japanese) shines like a beacon to Japan's teen fashionistas, who journey here every day like the faithful to a holy site. An eight-story, freewheeling, techno-pumping madhouse of 110 boutiques selling clothing, shoes and accessories, Maru Kyu, as it's popularly known, is the one-stop fashion mecca for Tokyo's high-school-girl hipsters, who not only pump billions into Japan's economy each year but also drive trends in hemlines, hair color and heel height from Singapore to Shanghai and beyond. In less than a decade, Maru Kyu has given birth to some of Japan's most potent trends, like 1999's Ego Girl Look (sleeveless tops, form-fitting skirts, 5in. platform sandals and cross pendants). And it has been the launching pad for some of the country's hippest labels, such as Coco Lulu, LB-03 and Moussy.
The most influential person in this humming hive isn't a designer, fashion editor or It girl. It's Hiroshi Tsutsumi, director of tenant planning for the firm that owns 109. Don't let the Orwellian title fool you. It's up to Tsutsumi to decide which designers and companies get to set up shop at 109. That makes the unassuming Tsutsumi, 50, the queenmaker and ultimate power broker of Japan's teen-fashion universe. He helped oversee an overhaul a few years ago that transformed 109 from a conventional clothing mall into the highly concentrated--and profitable--teen wonderland it is today.
To get a sense of what's next, Tsutsumi relies on advice from shop designers and sends staff members to Sapporo, Osaka and elsewhere for scouting reports on what the hippest of trendsetters are wearing. Tsutsumi himself does research in Shibuya, a Tokyo neighborhood popular with the teen crowd. By the time cutting-edge fashions appear in his shops, they're on their way to mass consumption.
Tsutsumi says his role is to ensure that the right designers find the right consumers at the right time. When it works, fashion phenomena are born, as in 1996, when the stylist for pop-music sensation Namie Amuro picked up some miniskirts, white platform boots and long coats in Maru Kyu's boutiques. Before long, Amuro's devotees were flocking to 109 to snap up the signature totems of what became known as the Amuler Boom.
Tsutsumi sometimes gets it wrong, but that's often, he says, because a designer is too cautious. "Subdued clothes are no good. You need a bit of a cutting edge," he says. For the near future, Tsutsumi is already placing bets. He is excited about a brand called Gilfy, which he describes as surfwear for older teens and young women. "Beach clothes for high schoolers have been popular for a long time," he says, "but Gilfy gives it a more mature spin."
Tsutsumi says he is surprised at 109's staying power, given the ephemeral nature of the business. "Our market is so fickle," he says. "They get tired of things very quickly." That means he is always on the lookout for the next hot designers to make sure they get their start in Maru Kyu--because when Japan's teen fashionistas "jump on something new," he says, "it can be explosive." --By Jim Frederick. With reporting by Michiko Toyama/Tokyo