Devon Aoki’s most seminal modelling work of the late 1990s and early 2000s is characterised by brooding atmospheres, artistic make-up, and dark, expressionist poses. Body and mind are manipulated as Aoki projects an otherworldly sense of female identity in these images. The impact of her artistry and fame during this time in fashion is deconstructed and reformed today as a multi-platform archive on social media. In its function as a shareable object, this archive maintains an inspirational quality of female identity for young viewers.
Some of her memorable appearances in print include the 1996 issue of The Face, a 1997 issue of Visionaire, and i-D issues from 1998 and 2007. These publications are highly regarded as being cutting edge and shocking, sparking a sense of revolution in arts and culture. They are, above all, rebellious and rare, especially in the US, like youth, in a way: something fleeting, magical, and difficult to grasp or tame.
Selected from different points in Aoki’s most famous years, her pictures refer to the art and glamour of fashion and create a sense of sensual darkness. In each of the shots, her facial expressions move from yearning and meditative, or intriguing and sinister, to confident and fun. She is captured in a way that speaks to a sense of freedom tinged with loneliness, but grounded by her beauty. No viewer can imagine Aoki trapped in self-pity, the perfection of her features and the glint in her eyes leave no room for sympathy. She is engaging, striking, and poignant, and she defines these publications across generations, long after the physical copies cease to exist.
The fact that this identity is still shared across the internet creates the sense that Aoki’s portraits are part of a living visual archive of female representation in the 1990s´ fashion visual vocabulary. Appropriated for contemporary audiences, these shots still function alongside modern grunge and streetwear trends, given life in sensual advertisements and editorials. Her image and identity are totally removed from their origins in fashion history; the surrounding text and frame are gone, but the feeling remains.
This ultimately speaks to a larger quality of fashion imagery, and the impact of models within this highly influential visual culture. The fact that Aoki’s former reign is somehow kept alive today points to a deconstructive and ultimately celebratory attitude: the visual legacy of incredibly famous models can be taken apart, to reveal more than just a fleeting status as a celebrity. It adds permanence to their work, by creating something beyond their fame; this deconstruction of image, separating timely fame from timeless art, creates a feeling that remains substantial long after their star fades. This age of Aoki is immortal, kept alive by the eternally human desire to see and preserve the kind of beauty that transcends custom and habit.
Words: Annunziata Santelli
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu