Pia Mia on Her Style Evolution and Channeling Former Boss Madonna

Pia Mia-Publicity-H 2019
Tal Abudi

The singer, actress and part-time designer opens up to The Hollywood Reporter about rewriting her sartorial narrative as she enters a new chapter in her career as an independent artist.

Pia Mia is experiencing a metamorphosis.

The 22-year-old entertainer — who recently made her feature debut in the surprise box-office success After, based on Anna Todd's wildly popular YA book series — isn't only spreading her wings as a budding movie star (a sequel to the film is already in the works), but she's also in the midst of rewriting her style narrative.

Pia is equally known for her bold approach to fashion as she is for hit songs like "Do It Again" and "Bitter Love," the dreamy ballad she dropped earlier this year, which serves as the official anthem for After and marks her first release as an independent artist since leaving Interscope Records in late 2017.

At this stage in her career — for which she controls every aspect, from crafting self-funded music videos to scheduling her own late-night recording sessions — the Guam native has never felt more liberated, especially when it comes to her sartorial choices. Such was the case on a sunny day in March, when Pia met up with celebrity shutterbug Tal Abudi for an impromptu photo shoot in Los Angeles. 

"This shoot, which happened because our schedules magically lined up, was so unique and edgy. We really got to let our creative juices flow," Pia tells The Hollywood Reporter. "These photos really come across to me as art as opposed to just a trendy shoot. There's something special about them because I was able to show a side of myself that most people might not be familiar with." 

For the eclectic shoot, Pia curated a number of her own looks — with the help of stylist Shalev Lav'an — comprised of both vintage and new pieces from the likes of Saint Laurent, Versace and Israeli fashion house Galia Lahav. Asked to share her favorite getup, Pia finds it difficult to single out one in particular. Rather, the singer-actress notes that the best part of the shoot for her was the fact that its modest aesthetic provided a break from the skin-baring ensembles she is used to wearing in front of the camera. 

"I loved being covered up head-to-toe because so many times when I go to do photo shoots, people want to me to wear outfits that are more revealing," Pia says. "There's still a time and place for a bikini moment. I'm an island girl after all, but you can be sexy and cool and different without showing skin or being risqué. With this Tal shoot, I also had a lot of fun layering garments that were a bit unexpected."

The platinum-haired beauty's unique sense of style has attracted a robust Instagram following that is currently 5.4 million strong and includes famous admirers such as Ariana Grande, Paris Hilton, the Jenner sisters and Game of Thrones' Sophie Turner. Additionally, her ability to effortlessly amalgamate streetwear with high-end styles — and a natural knack for design — has made her an enviable partner for fashion brands. One year prior to helming a collection for U.K. label In The Style in 2017, Pia was handpicked by Madonna as the first-ever fashion director of Her Madgesty’s Material Girl clothing line for Macy's. She was 19.

"That was such an incredible experience for me, especially being so young. It was a big deal and I'm grateful for what I was able to do and learn there. It really opened my eyes up to how much time it takes," Pia says of her contract that entailed forecasting trends, designing multiple collections and styling a campaign shot by Ellen von Unwerth in 2016. "I would love to have my own clothing line one day and now I definitely feel more prepared for that."

Below, the multihyphenate talks more with THR about her evolving style and channeling the Queen of Pop — plus, she reveals the outfit of hers that got Kanye West's seal of approval not long after she moved to L.A. as an industry ingenue. 

How would you describe your relationship with fashion?

Fashion really helps me feel confident. I have so many days where I feel really shy or maybe I don't know how to express myself in the right way. Or the way I'm communicating isn't coming off right. But I feel like if I have a good outfit on that I feel good in, then I'm able to do everything else just so much better. My fashion has just always kind of explained who I am as a person and as an artist. Like, with these outfits for my shoot with Tal, they're so different. The pieces don't necessarily make sense together if you lay them out. But when I put them on, it comes together and it comes to life. Fashion really just helps me express who I am.

For your recent "Bitter Love" video, you pulled together looks with pieces from high-end designers like Oscar de la Renta and Prada. How does fashion play a part in the visual presentation of your music?

It's part of the entertainment. It's part of being an artist. If you look at any great artists, the way they dress is a huge part of the entire package they're putting out into the world. The same goes for me. When you're shooting a music video, there are so many details that go into it. And a lot of time goes into styling and that's because down to the earrings that you put on, you're portraying a message. At the same time, I'm not saying you have to dress crazy and wear a bunch of different colors and a bunch of different patterns. Fashion can be a simple white dress and stilettos, no earrings and a slicked-back bun and it can still be so powerful. To do a song and do a music video, there has to be a fashion element.

You moved from Guam to L.A. as a teen to pursue music, and quickly found yourself running in the same circles as the Kardashian-Jenners and Kanye West. With exposure to so much more fashion, how did that influence your style early on?

Getting to be around other people in the industry or when you go to events or being in Hollywood in general, you're right — you are exposed to so much more fashion and trends. There was a lot more access and it really inspired me. But I learned from Kanye that it was important to stay true to myself. I remember he would say to me sometimes, "Oh, that's such a cool outfit. Where is that from?" And I'd literally be wearing G-Star jeans, a tank and a bandana. I love high-end, but it's not necessary. A lot of the stuff that I wear isn't high-end. I like to mix mid-level, high, low. Fashion is fashion. You don't have to spend a million dollars.

What designers do you gravitate toward?

For high-end, I love Gianvito Rossi shoes. I love Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton and Chanel. And then for the mid or low, I'll go to vintage stores. There's a cool spot in Westwood that I like going to. And then Melrose Avenue has a lot of great vintage stores. But also, if you go on Instagram, there's a lot of cool vintage places you can shop online.

How do your Guamanian roots influence the way you dress today?

I think growing up on Guam has had such a huge influence on my fashion. The one main thing that I wear would be my gold Guam necklaces. I have a few different ones and they have been a part of my wardrobe since I came to L.A. Aside from that, I also make a lot of stage outfit looks, island-print bustiers, on my own. I'll go down to the fabric district in L.A. and buy sheets of fabric. I'll draw out my designs, give them to a tailor and have them create the pieces. And my grandfather sends me his old buttoned-down shirts that he's not wearing anymore that are island-print and I'll cut them up or just wear them as-is and mix them into my daily wardrobe.

That future clothing line seems like a real possibility.

That’s an idea that I do take seriously. But we'll see when I find the time for that. Rihanna's a perfect example of someone who does music, she does acting, she's in fashion, she does makeup. With being creative, you can't put borders on it. You kind of fall in love with every little aspect. And I would love to have my own fashion line one day. We'll see. I make so many random pieces. Sometimes I'm like, "Let's just put these up to sell when I'm done wearing them."

How would you describe your style when you first hit the music scene and how has it evolved since then?

When I first started out, my style was a lot more street-driven and maybe a little more urban. I still have elements of that. I think I gravitate toward more feminine, girly stuff in my style now. It's always been a mix of street, girly, tomboy and feminine. I love wearing overalls, a huge T-shirt and tennis shoes. But, at the same time, I love to dress up like I did for the "Bitter Love" music video and show that side of my fashion, too. It's hard for me to put it into words because I feel like with my music and my fashion, I don't like to stay in just one lane. I have so many different vibes that I like.

Although you are heavily involved in your own styling, you do work with Shalev Lav'an on certain projects and events. How would you describe your collaborative process?

Right off the bat when we met about a year ago, he already knew that I was very hands-on in my styling and I have a voice and that I know what I want. It's cool to be able to work with a stylist who's open to what you want and what you have to say and wants to bring your vision to life. Especially as an artist, I'm representing my message and myself, so I have to be involved in every aspect.

Did you work with a stylist during your time at Interscope?

There are a lot of amazing visionaries out there but finding them in L.A. isn't that easy. I worked with Law Roach on the "Do It Again" shoot. He's rare, of course. Other stylists I've worked with are Sammy K., who is always amazing, and Ashley Sean Thomas. But I always gave direction, and I put looks together myself. To be completely honest, a lot of times when I've worked with stylists in the past, they'd bring about 10 racks of stuff over to my house and I'd just be like, "This isn't right." And then I'd just go and end up doing it myself anyway. Styling myself and being so vocal about my aesthetic on all my music videos and photo shoots really proved to me that I know what I'm talking about. And then I was validated because people looked to me and listened to me about what we should do fashion-wise — and they still do. So, it's really always been me. I'll walk into a showroom myself and check out things on my own.

Is that fun for you?

It is! And it's so funny because when I do go to showrooms, I'm in there and there are so many different stylists in there at the same time. Then there's me and I'm just like, "I want this, this and this!" [Laughs.] I'm taking the reins and doing it all on my own, which I love. That's just how I have to do it. I love working with stylists, but it takes time building a trust with someone to understand me. You can’t just throw something on me and expect me to say, "OK, let's do it." No. I have to love it. I don't like the feeling of not being in control and not seeing my vision executed.

Sounds a lot like your old boss Madonna …

Wow, what an honor. I mean, I would like to think we're similar in that way. I think it makes sense that as an artist, you'd want to be in control on all fronts of your career. And as your music changes, so should your fashion. That's just who we are. We're humans and we're all changing. Madonna and I, we just maybe kind of put that on display a little bit more, in a more obvious or exaggerated way. But it's natural, with every album or every project or even every single, you're growing, you're changing and you're learning so many different things. And I don't know. Are we similar? If you say so. Like her, I think it's important to reinvent yourself.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Photographer: Tal Abudi, @tal_abudi

Hair and makeup: Shay Halay Ziv, @shay_shaz

Stylist: Shalev Lav'an for The Visionaries Agency, @shalevlavan