The hallmarks of Tokyo’s youth culture are sartorially wild and eclectic. Even if you were to venture outside its heart in Shibuya – to the outskirts of the Shimokitazawa district or to the more traditional Asakusa area –Tokyoites are dressed in punk otaku, dolly kei, fairy kei, indeed all of the keis. But in a city where there appears no central axis for peacocks, where fearless street style heroes are as commonplace as a takoyaki vendor on the sidewalk, it’s startling to learn this freedom of expression does not fully extend to a woman speaking out against a man. Ironically these two worlds met when Tokyo’s biggest model and style icon Kiko Mizuhara, called out a photographer and his team in 2018 for harassment on a photo shoot some years back.

In Japan, where the spectre of public censure looms large, claims like this are not only essentially considered taboo but women are also routinely disbelieved or blamed for the incident. Greying generations who sit high in the upper echelons of Japan’s politics are from an era where women were treated as ornamental; delicate and brittle. Netizens – that’s internet citizens for the uninitiated – questioned Mizuhara’s #MeToo claims and labelled her a hypocrite. It’s a culture she is hoping to change. “Models aren’t objects. Women aren’t sexual tools. I hope everyone can share their hearts,” Mizuhara posted on her Instagram at the time.

Jump Stateside, however – where the #MeToo movement was in its fiery beginnings – and Mizuhara found mass support. She had just landed a lucrative Dior Beauty contract and its soapbox meant her views found a welcoming audience in the Western world. Talking to media, Mizuhara referenced the women’s marches in the US and spoke about her experience in the hope of parlaying her fame and cult following to empower younger generations of girls in Asia. “I use Instagram and Twitter and I think the modern user feels more empathy with people who are real,” explains a lithe and gamine Mizuhara on the set of GRAZIA’s cover shoot on a sweltering day in Singapore.

“People can feel close to people like me who expose everything, rather than those who keep secrets or say nothing.”

Born in Dallas to an American father and a mother of Zainichi Korean descent, Mizuhara lived in Texas until she was two years old. Her family then relocated to Japan. Her mother encouraged her to enter a modelling competition in 2003 run by the Japanese edition of Seventeen magazine. While she didn’t win, she was one of the six finalists and landed an exclusive contract with the publication. She travelled back and forth between Kobe – the habour-side city where she lived – to Tokyo to attend castings and work as a model. At 16 years old, she moved to the capital. In 2016, i-D Japan named her “The Future Of Japan”.

At 28 years old, Mizuhara is one of Japan’s most recognisable faces. Plastered across billboards and hundreds of Japanese magazines, the model, actress and designer’s star swiftly shot across continents courtesy of the late Karl Lagerfeld (who counted her as one of his favourites) The Weeknd (who cast her in his 2017 music video “I Feel It Coming”) and Harry Styles (who she was rumoured to be dating, claims she’s denied). In the past couple of years, Jeremy Scott, Adam Selman and the likes have jumped on the Kiko bandwagon while Opening Ceremony’s Carol Lim and Humberto Leon enlisted Mizuhara to collaborate on numerous apparel collections (which have since been worn by Beyoncé and Rihanna).

Becoming a Coach ambassador in 2018, the model notes she’s always “greatly impressed” by the label’s trajectory. “Coach becomes cooler and cooler every season,” she says.

“The Coach family are very warm and I feel like they are heading toward a great future. Coach is loved by people all around the world and I feel so honoured to be their ambassador.”

Mizuhara has appeared in numerous films (“I suddenly became an actress without a firm acting foundation,” she says. “I am an actress because people want me to do it”) and has a homewares line called OK. When we ask her what profession she writes on her immigration cards, she struggles to answer. “Any role does not fit me,” she says, her English broken. “I don’t know the answer. I cannot find any people who work like me. So the answer is ‘me’ [laughs].”

She pauses to adoringly apologise for her English. “I don’t want people to think I’m very good at English,” she clarifies. “Of course I can communicate, but I’m from Japan so I’m not a native English speaker. I feel embarrassed because I have my own way of speaking it.” While the language may be fragmented, her ideologies are not.

Talking through the Fall 19 collections shown at New York Fashion Week, Mizuhara says she’s more interested in watching the young up-and-coming designers than walking the shows herself. It’s for this reason, she prefers London Fashion Week; an experiential playground for avant-garde designers. “When I have to express myself for a project or a brand, or if I will be covered by the media, I try to be a relatively unrealistic character,” she says. “Rather than wearing a certain brand or a trendy piece, I personally like unconventional fashion as though coming from a different planet. It’s about attitudes, colours and shapes that are funky and playful.” Just like the street style denizens in her hometown, Kiko Mizuhara – in style and in her attitude – is anything but ornamental. Is this the future of Japan? We hope so.