You may not think of the retail sales clerk as being a particularly glamorous or coveted role — but for Harajuku shop girl Yama, getting her job was “destiny.” Taiga Igari calls being hired as a sales attendant a “dream come true.” That’s because they’re not just your basic retail fashion employees, but what’s known in Japan as “charisma clerks.” Think of it as a hybrid of sales clerk, model, and brand ambassador. Or, as fashion editor/stylist Shunsuke Okabe explains it, a “shop clerk with something extra: the look, the style, the personality — or all of them.” The particularly Japanese phenomenon of the charisma clerk, he says, “basically bridges the BIBA Girl of London in the '60s era and the style blogger of the current moment.” Charisma clerks first emerged amid the Tokyo street fashion explosion of the ‘90s, when shop girls at the popular boutiques in the youth fashion mecca Shibuya 109 started gaining cult celebrity status among their customers, especially those shops that specialized in the novel gyaru look (the blonde, exaggeratedly tanned, and over-the-top girly style that has since faded from popularity). Shoppers, who knew the staff by name, would come in hopes of getting IRL outfit advice from these style idols, and happily drop sums of yen on whatever they recommended. In the heyday of the charisma clerk, Nakane Rieko, charisma clerk at the gyaru chain Egoist, helped the store sell more than $90,000 worth of platforms, mini-skirts, and sparkly accessories to her fans in a single day. These trend-driving shop girls instigated a sort of reversal of the old adage, “The customer is always right” for modern Japan. Indeed, customer service has long been paramount in Japanese culture, where retail stores have traditionally been staffed by almost robotically polite, hyper-deferential clerks. But, rather than hiring stiff salespeople who faded into the background, retailers transformed the way that young Japanese fashionistas shop by seeking out staff who seemed more like a friendly “big sister,” sharing tips with clientele who looked up to them as style-setting superiors. Charisma clerks have not just been limited to gyaru brands. Rather, this kind of customer-staff relationship has become the norm in Japan’s hippest shopping destinations. Trends boom and bust with lightning speed in the Japanese fashion world, but the Internet age has only increased the appeal of charisma clerks — though their name has changed. These days, they’re usually referred to simply as “shop staff,” and these personalities have a huge social media presence. Popular shop staff are mainstays on Japanese street style magazines like FRUiTS and FUDGE. Droptokyo, one of Japan’s most influential street snap blogs, features shop staff prominently, often dressed head-to-toe in the labels they work for. In addition to just representing their brands, “shop staff lead the trends,” asserts Yama. In turn, Taiga thinks that promoting his personal style on social media has helped to draw more customers to CHRISTIAN DADA, the Japanese label he works for. Social media has reinforced the recognition of shop staff as style icons, inspiring fashion apps like Staff Snap, which focuses on shop staff product recommendations and blogs like Karizuma Naritai (“I want to be charismatic”), which gives tips on how to break into the charisma clerk field. Being digitally savvy and able to interact with customers through Instagram, Twitter, and Ameblo (Japan’s super-popular blog hosting site) is an essential part of the modern shop staff’s responsibilities. Bubbles, a favorite Harajuku vintage boutique, recently put out a help wanted ad for shop staff requiring applicants to have an Instagram account and submit full-length photos. In contrast to the U.S., where American Apparel has set themselves apart by regularly using employees as models, this concept of encouraging shoppers to have an intimate relationship with the staff is a key part of Japanese retail.
The almost reverential customer-clerk relationship makes the Japanese shop staff seem more akin to the Western concept of a celebrity brand ambassador — except that American customers would never expect to walk into the Christian Dior flagship boutique and find Jennifer Lawrence folding shirts. Actually, in addition to their PR importance for the brands, Japanese shop staff are still responsible for the kind of typical mundane tasks we associate with retail jobs like doing inventory and ringing up sales. And, in spite of their celebrity, shop staff make the same wage as any other part-time retail job (around $8.50/hour). Despite the sometimes tiresome work and average wage of a shop staff, though, the aura of glamour is one of the reasons why a young fashionista would dream of becoming a charisma clerk. Because, unlike in the West, where there’s usually a pretty significant distinction between the creative and retail sides of fashion, being a shop staff in Japan provides the opportunity to move up the industry ladder. Charisma clerks “occasionally become the face of the shop or brand,” explains Okabe. “Some of them become so famous that they are featured in magazines such asVogue, Elle, V, Dazed, i-D. Some remain at the store but become more involved, either as a director or a buyer.” One well-known example is Yoco Morimoto, one of the original Shibuya 109 charisma clerks of the ‘90s, who went on to found her own line Moussy and is now a Japanese fashion mogul. On a smaller scale, there’s Manami Hanashiro, who moved up the ranks from shop staff at Bubbles to designing her own collection there, and former Harajuku staffer Elleanor, who has transitioned to being a successful model and YouTuber. Like the pop stars who promote labels in the West, Japanese shop staff often take chic one-name pseudonyms, and Okabe says that the personal styles of charisma clerks have spawned whole street fashion movements such as the romantic Mori Girl look. Inky blue-haired Aoi (whose name also means Blue), a sales attendant at the edgy boutique Candy, says that her aspiration is to be “someone who is admired by many people.” Almost every day Aoi posts pics of her work outfits to her more than 22k Instagram followers. She believes that a good shop staff should be a fashion icon in their own right, and that her job description includes not only having flawless customer service, but making sure that from her clothes to her makeup, her look is always on point. In this way, charisma clerks’ influence on the Japanese fashion industry goes far beyond moving merchandise. The way Riangel sees it, customers encounter the way that shop staff are able to express so much of themselves through fashion, then “come to love fashion themselves. Some of them start to express their style in new ways, and this swells the fashion world.” More than making sales and gaining fans on social media, her hope is that she can continue to use her personal style as a way to give form to her inner world. Aoi adds that social media stars are huge in Japan right now, but rather than just setting trends on Instagram for others to follow, she hopes to be celebrated for “the real me.” As for her future in the fashion world, she doesn’t yet know what she aspires to be, just that it’s important to her to do something unique, “that only I can do. The Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered back down” illustrates how much value is put on conformity in traditional Japanese society. In contrast, charisma clerks represent the idea of self-expression, and that might be what makes them so successful. According to Okabe, that essence of originality is the reason that charisma clerks have become such central players in Japanese street style: “Shop staff, who have a strong individuality and authenticity, are truly inspiring to us.”