Meet Mia Sakai: photographer, creative director and founder of Aether Magazine

Mia Sakai on pushing creative boundaries and ignoring the limits placed on independent publishing

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Mia Sakai was in the depths of her art foundation course when something struck her: she was not being fulfilled creatively. After candidly googling ‘how to start a magazine’ Sakai used her existing skills and pooled her resources to create what would later become Aether Magazine. Now an established creative director, photographer and editor, Aether is a thriving creative publication and is home to some of the most aesthetically unique and colourful shoots in fashion. We caught up with Mia to chat about why she’s challenging the notion that ‘print is dead’ and why launching into the independent publication and fashion industries is all about taking a gamble!

What was your inspiration behind Aether?
I started Aether in January of 2015. I was at Camberwell studying and I wasn't satisfied creatively, so I wanted to have a passion project that I could give my all to. I was submitting work to publications online at the time, and I often never heard back. This may have been because my work wasn’t developed enough at the time, but I didn’t like how impossible it felt. So I started Aether to give young creatives like myself an opportunity to see their work in print - I was (and still am) very passionate about seeing your printed work as a very important part of the artist's journey.

At first, I made a small 20-page zine using my own work. I just started by googling ‘how to make your own magazine’. It just goes to show you really can fake it until you make it! I wanted Aether to provide a print platform in a much more accessible and inclusive way than what I felt existed at the time. And it was important to me that the majority of the work was from students, people of colour and those from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds. I believe that print isn’t dead, and the aim for me is to bring our generation together by creating something real and tangible. I chose the name Aether because my mum always used to say to me ‘send it into the aether’ when we spoke about our hopes. Like a wish, a way of letting the universe know what your dreams are. I always imagined it as this utopian place where true freedom of expression lives, a universe of its own where anything is possible. I want it to be a new realm of safety and artistry open to everyone.

What was your route into photography and creative direction?
I didn’t formally study photography, but I had always been doing ‘shoots’ with my friends. As I started creating issues of Aether, I realised I didn’t have to limit myself to only doing it as a hobby - I could use Aether as a way to experiment and create a platform not only for my peers but for my own work too. I didn’t realise that I could do this as a self-taught photographer because I didn’t think I could be good enough - but as I built my confidence, I decided I wanted to do my own editorials to explore this further. I started reaching out to people on Instagram and I often shot outside, brought my own clothes and styled them. From this, I started to build my knowledge on how to organise and execute shoots and slowly moved into a more professional sense with it as time went on and got other people involved. Once I experienced the power of collaboration and what I could create I fell in love. It just shows that anyone can do it! The more practice I had, the more the vision came clear - not only for my photography but for the entire magazine.  

What advice would you give to young creatives trying to break into the industry?
I would say that you must stay true to yourself and follow your heart in every instance. It’s not an easy route to take, especially when you come from a lower-income family and don’t have any financial support. I’ve definitely struggled with the pressure at times and it sometimes feels like you never have enough time on your hands. But I wouldn’t change it. I think don’t let what you believe is a ‘lack of experience’ stop you from pursuing your dream because although it may be harder, nothing is impossible. The main thing is staying consistent and trying to keep moving forward all the time.

What are you hopes fro the future of Aether?
I would love to be able to produce two issues a year consistently and expand the publication to more online content too. In the last two years, I faced a lot of challenges trying to create content because of Covid. The problem is being a one-woman band, a lot of ideas I have are often not possible, especially in a creative industry when I have to work other jobs to support myself and the business. I would love to do more events too - I have been running a series of online talks since lockdown and the feedback has been amazing. I would love to also run events that can help other young creatives network and learn about the industry from their peers. I have many more ideas too but I don’t want to say too much about them yet - watch this space!

How would you like to see the fashion industry change?
It breaks my heart to think about how fast fashion is affecting the planet. But if I’m just thinking about myself personally, I would just love to see more unity and collaboration between people. I’ve found the fashion industry can be very elitist and if you don’t come from a certain background it’s much harder to break into.

What is your favourite piece of work (shoot or otherwise) that you've done?
I think my portrait project I did back in the summer of 2020. It was quite simple, but it meant a lot to me. I created it in the midst of the resurgence of BLM because I wanted to offer my community and POC from other marginalised groups as a way to see beauty in themselves in such a sad time. I wanted to inject joy and colour back into the world, into these people's lives, even if only momentarily. I knew I couldn’t fix the world's problems with it, but if I can put a smile on someone's face and share a beautiful moment with them during a dark time, that’s priceless. It was healing for me.

What is a personal career highlight?
I think my most recent Aether Issue 15 launch. Every Woman Biennial kindly allowed me to host a pop-up event for the release at their exhibition in Copeland Gallery. I invited some of my favourite artists, designers and creators to come and sell with me on the night. It felt so good to share my night with like-minded creatives who I admire so much. It wasn’t just about me but about all of us in it together as a collective. This combined with being surrounded by art felt like a dream. I was really proud of myself for pulling it all together.

Have you got any upcoming projects that you can share with us?

For the moment, I am focusing on putting something together for Aether’s 7th birthday in January/February 2022. It’s going to be a big celebration and you’re all invited. That’s all I can say for now!

You can find out more about Aether here! 

Words: Grace Goslin

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