By Daisy Haywood
Lyena Hironaka Kang is an LA-based, 360° creative, whose multifaceted talents have acquired her a roster of global clients including: Wrangler, Nike, Benefit Cosmetics and Samsung, to name a few.
When she’s not disrupting the industry’s status quo and breaking boundaries as a model, she’s dedicating her spare time mentoring hopeful models and artists. She has positioned herself as an influential figure who’s opening doors for many young, aspiring, Asian creatives.
Her work can be described as futuristic, and verges on the spooky; in her words: “I’m Halloween all year round”. She often explores themes of duality when mixing multiple different mediums. She provides her viewers with an escape to an immersive alternative reality, away from the monotonous utopia we’re often suffocated by on Instagram.
With her punkish, hard-to-go unnoticed image, she rocks the coolest, ultra-vivid, Rihanna-red hair, which she believes provides her with a sanctuary of creativity,as she describes it: “magical and otherworldly”.
“It inspires me to be free. For the first time
in years I feel fully embraced by this fiery side
of me. I feel confident.”
Originally from the small southern town of McDonough, Georgia, Lyena has lived many lives: in Georgia, LA and Tokyo. From makeup modelling in highschool to billboards and the cover of Perfect Magazine, Lyena sat down with MSM to discuss everything from directing and modelling, to her admiration of her culture, and why she loves Halloween so much.
I’m a bit of a London hermit myself, but I’ve always been intrigued by LA. What’s it like living there?
LA has a type of energy that I’ve never encountered before. Strangers on the internet can immediately become your closest friends. When you are able to bond with another artist who understands you and has a similar path, you just start growing together. It doesn’t matter what kind of life you came from. I was a southern gal from Georgia, but somehow I made a name for myself out here, and have built a supportive community that I will cherish forever.
How did you break into the creative industry to do what you do now?
I guess it all started in highschool. My first job was at a small beauty academy, where I would model for makeup artists working towards getting their license. I did it for three years and it was my first taste of freedom. I’ve never looked back. I’ve been a freelance model since 2017. I balanced my bachelor’s degree in psychology with exploring LA, and for the first time, living an independent life shooting everyday. That’s when I landed my first beauty campaign with Michelle Phan, when she restarted her brand Em Cosmetics. A photographer that I worked with had referred me. It really opened my eyes that this magical moment happened because I was kind, easy to work with, and I put myself out there!
From there I just started to document all my progress on Instagram—the good, bad, and ugly. It was basically my visual diary, and I didn’t think much of it because of how unfiltered I am when I write my captions, but it started to develop into a deep bond that I share with my supporters. I became that 5’2 Asian model breaking boundaries and people looked up to me. I’m still that same woman, but at 25 I’ve become a sort of role model for others.
For someone that doesn’t know what a Creative Director is, how would you describe it?
I would describe a Creative Director as a leader. My job is to understand the artists that I’m working with and how to bring out their highest potential. I always saw it as building a team, creating a vision together, and making the dream work. It comes with a lot of responsibility mentally and physically but when I’m able to combine all my creative skills together, I feel so alive. I don’t feel that one part of me is missing because I tend to model and creatively direct my own shoots. Then I started to help my friend’s brands out and eventually got clients that trusted me to bring their visions to life. Now my goal is to keep creative directing but hire all my friends and work together, because to me that is more fulfilling than working for a huge corporation who doesn’t care about the process.
Is there a specific place that most inspires you?
I am inspired the most by the artists I meet on my path. I come across artists from all over the world on Instagram and I’m in complete awe of their creativity and ability to make things work, even when they don’t have much to work with. It seems to me the less you have, the more creative your mind will allow you to be. Artists who are able to push the medium and think differently inspire me. There’s no specific or physical place that inspires me, but the concept of life and the experiences we all face continue to influence my life, whether it’s in my art, writing, or conversations. Having a voice inspires me to speak up.
You are fortunate to be blessed with two beautiful ethnicities—Chinese and Japanese. I’m sure this duality can be confusing at times. What’s this relationship like between cultures?
Sometimes I feel like I have a split personality, but over the years I’ve grown to appreciate these two perspectives. At first, I didn’t really associate myself as Chinese because I viewed it as negative, from things my dad had ingrained in my mind. But then I started to see the beautiful side of it; my dad is a herbalist and a healer. It wasn’t until I discovered the word “healer” that I was able to appreciate that side of me. He’s always been the creative one too, who taught me how to work with limited resources and to find creative solutions in life
“It’s funny, when you get older you start to understand on a much deeper level... who you
My personality is more like my mom who is cheerful, supportive, and compassionate. The way I communicate and connect in this world emotionally is because of my mom. But my creative side definitely comes from my dad. The way I’m able to think outside of the box and be my own boss is because of him. Even though my parents share different views in life, their values are the same: wanting to help and heal others. We are a family of healers.
Do you visit China/Japan often?
I have never been to China, but I’ve been to Japan almost every single year with my family. I’m very close to my cousins and I love being able to watch them grow into their talents. There’s so much about Japan that inspires me, from the fashion to the way things are made consciously, and the culture. My grandma is 80 years old and she matures so graciously. She does Tai Chi, hangs out with her friends, takes computer classes, and FaceTimes my mom every Thursday. She even beat breast cancer! I have always been inspired by my mom’s relationship with her mom, little did I know that my mom and I would share the same special relationship. Japan is my second home.
How do your cultures influence your work?
I have always been obsessed with anime, it’s such a dreamworld that I like to escape to when I need time to heal. A lot of my concepts are based on badass characters who are rebellious yet powerful! Ghost in the Shell and Akira, are some of my all time favourites because it takes futuristic life to a whole other level. Any Hayao Miyazaki or Satoshi Kon film is breathtaking, the visuals are so surreal and I find that I like to create from that perspective. I fantasise by digging deeper into the subliminal messaging and discovering mysteries, darker elements to bring to life. I’m intrigued by the duality of human existence and anime ALWAYS represents the conscious and subconscious in such a mindblowing way.
Aside from creating and directing beautiful work, what do you enjoy spending your time doing?
I love nature and spending quality time with my loved ones. I’m a homebody at heart who loves to stay in hermit mode full of ideas until I’m able to mentally execute what I want. Hermit mode is healing mode for me and it’s when I finally get to slow down from the hustle of LA and journal, write, paint, craft, read a book, do yoga, watch Netflix, play animal crossing, explore new food places, DIY some outfits, create for myself and clean my space. I enjoy the simple things in life that humble me from the spotlights I’m constantly in.
With Halloween just around the corner, could you tell us a bit about what you have planned this year?
A Halloween shoot, of course! Every year, I love to get super creative at Halloween, it’s the perfect time of year to do so and I have the most creative energy when a new year or cycle is coming. I love to go all out with the looks and explore different parts of myself. This year I was heavily influenced by darker elements mixed with futuristic sparks! I love the avant-garde world where too much is just the right amount.
Can’t wait to see it. Where’s the shoot taking place?
Me and my team scouted this place in LA called Vasquez Rocks and it transported us into a whole new realm. I massively appreciate architecture, composition, and nature- this place is next level, it felt like we were on Mars! Immediately, it reminded everyone of Blade Runner, and when that movie was thrown up in the group text, I knew I had to rewatch it again. It was such a fun experience, shooting and discovering this new place and thriving off the environment. I loved being able to climb and boulder on these rocks, finding a little cave that was a perfect entrance into our “portal”, not to mention the bloody mess we created that looked so sickening.
In the UK we’ve grown up hearing a lot about Halloween in the US. You guys really know how to celebrate it!—we’re not quite there yet in the UK. So I’m intrigued, what does Halloween look like over there?
Honestly, I don’t see it as a big event so much, more like a day I get to either create with artists who want to push each other out of their comfort zones or just have fun, because to be honest I’m Halloween all year around! Or I’m chilling in LA with my friends holding rituals, making wishes, spells with candles, readings, and watching beautiful horror movies. That’s how I spend Halloween.
Do you have a Halloween style icon? Or a go-to for some spooky season inspo?
I wouldn’t say I have a Halloween style icon of all time because it changes depending on my mood, but this year I felt so close to Kiki’s Delivery Service! I haven’t watched this movie since I was a kid, but it popped up and it was so nostalgic. I didn’t understand what the story was really about until I rewatched it as an adult. It’s about creative burnout and it’s something that I’ve dealt with in so many cycles, but finally like Kiki, I found my way to get out of it. Out of my head and into my body. It was such a beautiful message and I love that she’s a 13 year old navigating life as a Witch. Magic is an art that will grow with you.. I’ll always be a Witch too.
Creative Direction/Model: Lyena Kang / @kitsuneghost
Photography: Justin Quebral / @justinquebral
Makeup Artist: Morgan Mcvay / @lolitadiamond + Lashes @theonyxlash
Stylist: Rickey Kim / @mrkimsays