Highsnobiety

(Frontpage 195)

Kiko Mizuhara in the City

  • WordsAshley Ogawa Clarke
  • PhotographyJohn Yuyi

In this FRONTPAGE story for Highsnobiety's Not in Paris, we speak to the model trailblazing a new kind of international fashion stardom.

Kiko Mizuhara steps out of the lobby of Hotel de Crillon wrapped in a black shawl dress and oversized sunglasses. Her ears are decorated with golden earrings shaped like the sun, and her lips are painted crimson – all the better to frame her smile. She waves to the camera as she makes her way to the Saint Laurent show at Paris fashion week. The moment is captured by Vogue Japan’s “Get Ready With Kiko Mizuhara” in 2023. Almost a decade after the Japanese star first made her international debut on the runway in the French capital, she’s now a regular presence on its front row.

When in fashion show or red carpet mode, Mizuhara’s look is full supermodel chic: slicked back hair, slinky ball gowns or babydoll dresses, and smoky eyes that verge on vampish. But it’s her style when she’s away from the paparazzi that has won her a reputation for being a trendsetter. “I love old clothes,” she says. “I go vintage shopping when I have time between fashion shows.”  When she’s in Paris, she always pays a visit to the bric-a-brac shops and antiques markets (her favorite is the sprawling flea market at Clignancourt). Masterfully styling thrifted streetwear to high-fashion pieces into one cohesive outfit, she reliably looks as though she has stepped off the pages of FRUiTS, the iconic Japanese street fashion magazine founded in ‘97. A sartorial chameleon, in the dazzling constellation of Japan’s fashion scene, Mizuhara is the winking star at its center. 

But how to explain the concept, brand, and phenomenon of Kiko Mizuhara? “I always struggle with this,” she says, laughing. “I was asking my boyfriend [the musician and producer John Carroll Kirby], what should I say? And he said, ‘Just say everything.” Which, perhaps, Mizuhara, 33, is: a model (runway, magazines, commercials; remember her in the Marc Jacobs x Kiko Kostadinov campaign?); an actress (Ride or Die; Norwegian Wood), a designer (her collaboration with Opening Ceremony was worn by Beyoncé and Rihanna; she has her own label, Office Kik), and a budding entrepreneur. And then there are her 7 million Instagram followers who leave a chorus of ‘Kiko-chan kawaii!’s and a smattering of heart emojis on every post.

On a sunny day in mid-May, she’s beaming in via FaceTime from her Tokyo apartment—bare-faced and radiant, dark hair tied back, and wearing a chocolate-brown corduroy jacket. “Hiii!” she trills. We’re speaking from the same city, just one neighborhood over; Kiko is rushing between shooting and preparing to launch her new wellness brand. We start our conversation with the most pressing topic, her clothes: What are her guiding principles when pairing one thing with another?

“I always like to make a nice shape with what I’m wearing,” she says. Her outfits usually consist of “a really tight top”—often a turtleneck, a colorful knit or a teensy-weensy T-shirt—worn with miniskirts or jeans, that she’ll finish off with platform boots. Recently she nixed black from her wardrobe entirely. “I saw a woman wearing all black and I thought it just looks like she’s at a funeral,” she says. Pink is her go-to, but everything from lemon yellow to pastel purple has been thrown together with gusto. “When I’m feeling kind of tired, I purposely choose a brighter color to wear,” she says. “It really makes me really happy, it kind of changes my mood.” 

Mizuhara has all the hallmarks of a quintessential It Girl—doe-eyed beauty, infectious laugh, an innate sense of style—but she is no pampered nepo baby. The daughter of a white American father and a Zainichi Korean mother who grew up in Japan, Mizuhara was born in Texas and moved to Japan with her parents when she was two. She grew up in Kobe, a port city in central Japan, in a less-than-appealing side of town—“not crazy rough, but rough for Japan”—and struggled to make sense of her mixed heritage. She felt distanced from both her Korean and American background, and she didn’t feel Japanese.

“I instantly knew that I was different [from] the other kids,” she says of her time in school. That difference wasn’t just in her appearance, but even in the way she would write the name she grew up with: Audrie Kiko Daniel. Though she went by Kiko, which was passable enough, everyone else in her class had Japanese surnames that were written in kanji characters, while ‘Daniel’ was written in katakana, the system used for foreign words. It served as a constant reminder that she didn’t quite fit in. 

When Mizuhara was 10, her parents got divorced, which further fractured her already fragile sense of identity. “I stopped talking English after my parents got divorced because I was just really sad…I purposefully tried to disconnect myself from my American side,” she says. “At one point I forgot all of my English. I knew what people were saying around me, but I couldn’t speak. It was really bad.”

Two years later, she won a competition with Japanese teen fashion magazine Seventeen (based on the American publication of the same name) and began modeling. In Kobe, this new glamorous side hustle turned the spotlight on her still-emerging looks, which in turn brought more attention than she felt comfortable with. “Me being there and working as a model, I think I was standing out too much,” she says. “I needed a change.”

At 16, she decamped to Tokyo, quickly snagging a modeling contract with ViVi, one of Asia’s most prominent fashion magazines, and from there began her ascent, modeling for Tokyo Girls Collection, an influential fashion festival. She found the Japanese capital to be more welcoming than her hometown. “There were so many hafu models in Tokyo,” she recalled, hafu being the sometimes contentious but generally accepted word that refers to someone who is half-Japanese. 

Mizuhara may have been famous among the young Japanese girls who were buying the magazines and products she modeled for, but she wasn’t a household name. That changed when she was cast in Norwegian Wood, the 2010 movie adapted from Haruki Murakami’s 1987 novel of the same name. “Somehow I started getting, like, famous,” she says.

Things snowballed from there, and casting directors began to call: she walked the runway for Olympia le Tan in Paris, Jeremy Scott’s debut in Milan, in 2014, before becoming an ambassador for Dior in 2018. Just this year, she walked for YSL. “Low-key” is the word she uses to describe her fame, and she’s keen to keep it at a level she can manage without too much intervention. “I see people who are really famous at fashion week, and they have to have bodyguards, drivers, everything,” she says. “It sounds horrible.” 

Still, you only have to see Mizuhara in a crowd to realize that she’s a big deal. At Keisuke Yoshida’s AW23 runway show in Tokyo Fashion Week last year, held in a grungy basement under Shibuya station, a ripple of excitement and cries of “It’s Kiko-chan!” ran through the crowd when Mizuhara appeared and closed the show. “Sometimes people stop me in the street and ask for photos, but I’m happy with that,” she says.

Mizuhara also runs her own businesses. Office Kiko — OK for short — is her clothing label; with cute floral bags, platform party shoes and miniskirts, it reads as a tribute to Kiko’s own style, and an easy way for fans to buy into it. Mizuhara herself sees OK as a kind of casual mood board and fashion platform, and has no plans to turn it into a full-fledged fashion brand. “I'm not a designer [who] wants to make clothes every season,” she says. “I just want to express myself with clothing.”

Then there’s Keeks, a “wellness and lifestyle brand” that Mizuhara launched in March this year. The hero product, a multi-balm, is made from hamanasu, a Japanese beach rose. “It only grows in the northern side of Japan, like Hokkaido, Aomori, Iwate,” says Mizuhara. The Ainu, the indigenous people of Northern Japan, used it for medicine: “It’s just a wild plant so people don't really appreciate this rose, but it actually smells so good and there’s so much potential in [it]” she said.

Her goal for Keeks is to recognize some of the untapped potential in Japan’s diverse flora, and provide an income stream for local communities by doing so. “We’re trying to focus on the countryside of Japan, because those places need a little boost. I’m trying to use their resources [to] make a product, and through the product we can start a conversation,” she says. “I want to spread all this information that I learned, so that people can start doing the same thing and make Japan a better place.”

Mizuhara is disarmingly earnest. It’s part of her endearing and accessible girl-next-door appeal, which is further burnished by her spotless reputation in the industry. There’s not an ounce of snootiness to her—so much for fashion stereotypes. No matter how long and arduous a shoot might be, those who work with her roundly describe her as a joy. Her longtime collaborator and friend, the influential Japanese stylist Shun Watanabe, tells me that she is “always the same lovely Kiko” whether in front of or behind the camera. “She brings a lot of fun to [her] environment…she keeps the atmosphere light-hearted,” he says.

Her boyfriend, John Carroll Kirby, whom she first met in 2022 when he was playing a morning set at FFKT, a 24-hour music festival in Nagano, is smitten. He says they first saw each other in the morning light and there was a “feeling of serendipity.” “I was initially blown away by her beauty, but more importantly, I get to experience the abundance of compassion, generosity, intelligence, humor, style, and grace that she possesses,” he gushes. The two aren’t averse to the occasional PDA on Instagram, and are a common sight together at Paris Fashion Week. Last summer they attended the Saint Laurent show together — for which Mizuhara is an ambassador — and are an increasing presence on the red carpet.

More red carpets may be to come. As of this spring, Mizuhara has been based in Los Angeles with Kirby. “I’ve never really lived outside of Japan, so it’s funny. When I’m there, like I start missing Japanese food and hot springs,” she says. With her closer proximity to Hollywood, there are rumors about more acting in the works, but Mizuhara has yet to confirm.

LA culture — which she sums up with a laugh as “you have to drive everywhere and people stay in their houses a lot” — is an ongoing adjustment for Mizuhara. Industry air kisses, sure, but all that hugging and outward display of emotion? For someone raised in Japan, where hugs between adult kids and their parents aren’t common, that came as a shock. “I saw my boyfriend hug his mom a lot,” she explains, wide-eyed. “For them it’s just a normal and natural thing to do, but it really made me think: ‘When was the last time I hugged my own mom?’ I couldn’t remember.” After a bit of cajoling to win her mother over, hugs are now part of the Mizuhara family. “That’s one thing I’ve really taken from Western culture so far. It’s cute!” she says, giggling.

With her new life taking her halfway around the world, the days of Mizuhara’s low-key fame seem numbered. But young, in love, and finally attuned to her own worldly identity, Mizuhara is content. “I’m just really happy right now,” she says. “I feel like I’m in a good place.”

  • WordsAshley Ogawa Clarke
  • PhotographyJohn Yuyi
  • StylingShun Watanabe
  • Executive ProducerTristan Rodriguez
  • Productiont • creative
  • Hair and MakeupRie Shiraishi
  • Local ProducerTaka Arakawa
  • Production CoordinatorsMehow Podstawski and Zane Holley
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