NEW YORK – Texting on a bench, with her head down, Lauren Tsai looks like one of thousands of Gen Zers. That is, until she unfolds herself almost like a dancer, and stands beaming hand outstretched, entirely unrehearsed.
The artist-model-influencer-reality star arrived for an interview Monday afternoon on her own, publicist-free. Rangy and schoolgirlish in a black top, kelly green varsity jacket, plaid pleated skirt, Nike sneakers and Marc Jacobs nylon bag, Tsai’s wholesomeness belied her self-assuredness. In New York to talk up her collaboration with Marc Jacobs — a first for the Tokyo resident — she has been crashing on her father’s couch for a few nights. At 20, being transient is old news, having spent half her childhood in New England and the remainder in Hawaii. Convinced the college route would be a personal detour, she headed to Tokyo, where a Facebook audition post led to a “Terrace House” role, and a move back to the Big Island for shooting.
Grateful for the reality show experience (a sentiment she seems to relay for pretty much everything) Tsai has since returned to Tokyo, where the self-taught artist has been zeroing in on her art. “Last year I really tried to put myself in a box of this is what I do, this is who I am, I am Lauren the-this and the-this and the-this. In my Instagram profile, I say I’m a model and illustrator. But for my pursuits and what I believe I can do, I’ve stopped limiting myself,” she said. “I feel very lucky to have the position that I’m at because a lot of people, based on where they’re born or their financial situation, they don’t get that option.”
The WME-represented Tsai has illustrated a few yet-to-be-released Marvel comic book covers and her first book “It’s All For You” will be released later next month by a Japanese publisher. “It’s really exciting because my sketchbook is probably my most cherished item. I feel like I’ve lived in it for my whole life. Art is how I understand my life,” she said. “I carry my sketchbook when I’m traveling, doodling in it when I was in school, when I’m happy, when I’m sad. It’s everything for me.”
Tsai spent March working in the Marc Jacobs office, where she was exposed to the process of idea to product, and further motivated by being a part of it to want to pursue more collaborations and to learn about fashion. “It was such a fulfilling thing to have a brand like that believe in my work…To have him put my pop-surreal art on his stuff was really exciting,” she said.
Two T-shirts, a hoodie, keychain, bag strap, backpack and a soft bag design with custom silicon handles adorned with eyes or flowers are part of the 11-piece collection that debuts Friday. Retail prices range from about $70 for a bag charm to $580 for a box bag. The artist bumped into the designer only a few times during her monthlong New York stay. Jacobs was traveling abroad for most of that time, she said. However, there was a chance run-in at this week’s Hypefest in Brooklyn, where Jacobs was at his pop-up with Hey Reilly. Tsai said she told him how his show gave her goosebumps from start to finish, and they made merry about this week’s launch. “I love the whole world he’s painted with the silhouettes, the textures, the masculine-feminine. It’s so amazing,” she said.
As the main influencer for Nike Japan, Tsai also designed a poster for the brand’s pop-up at The Park*ing Ginza. After discovering her art on Instagram, a Nike marketing executive DM’ed her for a showroom visit, back when she only had 5,000 followers. Today she has 511,000 on Instagram. Starbucks Japan tapped her to pitch in with its holiday displays, which she described as “more commercial and lighthearted. A lot of the work I do has dark undertones,” she explained, adding that the coffee chain approaches new flavors “kind of like sneaker drops.”
Undercover, Commes des Garçons, Sacai and Ambush jewelry designer Yoon Ahn, who also works for Dior, are a few favorite designers. Reaching for the neck label on her black turtleneck, Tsai said, “This shirt is Helmut Lang.”
Artistic influences start with the Japanese animation studio Ghibli, whose movies she discovered when feeling marooned as a lonely middle schooler. “I felt just kind of out of place. I loved those movies so much — the stories, the colors, the music, the characters. To find something I felt so passionate about just lit something inside me, and it moved me to be proud of loving art,” Tsai said.
Other favorites are Laika Studios of “Coraline” and “Kubo” fame, and Tim Burton. “I love darker things,” she explained. A new friendship with the artist and Prada collaborator James Jean has linked Tsai to other artists like Katsuya Terada. Another connection is Samuel Albert Borkson and Arturo Sandoval’s L.A.-based art collective FriendsWithYou. “I really love Sam. He’s taught me how putting something genuine that comes from your heart out there into the world is the greatest thing. That is the kind of career I always want to have, and to never compromise that, always doing what I believe in. I think that will really attract people who really want to have my art.”
Veer as she does toward the Hallmarkian, Tsai spoke of online haters, too. “After the show [“Terrace House”], people were calling me this and that — people who love me, people who hate me. The show was on this very normal, slow pace so that people feel they really get to know you for you. Everything that happened they would take apart. That’s the great part of the show — the people. Some of the criticism online made me think, ‘That really hit home. Damn, you guys are going hard on me,’” she said. “Through that experience, I have been able to build a lot of confidence. I know that anything I do and put out there is going to be subject to judgment.”
Other memories are more Rockwellian. The Wellesley, Mass., native said of her elementary school self, “I grew up with apple spice, pumpkin pie, sledding, all the spring flowers and just that New England vibe. Definitely those scents and things live in my heart forever. I did the other half of my growing up, 7 to 18, in Hawaii. I’m still growing up. I still feel like a kid. I turn 21 next year so maybe after that I will be officially an adult in the States.”
Next month’s destination is Los Angeles, where she has been networking and auditioning for TV and film roles that she can’t disclose.
Asked about the less glossy side of modeling, she said, “I definitely had my handful of situations that I don’t want to have happen again where I didn’t feel good about myself.” Standing in a bikini at the age of 16 in front of a panel of people at a casting in Japan, and wanting to “just curl up and hide,” would be one example, Tsai said. “Those experiences have taught me a lot about the industry and areas of change that I hope the industry sees.”
“Just the idea of modeling, that you’re selling yourself for the way you look and you’re allowing yourself to be judged based only on that, it can do a lot of harm to someone. For me, modeling has been such a good thing, too, because I’ve learned to be confident with myself primarily through being OK with people judging me and not worrying about their judgments,” she said. “I need to just keep moving forward knowing not everyone is going to like me or to want to work with me, and that’s OK.”
She added, “In the beginning, I was trying to be perfect and cool. Now I can really showcase what makes me, me.”
Off-hours don’t really exist, but as her line-free forehead indicates, that is no cause for worry. “Work really doesn’t stop for me. Work is not necessarily work for me,” she said. “Some artists tell me that once it becomes professional for them, it’s not really fun anymore. I haven’t reached that point. Hopefully, I won’t. I’m very excited all the time.”
As for what she hopes to leave with people, Tsai considers the question for 30 seconds or so before responding. “If you’re true to yourself in the moment — right now, today — and you’re not setting limitations for yourself, the days turn into weeks, which turn into months, which turn into years, hopefully. That’s the most important thing in finding satisfaction within what you do. I hope that is what I can show to people, and the rest will come, I hope.”