For over a decade, Ayami Nishimura has transformed the pages of the world’s most recognised fashion magazines and the faces of our best-loved celebrities with her unfettered imagination. Her distinctive style makes up a glistening dreamscape where Japanese history, nature, and visions of the future collide.

My mum had a fancy mirror that I really liked when I was about five. It was three-dimensional. I used to love trying on her makeup and putting my face through the mirrors, seeing my image reflected at lots of different angles. I was obsessed with dolls when I was a kid, too: I collected this Japanese doll called Rika, who was like Japanese Barbie. I had all the different versions, which I used to make clothes for. My mum used to give me fabric from her sewing and I’d staple it together, tape it up and put colours on their faces.

When I was a teenager, my brother introduced me to The Beatles. We listened to them every day. Then I got into punk rock, the Sex Pistols and Siouxie and the Banshees, and moving to London became a dream for me. We were in the countryside, near the mountains, so everything from England looked new and cool. I had trained as a hairdresser in Tokyo, so when I came to London, I went to work for Vidal Sassoon. I met student photographers who wanted me to do hair for them, but they didn’t have anyone to do makeup, so I offered to do both. I had no experience – I was just testing with them – but soon I realised that I enjoyed makeup more than hair. It’s been 13 or 14 years now – I don’t ever touch the hair!

I’ve always tried to incorporate different elements from my Japanese background. I’m really into the extraordinary looks of Tokyo street fashion. In the 90s, they had ganguro girls. They had really dark skin, and then painted white on their eyes, nose and lips, with huge false eyelashes. They also had Lolita Gothic, gothic in essence but with lots of lace and baby-style clothes. They are always customising in Japan – they get really obsessed with one thing and develop it to the extreme, then six months later they get bored and move on. It’s a cycle. You can buy anything you want in the market and experiment. Animation is another example of how they take things and quickly develop it into something more conceptual. Younger people are not scared to look different and then forget about that look and move on to something else.

I always wear makeup; I would never go out without it – it’s like putting my clothes on or brushing my teeth – but my own makeup has always stayed pretty much the same. It’s my makeup on fashion shoots that really expresses how I feel. I’m very colourful – I love glitter – but I’ll try anything, as long as it’s not bad for the skin. Flowers appear repeatedly in my book, as a prop as well as in my makeup, because they are so easily applied to the skin. Roses are my favourite. I also find animal patterns and insects really sexy. Leopards and zebras are beautiful, and so are the textures of insects, shiny and metallic. People on the street are a big inspiration to me, too. I once saw a woman in Paris, with terrible blue eye pencil and bright red lips, with Pompadour hair, smoking – amazing. And there was a guy once at Boombox – where everyone used to wear a lot of makeup – with a river of glitter across his face.
I’d never seen anything like it.

Beauty is a moment. Lots of little accidents and coincidences happened when I was making my book, and they helped me make something very special. For example, I was painting a black model pitch black, and then poured this black paint on to her face. I wanted it to look like oil, but at first it didn’t work. Then the paint went a little into her eyes. Her tears mixed together with the paint and that was the shot. It was magic. Beauty is when something happens beyond your plans or expectations, and creates those magic moments.

When Rankin suggested that we do a book together, I immediately started researching – I always do. I studied photography, fashion illustration, African art, nature, animals, painting, music, x-rays, human spines and joints and H.R. Giger, the artist who did Alien. By the time I started the drawings, I could already envision the makeup in my head. Set design was really important because I like the full, printed image to tell the story, I like to fill the space. The people I worked with brought my makeup to the next level. One of my favourite images is a girl in a fish tank. Anna Burns did the set, with little stones, shells and seaweed. We hung little goldfish from the air to look like they were swimming. It’s very funny – Rankin couldn’t stop laughing when he saw the set! He is a great beauty photographer, quick to interpret my ideas, and he knows when he has the shot.

Publishing a book was very special to me because it will last forever. Doing a magazine is great but a magazine comes out and then it is gone. I had total freedom on the book. I chose and decided everything myself, which is a rare opportunity. It took two years of hard work but I’m very happy with it. Every single image is telling its own story, it’s a visual message. I wanted to send positive, colourful and fun images out into the world, and incorporate a sense of humour, and if they make people smile, I’ll be happy.

Read the full, in-depth interview in Ayami Nishimura by Rankin, published by Rankin Photography Ltd.

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