To Kiko Mizuhara, hugs are a novel thing. It’s not something she embraced growing up, neither were they offered in abundance. Growing up in Japan, in a country notorious for its lack of public displays of affection, or skinship as they call it, a non-hugging culture was an accepted norm to her. This was until Mizuhara set foot in the US for the first time after the COVID-19 pandemic to visit her boyfriend, keyboardist and record producer John Carroll Kirby.
“It’s really beautiful that people are hugging and expressing themselves,” Mizuhara tells me earnestly over a Zoom call. “In Japan, we don’t express our emotions. We think that overly expressing our emotions could be overwhelming to others. So, we don’t hug. There’s no such thing as physical touch as an expression in our culture.
“It is crazy to me that I spend all this time with my family and I never think of hugging them. I went to my mum after coming back from the US and said, ‘Mum, it sounds weird, but I want to hug you’. In the beginning, it was a bit awkward, but now we hug all the time.” Mizuhara giggles, holding up her phone as she walks down the hallway of her brightly lit apartment to find a comfortable spot.
It is 10.15am in Paris, where she is at the moment for Paris Fashion Week. She eyes a couch in the distance and deems it worthy, before plopping herself down with a flourish. Dressed in an oversized white T-shirt with a chihuahua on it, Mizuhara is prettily bare-faced, her dark chest-length hair brushed casually over her shoulders and her oval face glowing with insouciance.
At 33 years old, Audrie Kiko Daniel—known professionally as Kiko Mizuhara—has lived a lifetime in fashion. She started her modelling career at the age of 12 when she entered a contest for Seventeen, where readers could select their new favourite face of the magazine. Four years later, she moved alone from Tokyo to Kobe to advance her modelling career.
“I feel lucky because my career thus far has been an extension of play since my childhood.”
Mizuhara gazes solemnly at me as she recounts trying to break into the global market in Paris when she was 18. “At the time, the definition of beauty was very different. You needed to be this tall,” she says, raising her hands high above her head. “I kept getting rejected as nobody wanted Asian models at that time. I was heartbroken. But then, thanks to social media, the definition of beauty changed. I never thought it would happen, but I’m finally getting recognised.”
Getting recognised is of course, a gross understatement. The lithe multi-hyphenate is loved by many as a cool It girl, and has been touted by The Cut as “the most famous woman in Japan” owing to her amassing of 7.8million followers on Instagram, brand opportunities and the number of advertisements she has going at any onetime. She has walked numerous fashion weeks and has been the face of campaigns such as Vivienne Tam, Phillip Lim, Tiffany & Co and Shiseido.
Mizuhara had a special place in the heart of Karl Lagerfeld, who shot her personally for Chanel’s Little Black Jacket campaign in 2012. Eight years later, she was appointed the first Asian ambassador for Dior Beauty and the ambassador for Coach’s global advertising campaign. “I feel lucky because my career thus far has been an extension of play since my childhood,” she sums up.
There’s plenty to be said about her acting career, too. Mizuhara is an accomplished actress, her first film being Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood in 2010. The role surfaced after that stint in Paris when she repeatedly got turned down as a model—and proved to be a breakthrough moment for her. She’s been in various films and television series since, such as Attack on Titan and Tornado Girl.
“I love nature, so I learnt scuba diving and travelled around Japan exploring the countryside and its beautiful beaches. I fell in love with Japan again and it led me to want to start something new.”
Fashion insiders will be acquainted with her collaborations with Opening Ceremony and her label OK—Office Kiko—a loungewear brand and creative space she launched in 2017. OK is chockfull of fun, graphic and dizzyingly colourful pieces that serve as Mizuhara’s personal playground. “Office Kiko was always the place for me to express myself and I’m very involved in the design process,” Mizuhara explains. Her next step forward for the brand is to go in the way of pop-ups and capsule collections, starting with a collaboration with a Japanese-based artist for a shop in China.
It feels to me that Mizuhara is ostensibly on the precipice of change and a brand-new chapter, and I tell her this. She bobs her head quickly and leaps up to fetch herself a glass of water. “When I was stuck in Japan during the pandemic, I started thinking about my purpose and what I can bring to the table,” she says thoughtfully. “I love nature, so I learnt scuba diving and travelled around Japan exploring the countryside and its beautiful beaches. I fell in love with Japan again and it led me to want to start something new.”
Mizuhara grins as she apologises for not being able to let on too much about her latest venture that will take off in spring 2024. As she tells it, however, the concept for her new project is starting to take shape in my head. It’s a holistic lifestyle and beauty brand inspired by her intrinsic love for nature, and a longing to showcase these undiscovered plants and herbs to the world.
“Basically, we’re making skincare edible. The idea is if you accidentally eat it, it’s not a big deal,” Mizuhara explains. “How is it that we are fine with putting chemicals on our skin, but never want to eat it?” She adds: “When people think of Japan, they think of sakura or the streets of Kyoto, which we do love. But the Southern Islands are filled with so many different ingredients, plants and fruits that I’ve never seen before. There are also so many elderly people in the countryside. Our population in Japan is declining and we need help. There are experts who make combs out of wood, or craftsmen, but they are all older, in their 80s or 90s. We need to introduce their craft and expertise to the world.”
Mizuhara has a deeper desire to address cultural and societal norms within Japan, and incite change on certain things. She believes Japan has a long way to go when it comes to its people finding freedom of speech and expression. “We need to speak up, which is such a hard thing to do in our culture,” she says. “We need to be honest with ourselves, because we are hitting a wall.
“Sorry, this is so hard to describe,” she swallows hard after a long pause. “But there is no place for creativity; perhaps it’s due to a lack of understanding between the older and younger generations. In China and Korea, I see creatives in their early 20s and they know what they want. They have no fear of failing or making mistakes. In Japan, on the other hand, we care too much about what people think and that people will judge us.”
While she wishes to be a changemaker—and for that fact she will never fully leave Japan—Mizuhara also recognises her need to come full circle with her American roots. She has decided to spend more time in Los Angeles at the beginning of next year, in part to be with her new management and Kirby, and in part to reconnect with her Western side—which she spent her childhood disconnecting from. Being a mixed-race child posed challenges of being fully accepted in Japan, and young Mizuhara was determined to do everything it took to prove her authenticity.
Before that move, though, a birthday trip to Italy is in store for her family. Mizuhara shares her birthday with her mother, and her younger sister, Yuka, has a birthday five days apart from them. Her wish is for her mother, who is an opera singer, to be able to soak in “real opera”in Italy.
A few days ago, I caught a glimpse of this particular trip on Mizuhara’s Instagram feed (@i_am_kiko). The trio looked like they had a splendid time at the opera, wandering around the streets of Rome and Florence, and tucking into fresh Italian produce. The last picture is one of Mizuhara, Yuka and their mother, with gleeful smiles on their faces and their arms outstretched as they stand close to each other. It was an expression of love and a poignant display of skinship.
Photography Petra Collins
Styling Spencer Singer
Make-up (Kiko) Yukari Bush using Shiseido
Make-up (Ellen and Janice) Crystal Lozada
Hair RobTalty/Forward Artists using Bumble & Bumble
Set design Britt Porter
Supporting talent Ellen Vu and Janice Kim
Production director Serie Yoon
Producer Alex Rubinstein
Image retoucher LindseyM Thompson
Production company 360 PM
Creative producer Amelia Kring
Photographer’s assistant Juliet Lambert
Hair assistant Saruul Bekhbaatar
Set assistant Leanda Harley
Production assistant Jason Won Luffy
Pre-order your copy of the November ‘Play’ issue of Vogue Singapore online or pick it up on newsstands from 10 November 2023.