You might not know Aya Kanai’s name — yet — but you’ve definitely seen her work. Over the past two decades, she’s written, edited, and styled for some of the biggest names in fashion and lifestyle, including Teen Vogue, Nylon, Shopbop, Seventeen, and Cosmopolitan. In between all of her behind the scenes work, she also served as a memorable judge on Project Runway: Junior. In January 2020, she will take on her biggest role yet as editor-in-chief of Marie Claire, a challenge she plans to approach with creativity, optimism, and a deep respect for the brand’s roots. Oh, and she’s made it clear that she’ll be wearing jeans while doing it.
“An election year with an extremely controversial political climate, coupled with a historic celebration of the women's right to vote, that to me means that we, as women in America, have to find big ways to celebrate and highlight the voices of women,” Kanai tells Refinery29 global editor-in-chief Christene Barberich on this week’s episode of UnStyled, adding that her dream cover star would be none other than Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
That’s saying something, given that Kanai has styled some of the most famous women in entertainment, including Katy Perry, Jennifer Lawrence, and Scarlett Johnansson, while working as Cosmopolitan’s fashion director, and most recently, as Hearst’s Chief Fashion Director. “I'm the person who is back in the changing room when they're taking off their clothes, frankly,” she says. “And that is a really intimate, vulnerable space and it is my job to make that person feel confident to step in front of a camera.”
Kanai comes by her visual nature and eye for style honestly. Both of her parents, who emigrated from Japan in the 1960s, had artistic professions — her father was a graphic designer and her mother worked for the legendary Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake. She was raised in New York before decamping to Oberlin for college, where she studied art, eventually winning a fellowship to study puppet theatre around the world. (Yes, there’s more than one career path to becoming a big-time magazine editor.)
In 2018, she gave birth to her daughter, Rei, via in vitro fertilization, after years of thinking motherhood wasn’t something she wanted, but it brought her back to her truest self. “I'm so lucky to have the one daughter that I have…so I feel a strong pull, I feel like I need to be more myself than I was before.,” she explains. Ultimately, Kanai’s story is one that reminds us that it’s never too late to go for what we really want and that we don’t have to be anyone but ourselves in order to make it happen.
Hear the rest of Kanai and Barberich’s conversation by listening to UnStyled and subscribing via Apple Podcasts today. And thanks for listening!