Have you met Kōki,? The 16-year-old is a teen model with almost two million followers on Instagram. ELLE Singapore gets to know her off the social feed.
It’s the first weekend of September in Tokyo and the city is sweltering. Its usually polished pinstripe-suited salary workers look a little worse for wear, and I’ve stopped counting the number of printed camp-collar shirt and Bermuda shorts permutations that permeate the streets. I head underground and into a photo studio in the Chiyoda Ward, where photography assistants are calmly assembling lighting equipment, and a hairstylist attends to faux locks on a mannequin head with the level of tranquility one would apply to a bonsai.
Kōki, the kernel of this whole operation, is spiritedly chattering away with her mother. She’s seated upright with textbook posture, and dressed rather formally as compared to how most models would at a photoshoot — heeled pumps and a shorts suit set. The side effects of summer have dissipated with my descend.
The erstwhile comma — the one punctuating the 16-year-old model’s professional name — is in place for syntax, but it’s also part of her moniker. At the beginning of her career last year (she’s now signed to Elite Model Management Paris and The Society Management in the States), the Japanese teenager decided to go by just the pseudonym Kōki, omitting the surname she was born with. The latter is a telltale nod at her star-studded lineage. Squint, and you’ll see that she’s inherited the winning good looks of her father.
Within the span of a year, Kōki,’s arresting mien has covered numerous Japanese and Chinese magazines, and a sundry of advertising campaigns. On the ‘gram, she’s amassed 1.8 million followers (at press time), despite having only started posting in May 2018. They’re largely editorial images speckled with red carpet, fashion show and travel mementos (a run-in with Kristen Stewart elicits a gushing caption), given that brands like Chanel and Bvlgari have been quick to anoint her a friend of the house.
It’s a role that means Kōki, sometimes misses school for an event in Paris, but the high life hasn’t made her think she has a free pass, or consider leaving school like many adolescent stars have done so before her. “[After working], I don’t look at school differently. I love learning new things and that also includes challenging myself in mental ways,” she says, her ever-so-slightly knotted brows giving away the perplexity that there would even be such a consideration. Thirty thousand feet up in the air is where the homework gets done.
“I love learning new things and that also includes challenging myself in mental ways.”
Right before the photographer begins capturing the first look, she starts fiddling around with the outfit. She calmly studies the long-line cardigan she’s been dressed in and touches its pockets. “I’ve been learning something new every shoot I do; how to pose, how to emote, and how I should portray the clothes,” Kōki, explains. “I also consider what kind of woman or man might end up wearing them.” She proceeds to tuck her hand into a pocket, and then pulls it out. Now, she’s ready.
As she twists and makes shapes with her body for the camera, I can almost see the cogs turning behind that deceptively juvenile face; quietly pondering how to maximise each frame fired by the photographer. I can’t help but think her natural inclination towards image-making would be a waste if she were to perceive modelling only as a brief stepping stone to other entertainment professions.
But as we dive into her start in modelling, the words race to roll off her tongue, and such verve is answer enough. “I was inspired [to start modelling] because of the models of the ‘90s. That’s the golden era. I wanted to become like them, and to have a unique character and a strong mind,” she effuses. “When I was attending [fashion] shows, I really felt that it would be a dream come true if I were to be able to be a part of the runway.”
Earlier this year, Chanel cast her in its Cruise 2020 model line-up, instead of placing her front row as a guest like the shows prior. To prepare for her debut, Kōki, — at once delighted and nervous at the opportunity, one that could perhaps kickstart the same career trajectory the likes of Kendall and Kaia — watched the catwalk videos of her role models. Her favourite: the notoriously feisty Naomi Campbell whose unruffled sashays has her transfixed.
Polite to a fault, with a self-assured disposition that belies her age, all signs point towards the model’s upbringing. (She thanks everyone on set at every interval, and even hangs the outfits back on its hangers after we’re done shooting her in them.)
She recounts, “[Growing up], I loved listening to my mum’s music and watching her paint. I loved going to flower shops with her, and playing the flute and the piano.” Music is one of her favourite subjects in school (along with Spanish and French). At age 14, she composed three songs for her mother that were released in 2017.
When I inquired about her hero, it then came as no surprise that Naomi and the like fall by the wayside. “It’s my mum, because she continued her career after she gave birth to my sister and I. She has a strong mind; always positive, always optimistic,” she says.
But as for her affinity for the limelight, it’s best left that she’s the spitting image of her father, and her industrious attitude echoes that of her mother’s, the very affable pop idol of Japan.
“My name is Mitsuki. If you read it differently, it becomes Kōki,. In kanji, [the latter] means ‘shining hope’,” she declares. So I venture the question of her hopes for the near future. “I don’t have an exact plan, but I think modelling is a part of acting as well. I want to challenge myself and find out the ‘new characters’ I possess as a model” she responds, with the candour of a 16-year-old and insight of a seasoned professional. “I would love to continue composing too because that’s one of my passions as well.”
Does she feel the pressure to fit into the current mould of multi-hyphenates? With the unwavering defiance of the singular name she’s chosen for the world stage, Kōki, replies, “No.” The rest, is to be continued.
Photographs: Bungo Tsuchiya | Creative Direction: Jack Wang | Styling: Jenine Oh | Hair: Hirokazu Niwa | Makeup: Yusuke Saeki | Production: Justin | Photographer’s Assistants: Toshiki Fukunaga / Masaki Nagahama
This article first appeared in ELLE Singapore’s November issue.