Aoki Lee Simmons | When the Blooming Is Nothing But Exciting

Featuring Tommy Hilfiger Spring 2024, Via Issue 191, Fresh Cuts!

Written by

Photographed by

Yu Tsai

Styled by

Johnny Wujek

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All clothing, shoes, and accessories by TOMMY HILFIGER.

Frigid temperatures are cast out as model Aoki Lee Simmons steps into her blossoming spring growth. Her look is a celestial pastiche, a baby blue linen blouse with twinkling gems and black tights. She’s a statuesque vision and it’s hard to believe that the model was once at war with her hair. Now, you cannot imagine her without the signature tressess that hug her high cheekbones.

At 21, Aoki demonstrates the tenacity that her parents instilled in her. Something she gracefully exemplifies by cramming in an Ivy League degree while she walked runways for Tommy Hilfiger and Kim Shui, or squeezing in a brief stint at the New York mayor’s office and a volunteer program to help refugees overseas. Her accomplishments can barely cradle their own space in one sentence. When she speaks, her glee is transfusive, her smile beaming.

As a toddler, Aoki would traipse alongside her model and fashion designer mother, Kimora, and older sister, Ming Lee, to catwalks and shoots. Snapshots of her younger self serve as a footnote to her introduction in the modeling world. “I don’t remember the first runway show I was in because I was a baby,” she recounts. “But my first adult one was for Pyer Moss. I was super anxious, it was raining. We spent three hours in lineup and had these crazy architectural outfits on.” The memory recalls a meaningful crash course on the frenetic intersection of beauty and fashion and industry that is modeling.

When asked, Aoki looks to the side and asks her agent Damon, “Do you think I thrive off chaos? It seems to follow me everywhere I go.” He pauses for a moment and considers, “Chaos helps you focus and tune in.” Lately, Aoki is working on embracing calm. Her pre-runway playlist, once full of Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3 has transitioned into more ambient selections. “I’ve been on my floating rock theory grind,” she says. “I try to be calm and tell myself, ‘You’re a small person in a big world, nothing is ever that serious. ‘Ya know, life doesn’t always have to be the highest of stakes.”

The conversation turns to her style influences and philosophy. Her mom’s wardrobe is an enchantment full of archival delights. There’s a 2002 leather number that has been known to spark a war between herself, her mom, and her sister. “Sometimes I go into her closet and steal this Tom Ford leather jacket, it hugs me like a second skin,” Aoki smiles. “My mom lives a life that prioritizes joy. We did a Teen Vogue summit together, when it ended I said, ‘Oh, I hope that went well.’ She replied with, ‘No job should make you just feel well. Fundamentally, you should say it did feel well because it’s what you love doing.’ I call my mom all the time, heeding her fashion advice. I do a little spin for her on Facetime, making sure I get her cosign before I walk out of the door. She won’t ever let me look bad.”

This combination of creativity, grit, and the importance of higher education instilled by her parents eventually led Aoki to Harvard. Her time in college allowed her to engage directly with big questions about community, justice, and policy, flirting with a career in politics while she took up an internship at the New York City mayor’s office. Now at the helm of her post-graduate career, she worries much like any twenty-something about the 9 to 5 office space that lingers in a fog.

Far from feeling academically satiated after four years, and with a piece of paper in hand, her time at Harvard roused an even more intense desire to engage and learn. While the direct engagement with politics in a physical office has waned, her enthusiasm for grassroots activism continues to grow. She talks about uncovering the Pandora’s Box of knowledge through Japanese History and Foundations of Comparative Politics courses. “Comparative Political Science, Gov 20 is the course I took the most from,” she notes. “I enjoyed the history meeting politics aspect. History is cyclical, it helps you notice the world around you.”

Aoki champions her friend Deja Foxx’s skill set of distilling politics down to an easily digestible level. The best explanations are the simplest. “Deja just embarked on a Women’s Reproductive Health Movement where she amplifies the voices of all women. She helped me develop strategies for social media when I was at the mayoral office. It goes to show that if you’re a great community organizer, you have already made a well-built foundation to where you can be headed.”

Over time, the need to look out for your neighbor in good faith has been decreasing due to individualism. There is a communal aspect that Aoki yearns for here in America. Her Japanese, Korean, and African-American heritage all have community at their core. “I last went to Japan in July. What I miss the most about it is the communal nature and the collective responsibility they treasure,” she explains. “For example, when young American people are asked to do something for the common good, their go-to question is, ‘Why would I?’ as opposed to Japan, where it is just known that you have to get this done in order to help each other out.”

Aoki eloquently talks about the time she shared as a Youth Ambassador for The Unmentionables, an organization that provides access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, education, services, and protection to displaced communities. It was here where she worked directly with refugees seeking asylum in Greece.

It was here where she saw the flaws in international politics. “We were processing refugees from Syria and Somalia and getting them through Germany and Belgium. People are quick to say, ‘Oh, just apply for asylum, it’ll go well,’” she explains. “[But] that’s not the case. Many countries say they accept refugees, but then don’t. The applications themselves are riddled with all this incomprehensible language.

It was here, too, where Aoki recognized that at the end of the day, everyone just wants to belong and feel love. When the words aren’t there, what can you offer as a token of appreciation? Asylum seekers would give all they could offer to showcase their gratitude for the ambassadors’ service. Aoki lovingly recalls, “Many of the refugees would offer to bring us home-cooked meals in exchange for the help we were offering them. There was this woman that I helped out who would make me chicken and rice every day. I thought about my mom and how she feeds me meals right when I get home.”

Early on, Aoki recognized that the polished nature of social media was unlike her. Self-censorship was something she refused to adopt. In front of the camera, she is herself—there is no premeditated act. She speaks her mind and she does not need your permission to do so. She recalls a time witnessing her brothers courage, which she grew to mirror. “My brothers taught me to be loud in life. If they are ever told they can’t be in a certain place, they respond with, ‘Oh why not?’ As young women, our default shouldn’t be to just sit there and be quiet. They may be younger than me, but they showed me that I need to take up space,” Aoki shares.

Aoki wasn’t always in tune with her confident prowess. Her self-image was frayed. She recalls hearing the sizzle of a hair straightener take grip of her locks, the fumes replicating her surrender to teenage doubts.There was a temptation to emulate, something we both acknowledge is part and parcel to growing up, a mannerism we learn to shed with an increase of birthday candles. She wrestled with the harsh way the outside world viewed her and how she in turn viewed herself. “I’m in an advice-taking position rather than giving at the moment,” she says. “I would tell models that are battling with their insecurities to allow the image of yourself to be flexible. If someone likes something about you, maybe it’s how memorable your hair is, start liking that about yourself, too.”

In Aoki’s blossoming, she combats the tangled vines of adulthood with her sunny disposition. At this moment in time, she is exactly who her younger self, walking hand-in-hand with her mother, wanted to be. Like the child she once was, she is attuned to wonder. “I’ve been trying to have more curiosity,” she says of springtime goals. “I want to get to a point where things feel exciting rather than scary. I want a more concrete, creative way to share my thoughts with the world. I vlog here and there. I do a lot of research on a gamut of topics. When I get on a roll about something I care about, it can lead to stimulating conversations.”

Aoki remains genuine in her approach to living. More than ever, she has chartered her own course and is taking us along for the ride. What more of the world is left for her? What more can she learn? Change, it could be said, is the only true mark of evolution. Amongst the change, Aoki is finding her footing. Together, we toast to peeling it all back, to unearthing the unexpected. 

Photographed and Creative Directed by Yu Tsai

Styled by Johnny Wujek at A. Spiegelman Management

Written by Jasmine Rodriguez

Hair: Coree Moreno at A-Frame Agency

Makeup: Francie Tomalonis at The Visionaries Agency 

Digital Tech: Luis Jaime

Flaunt Film: Isaac Dektor 

Producer: Trever Swearingen 

Florist: Eric Buterbaugh

Casting: Alexander Torres 

Photo Assistants: Danya Morrison and Calvin Mendez

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Flaunt Magazine, Issue 191, Fresh Cuts, Aoki Lee Simmons, People, Tommy Hilfiger