SSENSE: KYARY PAMYU PAMYU
Interview & Styling: Nazanin Shahnavaz
Photographer: Fish Zhang
On an unseasonably warm February morning in Tokyo, I met J-pop superstar Kyary Pamyu Pamyu at a traditional kominka. Sitting on an antique wooden chair with large sliding windows pulled open behind her, the 26-year-old singer basked in the blossom-scented air like a spring vision. Her soft, copper hair framed her face like a halo and a white surgical mask concealed her mouth. She wore a pastel blue sweater with plush sleeves pulled down over her hands, a knee-length pleated skirt, and leather house slippers—a surprisingly toned-down look for Kyary, who found fame through her bold and shapeshifting style.
Discovered in Harajuku at 16, Kyary began her career in fashion as an Aomoji-kei model and blogger. Her elaborate outfits made her a sought-after subject for Harajuku street-style photographers and positioned her as a cover girl for popular magazines like Zipper and KERA. After a couple years in the scene, Kyary met DJ and virtuoso producer Yasutaka Nakata at one of his events and decided to explore a musical career. Keeping her signature aesthetics at the core of her creative vision, they decided to make a record that combined her love for kawaii fashion with pop music. Her debut single, “Pon Pon Pon” garnered over 145 million YouTube views, earning Kyary fandom from Gaga and Ariana Grande.
Experiencing Kyary’s music is like walking into a Japanese arcade—high tempo, colorful, hyperkinetic. Her surreal videos express a language closer to that of a multimedia artist than a conventional pop-star, and her cartoonish costumes transform her into a real-life anime character. “Western female artists go for more of a sexy look instead of kawaii,” she tells me later. “Being sexy is something that I can’t do, I don’t have it in me.” Four albums later, her image can be found across the country as the face promoting some of the world’s largest brands including Coca-Cola, Adidas, Nintendo, and countless others. Now, as Kyary heads in a new direction and her tastes mature, we sit down to discuss fashion, kawaii culture, and life as a musician in Tokyo today.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu
Do you think Harajuku inspired your sense of style?
Yes, when you go to Harajuku you find something very unusual: you have the kawaii style but you also have the quirky and daring style. Shopping there is so fun, I love figuring out how to style unusual pieces. Recently there’s less and less, but back in the day there was Lolita fashion, punk shops, a great combination of different styles.
Are there other fashion trends you really like at the moment?
I like muted tones, not bright colours. I’m really into blue at the moment. Japan has a really strong connection with the color blue, the football national team wears blue, and if you watch figure skating they often wear blue outfits. There are lots of different shades; not so much the bright blues, but the more dusty, pastel blues I find very beautiful.
Who are your favorite designers?
Mikio Sakabe and his wife Shueh Jen-Fang, who has her own label called Jenny Fax, mostly runway collection style. They have dresses with very wide shoulders and you’ll be like, “Okay, how are you going to wear that?” Their designs are very unique to Japan, their use of dots and frills, it’s not something you wear day-to-day but it’s fun for dressing up. I’m really into Margiela, especially the boots and the bags. I used to think their clothes were more for grownups but I recently turned 26 and bought myself a Margiela bag.
If you were to design your own collection, what would it look like?
I love puffy sleeves. When I work with my stylist to create my looks, we draw together, and I’ll always do big sleeves. If I were to design a collection, it would concentrate on the color palette so girls could really have fun with it.
How do you think fashion in Tokyo compares to the rest of the world?
If you look at Tokyo as a whole, there are different styles in different areas, but if you just look at Harajuku you are able to find very striking, daring, eccentric looks plus kawaii looks. Recently there’s been quite a bit of influence from K-Pop, bringing in more street fashion, sporty, trendy looks. If you go to Akihabara, it used to be the electronic shop area but now it’s about anime and manga so you’ll see people wearing t-shirts with huge anime and manga graphics. If you are lucky and go to Shibuya, you’ll meet the girls in different colors, their skin is basically green and their hair is pink. There’s a group of them in Shibuya, you should check them out.
Tell me what you like to do with your friends.
Either stay at home all day and watch Netflix or spend the whole day outside, going to the zoo or a theme park.
What did your family think when they saw you perform for the first time?
They were very strict, especially my mum. When I was in high school, I didn’t get along with her. Obviously she was very caring and loving, but she was always telling me off. It was very much a drag for me. But when I started performing I would see her in the crowd and she was the most excited person, she knew all the songs. She is my number one fan. So, it’s because of this job that I was able to change my relationship with my mum, it’s the best it’s ever been. Before she was like, “Why are you wearing those kinds of clothes? Do something normal,” but after she saw me perform and watched my career grow, she’s been very supportive.
Is Tokyo a good city to be a musician?
It’s a great city, there are a lot of dreams in Tokyo. In Japan we have prefectures, altogether there are 47, and the shiniest people from all over Japan move to Tokyo and shine their light on the city. It can be brutal, cruel sometimes, but it’s a very exciting city.
Who’s your biggest inspiration?
Katy Perry and YUKI, she used to be in a band called Judy and Mary.
What does kawaii mean for you?
I’ve always been attracted to things that would come out in a girl’s dream, like pop, candy, marshmallows, very colorful, very kawaii. But more recently I’m looking towards inspiration that is a little bit more mature, like Dita Von Teese, the burlesque performer. I love her style, how sexy she is. This is something I don’t have, I find her very kawaii too. There’s not one thing that defines kawaii, it’s like chemistry, you mix things up and come up with your own version of kawaii.
Why do you think kawaii has become popular around the world?
I often get asked, “What is kawaii?” and there’s no correct answer. You don’t really have an English term for it. It’s not necessarily cute or kitsch, it’s more of an emotional response. Japanese tend to use the word a lot, if they see a cute pet they say “kawaii” or a cute grandma, “Ah, kawaii.” You hear it a lot, it’s a catchy phrase and I guess people relate to it in their own way.
What is the cutest thing you’ve ever seen?
Babies are the cutest.
When you’re not performing, how would you describe your personality?
When people meet me in person, they normally say, “Oh, you’re more proper and organized than I thought you’d be.” I think because of my quirky kawaii look people assume that my personality is also going to be quirky or weird but I had a strict upbringing so being “proper” is normal for me.
You like horror films, right? What’s the appeal?
I enjoy the whole thrill, the suspense of the unexpected, you feel like you’re alive. I don’t enjoy fantasy films, because I’ll watch it and know that it’s not real.
What are some of the most important factors in your life and career?
In my career I want to continue expressing what girls dream about into reality, keep on creating this world of kawaii, the most unimaginable kawaii and expressing that to the max. For my life, I just want to be compassionate, compassion is very important, you have to think about other people’s perspective, to be kind and thoughtful.
If you weren’t a pop star what would be your dream job?
I love kids, so maybe a nursery teacher.
At what point did your dreams become a reality?
We have this show where comedians impersonate singers or actors, and a comedian came out and did an impression of me and I was like, “Wow ok, finally.”