The World of Harajuku Fashion: Sweet Poison Cupcake

Sweet Poison Cupcake boutique offers alternative fashion that's "goth but with pink." With its bright colors, neon signs and whimsical décor, the boutique comes to life as soon as you walk in the door.

Photo by Maricruz Reyes

Walking through the art district of Rochester, one would see abstract sculptures, museums with paths and businesses with window shoppers. Among the many places for dining, browsing and entertainment, the big gate welcomes all to explore the city's hidden treasures.

At Sweet Poison Cupcake, you can enter the world of Harajuku fashion. With its bright colors, neon signs and whimsical décor, the boutique comes to life as soon as you step foot into the shop. There standing behind the counter is Tempest Paige, the 26-year-old business owner.

Paige says most people in the U.S. associate Harajuku with Gwen Stefani's 2004 song "Harajuku Girls." However, the trend was going on long before then, reaching major international cities such as Tokyo in the late '90s.

"A lot of people are familiar with goth, but I try to tell them it’s goth but with pink," Paige said. "Most people are Westerners and are more familiar with darker alternative fashions like goth and punk—the more pastel, bright, colorful, and cutesy ones are a little bit more unfamiliar with."

Photo by Maricruz Reyes

Harajuku fashion is best described as a mix of Japanese styles ranging from the well-known Lolita style to the trendy cosplay you see at anime conventions and even punk rock clothing.

Paige describes getting into fashion and starting her own business due to the lack of accessibility here in the States. She wanted to offer a place not only to shop, but experience like one would in the cities.

"I wasn’t able to shop in person at the stores I wanted to shop at because that kind of style wasn’t popular yet in America. I've always wanted to start my own store and offer alternative fashion to people who may not get a chance to go to Japan or a big city," Paige said. "It was always a goal of mine, and then it happened."

Before opening Sweet Poison Cupcake, Paige would travel and sell her merchandise at local and national anime conventions. From Rochester Institute of Technology’s Tora-Con from 2011 to 2019, RocCon at Main Street Armory and Kodak Theatre, and Anime Syracuse in 2011 and 2012, Paige was able to connect with local enthusiasts. Nationally, Paige sold at conventions like Otakon, a two-day convention in Baltimore from 2011 to 2012, Youmacon convention in Detroit in 2013, and the Waku Waku convention in Brooklyn in 2016.

Now at her second location, Paige says she learned a lot throughout the process of finding a spot for her business and feels she was at the right place at the right time.

"My mom was on Craigslist and happened to see the store available. We were in a smaller location around the corner and we saw [the store] for sale," Paige said. "We never thought we would get an opportunity like this and decided to take it. Our biggest hurdle would be not having a lump sum of money and doing things in a limited budget."

Moving to a bigger location meant Paige could create photo-ready backgrounds. With the selfie mirror between accessories and wardrobe and the bench surrounded by lights, Sweet Poison Cupcake has a warm and inviting environment a customer couldn't get at a retail store.

"A lot of [Harajuku] stores do have a heavier emphasis on aesthetics and making things look nice and have that shopping experience. There’s really not a lot of places like that here," Paige said. "I feel that we’ve lost that [experience] with the shift to online shopping and stores getting a bit lazier. I remember being a kid and walking into the Disney store and seeing the televisions and little animatronics and being amazed."

Photo by Maricruz Reyes

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Paige felt that customers had less access to big shopping centers and malls. Paige thinks more people started to visit her shop because of the lack of availability and target towards young women shoppers.

"The pandemic has further contributed to the slow death of shopping malls and other former retail giants like Forever 21. There seems to be a lack of clothing retailers targeted towards young women, which is why I think we are seeing more come to our shop to buy clothing," Paige said. "We’ve slowly expanded to carrying different types of stuff like snacks but we won’t try to compete with Asian groceries just because we carry Pocky. We’re expanding by carrying more clothes now than we used to. We used to be more accessory-based."

With Sweet Poison Cupcake’s expansion, Paige looks for the next trend to add to her boutique by researching Japanese and Chinese brands and staying up to date on social media platforms.

"I look at what’s trending on Instagram with people who are in alternative fashion. I look at what’s coming up. Right now our clothing is the most unusual and alternative it’s been since we first opened in 2014," Paige said. "Now because of Instagram and especially TikTok, more younger people are now getting into dressing in a unique alternative way."

Photo provided by Shop Sweet Poison via Instagram

Now reaching her seventh year of business, Paige feels that it’s been a long journey, but well worth it starting at just 19-years-old. With other women-owned businesses and people she looks up to, Paige is honored to be around owners like herself.

"I’m inspired by a lot of women in the area who also own their businesses, especially Tanvi Asher, the owner of Shop Peppermint boutique and Salty boutique," Paige said. "I look up to her a lot and think it’s awesome that there are other women in Rochester that have started their own business. I think we have a very strong community here for women-business owners."

For more information on business hours and contacting Paige, you can visit the business Instagram account @Shopsweetpoison or visit her Etsy page for hand-crafted jewelry.