Words: Ione Gamble
Photography: Henry Gorse
Styling: Neesha Tulsi Champaneria
Stylist's Assistant: Joe Mills
Hair Stylist: Waka Adachi
Make-Up: Grace Ellington using MAC
Neck collars: Sample CM
Converse corset: Reconstruct
Skirt: Base Range
Swim pants: Base Range
Gloves: Stylist's Own
Stockings: Stylist's Own
Trainers: Model's Own
“If art doesn’t make you escape from real life, then what’s the point?” Rina Sawayama asks me. The Tokyo-born, London-based artist is on to something: it's easy to lose yourself in her world of saccharine pop and glossy futuristic visuals.
But to say her work is pure fantasy would undermine what she’s achieving as a musician. While inspired by the pop princesses of the early-aughts, Sawayama makes pop music for the self-conscious millennial. Tracks such as Cyber Stockholm Syndrome, from 2017's mini album RINA, probe our increasingly complex relationship with technology, speaking to every one of us who spends hours scrolling social media while simultaneously mulling over countless existential crises.
On top of making sense of life in the digital age with her music, Sawayama works as a model, using her own image as a tool against patriarchal, Westernised standards of beauty. “Challenging ideas of beauty is important to me, it’s an internal challenge to always do something new,” she explains.
For Sawayama, embracing the things she loves – whether it be Lady Gaga, or her new haircut inspired by 90s boybands – is a political choice. “When you change your look you are challenging other people’s idea of you – that can be quite inspiring.” She continues, “even little observations such as how your appearance can challenge femininity, that was definitely a factor in my decision to have shorter hair.”
For someone who appears so brilliantly sure of themselves, it’s surprising to hear that Sawayama hasn’t always felt so headstrong in being who she is. “Music can really help you understand yourself, but there was a time a long time where I didn’t understand myself because I didn’t allow myself to just like the things that I liked.” Feeling under pressure to exist as purely a “British singer”, she temporarily dismissed the J-Pop she adored growing up in favour of “stuff on Soundcloud”. Sawayama continues, “as soon as I let myself enjoy and also analyse the music that I used to like back in the 00s, I was able to create something that was true to myself.”
Sunglasses: Stylist's Own
Gloves: Stylist's Own
Jump suit: Base Range
Sneakers: Stylist's Own
Admitting she spends a lot of time “hanging out on Instagram”, you only have to hear one of Sawayama’s tracks to know that she has complicated feelings about life online. For anyone that follows her on social media, you’ll already know she’s outspoken about the issues she cares about, from calling out racism and a lack of representation in the fashion industry, to promoting Asian designers while she's on set trying on clothes. However, shedding light on issues she cares about isn’t always easy. “I was coming from a really angry standpoint maybe about a year ago,” Sawayama explains, “you set yourself up when you talk about these issues and put yourself in the position of an expert – when actually you’re not an expert at all. It’s hard to do everything. Activism, and art, and music – I feel like I’m incorporating it all but that’s been a challenge for me.”
Sawayama joins the growing rank of pop stars who tackle politics head on – “I feel like pop is having a real self-aware, introspective moment” – but she’s still conflicted as to her own place in this new era of political pop.
"Some people can just exist and their identity is their activism,” she says. "However, when activism is all social media based, it can so quickly turn to hate and that’s not what I want to spread.” Sawayama's considered self-awareness is reflective of how many young women now live their lives. And as fashion continues to embrace maximalism, for Sawayama, her bright clothes and determination to have fun with what she wears goes far beyond being Insta-ready at all times – they act as an armour to take on an increasingly dark world. “I’m just trying to be more positive this year, because if you’re not it’s just fucking depressing, isn’t it?"
RINA is out now via Momoé Records
Gloves: Minnan Hui
Swim top: Base Range
Cooling face mask: Photographer's Own
Gloves: Minnan Hui
Trousers: Preen Line
Boots: Stylist's own
Picture and Jump Leads: Photographer's Own