19 feb 2024

Fashion interview with avant-garde pop star Rina Sawayama

British-Japanese singer-songwriter, actress and model Rina Sawayama, who has just been appointed new ambassador for Zalando’s Designer offering, talks to Numéro about her relationship with fashion, her love of Lady Gaga, and the deluxe version of her moving and danceable second album, Hold the Girl.

Interview by Violaine Schütz.

How far will British-Japanese singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama go? At just 33, the artist who has just released a new version of her sublime, danceable and moving second record Hold the Girl (2023) last December, keeps rising in the music, film and fashion industries.


With a degree in political science and “the new Lady Gaga” as a nickname, Rina Sawayamam is multiplying her dazzling, audacious adventures, from a muscular performance alongside Keanu Reeves in the excellent film John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023) to spirited music collaborations with Elton John, Lady Gaga, or Charli XCX.


Rina Sawayama, former model, magnetic pop star and actress


Known for her pop sound mixing nu metal, country, and R’n’B music, as well as for her committed and therapeutic lyrics in which she denounces racism, proclaims her bisexuality, addresses her past toxic relationship with an older man and her complicated relationship with her mother, Rina Sawayama has just been named Zalando’s new ambassador for Design. She strikes the pose for a stunning photo series by Paris-based fashion photographer Carlijn Jacobs, in collaboration with stylist Georgia Pendlebury, for the platform’s new campaign.


At times romantic wearing a floral dress and XXL hat, or sexy and punk in a black fishnet top, Rina Sawayama unveils all aspects of herself, embodying a powerful, yet never boring, femininity. For that occasion, Numéro met with the future pop icon in London, where she lives and feels most at home.

Fashion interview with singer Rina Sawayama as she releases the deluxe version of her album “Hold the Girl”.


Numéro: You used to be a model before becoming a pop star. What is your relationship with fashion?
Rina Sawayama: My relationship with fashion is constantly evolving because I think it’s very important to try and remember your personal style outside of work. Sometimes you forget, because you spend so much time trying on different clothes. A lot of what I wear is work-related, whether I’m on stage, shooting music videos, films, or campaigns. Sometimes I have to ask myself, “okay, what would I wear in my everyday life?” And I think they often are

two different things. I like to be bold and have different personalities at work, but when I’m off or seeing my friends and family, I really like a classic minimalist style.


It is hard to picture you with a minimalist style…

Honestly, if I’m going somewhere on vacation, I can literally take just one pair of pants with me, maybe because of the wide range of looks I wear on tour. Obviously, I’ll bring several pairs of underwear with me (laughs). If someone were to come up to me and say “you can only wear jeans and this sweater”, I would be like “okay, cool” at that point. I love the moments when I feel like I’m wearing a uniform, because sometimes it is nice to rely on the design itself and not how you wear it. If I’m going to a Fashion Week or a shoot, I feel like I have to put a lot of energy into making the look work. Sometimes, I just want to feel comfortable and have the feeling of wearing something familiar on my skin. A pair of jeans and a T-shirt may be the uniform at times. But from September to March, it’s mostly thermal underwear. It’s the only thing that touches my skin when I’m cold. I wear thermal underwear and usually deceptively normal clothes over that.


Do you have a fashion icon?

It’s always changing. I can’t say that I have only one fashion icon. I seem to go through several phases, eras, independently from changing trends. But I think when it comes to my aesthetic on my album covers, on stage or in my music videos, I wouldn’t dress the way I do without Lady Gaga. She has always emphasized her rejection of social norms, whether they incite you to adopt a classic look or to be sexy. She doesn’t look like anyone else. I remember how much it affected me as a teenager when I discovered her. It made me wonder, “oh my God, I don’t have to be the girl-next-door or, on the contrary, too sexy.” Lady Gaga is very sensual, yet she’s unusual, fun and unique. I don’t think that I would experiment as much without her influence.


You have been compared to Lady Gaga a lot for that matter…

Yes, what an honor! I can’t believe it. I don’t deserve that comparison. She’s fantastic. I’ve met her once and she’s very very nice.

When I bought my first Prada bag, I broke out in a cold sweat before paying the bill because it was so expensive.” Rina Sawayama


What is the piece you have worn in public that you hold most dear?

All the looks I have designed or chosen for the stage are incredible, because you don’t just make them for one performance, you have to make them last throughout the tours. They also have to be easy to remove backstage. I even set a stopwatch so that I can change without taking too long before returning to the stage. I think that my favorite garment is the vintage Dolce & Gabbana white corset featured in the first look of my new tour. We tore it at the back so we could add a stretchy fabric. There’s also a hole cut in the back for my mic pack. I know it is blasphemy to alter such a fashion archive, but as I change outfits several times between songs, I need to be able to undress very quickly. The other pieces of that look actually come from a costume store. So, it’s like stepping out of a period movie. Even though the look may appear quite simple, the mechanics behind the design deeply fascinate me.


What does the audience ignore about changing stage outfits during your performances?
I’m wearing a custom-made latex design by Atsuko Kudo. As it’s not easy to remove, it means that I have to wear layers of clothing on top of each other for people to finally see it. Sometimes I wear three layers with latex underneath for an entire performance, so by the time we get to the latex, I’m covered in sweat (laughs). During summer festivals, it gets so hot that I sweat a lot and I think that I have lost a lot of weight because of that. I hope it doesn’t show that I’m dripping with sweat on my concert photos and videos…


What was the first luxury item you bought with your own money?

My very first designer handbag from Prada. It looks like the handbag emoji, and I still have it. I just love it. I bought it at a shopping mall near Los Angeles. I was probably 23 or 24 years old. I drove there, road trip style, with a couple of friends because it was located about an hour away from Los Angeles. The handbag was so expensive that I broke out in a cold sweat before paying for it (laughs).

There were about five people next to me watching John Wick on the plane. Some of them stared at me. No one dared ask me if I was the one playing in it.” Rina Sawayama


In December 2023, you released a deluxe version of your second album, Hold the Girl (Bonus Edition)
I want my records to be organic. They have to tell a story with a beginning and an end. For me, it’s not about the number of collaborations I can have on my record. Truth is, my albums have never contained any collaborations – the bonus tracks are always the ones unveiling them. These tracks give me the opportunity to work with people I’ve admired for a long time. That’s the case with Amaarae, the great singer featured on my song Imagining. I’ve been a fan of her music and her incredible album, and she’s done a wonderful job with this remix. The second bonus track on this new version of Hold the Girl is Flavour of the Month, a song I love that was inspired by the pop rock band Garbage. Their musical style is really making a comeback!


You starred in John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023). Could you play in more films in the future?
Oh my God, I’d love to play in more films! I think one of the best flexes about being an artist is that I get to write my own music and make my own videos. I can really take the lead creatively speaking. But sometimes it’s really nice to bring someone else’s vision to life and be part of a large team. On the set of John Wick, hundreds of people were present. On fashion shoots, you often bump into people you’ve worked with before. It was different on the set of John Wick. When you’re shooting a film, you see the same 100 people every day, and I love that kind of collaboration.


What’s the craziest thing that happened to you with this film?

I learned so much about acting with that feature. I was incredibly lucky to have a film like that as my first experience in cinema. What’s strange for me is that I still see people watching it on the plane while I’m sitting next to them. I can help but wonder: “Do they know it’s me in it? Will they recognize me?” In fact, at one point on my last tour, there were about five people next to me watching John Wick: Chapter 4 on the plane. And as we got off the plane, some

of them stared at me in the weirdest way. No one dared ask me if I was playing in it. It was a funny experience.

You are Zalando’s new ambassador for their Design offering. How did the campaign shoot directed by Carlijn Jacobs go?
The team, almost entirely female, was incredible. Honestly, I loved pieces that I wore for the shoot, which is pretty rare I’d say (laughs). I don’t always get to love all the clothes that I wear for campaigns or fashion shoots, so that shooting was great. I particularly like the GCDS total look. I walked for this label years ago. I’m a big fan of their work.


This shoot unveils different aspects of your personality and extravagant style…

Yes, I have different faces and this shoot highlights different moods. But, I think that what shows through in all the photos is a form of power. The idea was to emphasize the empowerment that comes with wearing a certain type of outfits. Some of the looks are very classic compared to my usual public style, but there is always a detail that makes them original.


Hold the Girl (Bonus Edition) (2023) by Rina Sawayama, available now.


Translated by Emma Naroumbo.