Mai Toyokawa Reinvents Vintage-Inspired Fashion
"I’ve always had the passion to make the world a more comfortable, accepting place to live in for anyone. To make it happen, we need diversity and inclusion EVERYWHERE. Ironically, the timeless, vintage fashion industry I fell in love with completely lacked diversity. It’s very Eurocentric, and you never see an Asian girl wearing vintage-style outfits except for the oriental vintage style. I took that as my calling."
Mai Toyokawa is a digital creator and fashion influencer. And, while those titles may be fairly common in the social media world, one glimpse of Mai’s Instagram will convince you that she is anything but common.
Her take on vintage fashion will transport you back in time and allow you to experience fashion in a new way. And, despite living on opposite sides of the world, we were thrilled to be able to connect with Mai and find out more about her work.
Tell us about where you live.
I was raised in Kobe, an absolutely gorgeous city in Japan known for its cultural diversity and beautiful landscape (and of course, Kobe beef!). A lot of people think I live in London or New York because of my photos, but Kobe happens to have many beautiful buildings that used to be the U.S. embassies or British banks.
Describe your background and how you became interested in fashion.
At the age of 7 when I started watching Hannah Montana on the Disney Channel, I fell in love with American culture. I have nothing against Japan and I love my country with all my heart, but somehow I felt I belonged somewhere else. I had a dream to move to the U.S.; that’s why I started studying English.
As a sophomore in high school, I studied in Indiana for a year as an exchange student. It was quite an interesting experience for a 16-year-old girl who grew up in Japan to dive into the countryside of America. No one looked like me. People stared at me like I was an alien. Middle schoolers asked me if my black hair was real or if they could feel my hair. A classmate thought making a joke about atomic bombs and World War II was hilarious. I was too scared to tell them these things were wrong or stand up for myself. I was convinced I needed to become an actress to help change the entertainment industry which has such a major influence over children and adults. Most importantly, I needed to speak up for myself.
As soon as I graduated from high school, I moved to California with 2 heavy suitcases by myself and studied acting at a community college. It was one of the best years of my life! As I fell more and more into the world of acting, I found that my passion for acting was negatively affecting my personality and relationship with my boyfriend. When I was accepted into USC (my dream school!!), I decided to take a gap year and go back home to evaluate myself and my life.
But a few months later, Covid happened. With so much free time on my hands, I started taking photos with my partner’s DSLR. Since I had no one to take pictures of, I started taking self-portraits inspired by Rodney Smith and Jamie Beck.
After months of worrying about what my friends might think, I started posting these photos on Instagram in July 2021. Since then, I have met many incredible people on the platform and started posting consistently. By the end of that year, I’d come to realize I love vintage-inspired fashion and creating a romantic, movie-like world in my photos. In January 2022, I changed my photography account into a vintage-inspired fashion account. I started to see my account grow, and now I’m a full-time content creator (who is still learning and struggling)!
Tell me about the decision to turn that love into a brand.
I’ve always had the passion to make the world a more comfortable, accepting place to live in for anyone. To make it happen, we need diversity and inclusion EVERYWHERE. Ironically, the timeless, vintage fashion industry I fell in love with completely lacked diversity. It’s very Eurocentric, and you never see an Asian girl wearing vintage-style outfits except for the oriental vintage style. I took that as my calling. I decided to create a diverse, supportive corner on the internet where nobody has to feel alone or insecure. I want like-minded people to feel a sense of belonging through my page and feel good about themselves.
You use a lot of your mother’s and grandmother’s pieces. What was it about their fashion that attracted you?
The relationship between my mother and I is more like best friends or sisters. Since I no longer live with my parents, whenever I go home, she gives me her beloved pieces that no longer fit. It not only saves me lots of money, but she has great taste in everything! It’s also an incredible opportunity to try something I wouldn’t have bought myself and expand my horizons. That’s why you see me wearing her clothes very often.
As for my grandmother, it all started when she asked me if I’d like to try on her favorite dress that she loved to wear when she was younger. It was the most beautiful dress I’d ever seen, and I will never forget how happy she looked. There was just her, my mother, and me in the room. It was one of the warmest and most beautiful memories of us that I’ll cherish forever. She passed away in September 2019, and while we were cleaning her house after the funeral, I found a closet full of clothes I’d never seen her wear. That’s when I found the plaid blazer you see me wearing almost every day! I never thought I’d love a blazer because it’s mostly associated with Japanese school uniforms (which I hated with all my heart). But, the blazer brought me into the world of the vintage academia style.
How did you find your style of timeless academia?
It all started with my grandmother’s floral pattern dress and her plaid blazer. These two pieces broadened my world and the way I dress. I started looking for fashion inspiration on Pinterest and came across vintage fashion. I immediately fell in love! Old Hollywood movies have been my thing for years but never thought of turning that love into my daily fashion style. So it was my a-ha moment and one of the best decisions I’ve ever made!
I take style inspiration from all eras – 1930s fashion to 90s rom-com. And I mix it all together and make it my own.
What are the best places to find timeless, vintage fashion?
Actually, I don’t own many vintage reproductions or true vintage pieces. Simple and timeless classics like a turtleneck sweater, wide-legged pants, or a waistcoat work marvels. I have an insane amount of UNIQLO clothes. Other than that, the following brands keep the spirit of classic, timeless fashion alive and well.
- Polo Ralph Lauren
- Brooks Brothers
- Banana Republic
- J. Crew
Can you share the #1 tip for readers to start small in vintage fashion if they are interested but don’t know where to begin?
The term “vintage fashion” is a very broad, umbrella term so start by dissecting which fashion era you are most drawn to or what specific fashion items you like. Once you understand what you like in vintage fashion, it is not intimidating at all! Of course, you don’t have to restrict yourself to one era or the word “vintage” :)
Other than fashion, what are you passionate about?
I have an endless passion for fashion photography, Greek & Roman sculptures, and autumn! But one thing I cannot live without is my family. I spend lots of time with them and they are always my top priority.
Your photography is incredible. How did you learn to do it so well?
I used to think that DSLR cameras are overrated. I was a major iPhone photography girl because DSLR cameras are heavy and inconvenient to carry around. For my 21st birthday, my partner gave me a tiny digital Sony camera. He taught me how to use it and explained what ISO is. As I learned more, I got frustrated with how little a digital camera can do. There is no such thing as shooting in manual mode. So, I taught myself how to shoot in manual mode with his DSLR. It took a while as I’m not a technical person, but it was all worth it! And now, photography is a huge part of my job.
What are your goals for your brand?
Making it financially sustainable is at the top of my agenda. It’s not easy to make a living as a content creator as many brands are not willing to compensate us for our work and value.
It’s also my dream to launch a clothing brand that bridges the gap between women’s and men’s fashion. I truly believe fashion is non-binary and if I were to have a clothing brand, I want everything from gorgeous tweed blazers to cute ties.
What is one thing you want your followers to know about you and your work?
I want them to know that I never take their love and support for granted. I love them so so much. Besides that… I want them to know that they can change their lives every day by wearing what they truly love. Life is too short to care what people might think. My insecurities stopped me from wearing hats or posting fashion content until recently. I was scared that strangers or my supposed friends might talk behind my back. But look at me now! I’m almost shameless and so happy thanks to that one decision to do whatever I want. So if something is holding you back today, it’s ok. It’s never too late to take action. It’s scary, but I assure you you’ll be ok and you’ll never regret doing what you love.
Mai Toyokawa is truly reinventing vintage fashion and creating a global community of people who want to unashamedly express their true selves through their attire. Join her community on Instagram or Tiktok to be inspired by all of her latest looks.