Aoki Lee Simmons on Embracing Her Natural Features With Help From Mom
Two weeks ago, Aoki Lee Simmons stood in line backstage at the Pyer Moss haute couture presentation, waiting to walk the runway. It was her very first fashion show walking solo, rather than flanked by her mother, Kimora Lee Simmons, and older sister Ming Lee Simmons—which she has done at Kimora Lee’s label, Baby Phat. Aoki Lee has spent most of her 18 years involved with the pioneering women’s streetwear brand, from appearing at presentations at four years old to being featured in Baby Phat’s advertisements. Now, she is establishing a career of her own as a model, making her debut at Pyer Moss and with a slate of campaigns for beauty and fashion brands upcoming. In her Beauty Notes interview, Aoki Lee—who is finishing up her junior year at Harvard University and splits her time between Los Angeles, Boston, and New York—discusses the beauty products that keep her skin glowing and camera-ready, and her journey towards self-acceptance.
While backstage at the Pyer Moss show, did you talk to the hair and makeup artists about their processes and inspirations?
Yes. The makeup artist was Mali Magic, who’s quite high up at Bobbi Brown. I saw an interview she did where she talked about wanting to enhance Black women’s beauty, and Black women in the Nineties were especially a part of the inspiration at Pyer Moss. I loved how the hair choices for the show also leaned aggressively into Blackness and celebrated Black hair: you had baby hairs, you had braids, you had natural textures. And not only on the runway, but behind the scenes, too. There was heat protectant, there was careful detangling, there was a lot of care that you don’t always get on set. Usually at runway shows, they’ll take the Black girl and just say, “Put it in a bun. Make it straight.” There isn’t always someone who knows curly hair or someone who cares about your curl pattern.
Despite this being the first solo show you’ve ever walked, you have been on runways for many years. What are your earliest memories at fashion shows?
Definitely backstage at Baby Phat, when I was four or five years old. For those shows, Ming and I were allowed to wear tinted lip gloss, to get a couple heat curls, maybe wear a slightly heeled shoe. That was always an exciting backstage event: a lot of fun, lots going on, very hectic. After Pyer Moss was delayed on Thursday night I was like, I have another two days of super anxious waiting for the show? Crap. And then I remembered how much I used to love being at a show. At three or four, I’d be walking down the runway, twirling, skipping, shaking my hair. There were no nerves. I thought, let’s tap into that energy. It’s supposed to be fun—you’re supposed to enjoy it. That made me feel better and I felt ready. I was still nervous as hell, but I thought, “There was once a little girl who loved the runway. And you have to remember her and honor her.”
What’s your beauty philosophy?
I don’t want to sound too pick me-ish, but I’m very low-maintenance. I spent a lot of my time growing up in France and Switzerland—I went to school in Europe—and there is a more natural approach to beauty over there. The full-beat, contoured and powdered face is not considered in the best taste in France. So I’ve grown up with that—people call it French girl style, but I’m actually just lazy. I focus mostly on skincare, because good skincare enables the whole French girl free vibe, especially as a model—you always have to wear foundation and face makeup if your skin’s bad.
You post often on social media about haircare. How would you describe your own personal hair journey?
While I was in Bali visiting my father a couple years ago, I met a model friend of his. She pulled me aside and she goes, “Honey, you have a white girl haircut. You cut and take care of your hair like all your white friends from school. You don’t know what you’re doing.” I finally went to a curl-oriented hairstylist and I spent two hours there, learning about my hair; he cut it curl by curl. We talked about finger combing, all the products to use, and what to avoid.
What hair products have you switched to since visiting the hairstylist?
I love Innersense and Briogeo. For my recent trip to New York for Pyer Moss, I brought Briogeo’s four products that I like: shampoo, conditioner, leave-in, and mousse. If I’m at home, I like to use Innersense’s Cream Hairbath shampoo, their conditioner from the dry hair line, their volume gel, and their I Create Hold gel. When I don’t have my nice products, I like to get the Mielle Honey and Ginger Styling Gel off Amazon. I used to really like Shea Moisture and that kind of thing, but it’s quite heavy. I learned you want to release the curls of heaviness—adding a ton of oil and weight is a way to conform to beauty standards. It makes your hair hang down so it looks more, you know, “professional” and “nice.” But really, you want your curls expressed at their fullest extent.
Do you use the Curly Girl Method, which limits shampoo use?
I shampoo my hair once a week. But that might be just a lazy thing, not an intelligent, knowing my curl pattern thing.
Where do you like to shop for beauty products?
I get a lot of my products from my sister and mom as cast-offs. They’re like, “I didn’t love this.” And I’m like, “This is a perfectly good bottle of hair cream. I will take it.”
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning, beauty-wise?
I give myself a facial massage. I’ll be in bed, roll over, and press my two fingers up the bridge of my nose and along my brow in a clockwise motion. It’s a lymphatic drainage technique. If I have a lot of time, I’ll start pinching along my jaw, pinching along my cheek. I’m really into lymphatic drainage, facial massage, and gua sha, which is very popular right now, but I’ve been doing it forever. Then I’ll do yoga in bed: I’ll draw my knees to my chest for Happy Baby, roll on my lower back, and do a little twist.
Who taught you about lymphatic drainage?
My mom, my grandma, and the internet. I just felt growing up, I had a very round face. I still do. I thought my face is always puffy—what can I do to help that?
Is your grandmother a beauty enthusiast?
She’s not. It’s more my mom. My grandma is a very classy lady, though—she is the type to get her perm and put her hair in rollers, and she wears kitten heels. She’s more of a traditional beauty person, and my mom’s more modern. My grandma’s like, “Did you set your hair for the week?” and I’m like, “Did I what, grandma? No, no I didn’t.” “Did you bring a slip?” “No, I didn’t bring a slip, grandma.”
What’s the best beauty tip you’ve picked up from your mom?
Definitely to embrace the features you have. When I was younger, I would look at techniques to achieve a more Euro-centric standard of beauty—like using a white line underneath your eyes to widen them. My mom was like, “Why? You’re Asian, you have smaller eyes, be proud of that.” She’s very much encouraged me to stop hiding my natural features. She’s big on curls—she’s like, “Keep it curly, keep it free, it makes you unique. Don’t heat damage your hair.”
What about the best tip you’ve picked up on set?
I have so many, because hair and makeup take a long time. You’ll be there for two hours, three hours, four hours, so you’ve gotta start talking and making friends. I talk to all the makeup artists who touch me. They’re like, “Could you shut up? I’m trying to take something off your lips.”
This is an easy one, but fanning out your eyelashes is a game-changer. Without putting false eyelashes on me, one makeup artist made my lashes look bigger and fuller instantly. Basically, while putting on mascara, you brush the outer lashes away from your face; the middle of your lashes, you swipe up, and the inner lashes, you brush toward the bridge of your nose. Also, another one is when you highlight your nose, you want to go as thin as possible. You want that line of highlighter to be a tiny, narrow line.
What are your go-to skincare products?
I like Augustinus Bader’s creams—they’re expensive, but really nice. I love the Herbivore Botanicals Lapis Blue Tansy Face Oil, and Osmosis’ gentle cleanser. I love Sunday Riley so much. Their CEO Vitamin C Rich Hydration Cream’s packaging makes me feel so bougie. And Biossance’s Squalane + Vitamin C Rose Oil is amazing.
If you could take one product on a deserted island with you, what would it be?
The Cocokind Matcha All Over Moisturizer Stick. You can use it for your elbows, knees, hands, whatever. But I swipe it under my eyes. And not to flex, but makeup artists are always like, “You have the best under eyes ever. They don’t crease, they’re smooth.” I’m also a big lip gloss person; I don’t wear lipstick. I like the Baby Phat Pink Glass Plumping Lip Gloss—I actually had a say in designing that one. The packaging is really pretty. It reminds me of Dior Makeup. That’s one expensive designer makeup brand that’s actually really great. People will wear super expensive hand cream and I’m like, Why? Gold Bond would have fixed your problems. But Dior products are actually amazing. I love their Lip Glow Oil, which I first got when I was 11 years old. I have very fond memories of it, because I was so gassed to get a Dior lipstick. I was like, I’m a fucking adult!
What is your favorite form of self-care?
Yummy food is a big one. After Pyer Moss on Saturday, all the models went out to dinner. I met up with them, but not before walking to get myself four 99 cent pizza slices. I love to eat really unhealthy food in front of the TV.
But I’ve noticed that our generation is very into healing—healing your trauma, healing your inner child. It’s a great thing because you just want to have a healthier life. Adults call us oversensitive and I’m like, No, you’re repressed, dude. You have trauma you haven’t dug up yet. They’re like, “I was abused as a kid and I’m okay.” And I’m like, you yell at every guy in the parking lot. You’re not okay! I love that whole healing energy of Gen Z. We can be over-sensitive, but we’re doing it for the right reasons.
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