When I run up the stairs to the rooftop carpark, it's easy for me to spot Millie Sykes among the bland grey of empty parking spots. It's not because there's only two people up there: no, it definitely has something more to do with her fluoro green, knee-high boots, matching cowboy hat and red gingham blouse. I walk over, interrupting the photoshoot for a moment, and she greets me warmly with a hug and a smile, as if we hadn’t just met only a few days ago via Instagram.
The 24-year-old, former communications student, current stylist and future fashion editor of an alt-y magazine (fingers crossed, she says); Sykes is unlike anyone you've ever seen before.
Scroll down her Instagram feed, and you'll find wigs, faux furs, sheer beaded skirts and fishnet stockings; all in garish, gaudy, electric bursts of colour.
“Not enough people embrace colour,” Sykes explained to me, voice hoarse from the past weekend’s birthday celebrations. “I think too many people are scared of it. It's incredible the reaction you can get when you're wearing head-to-toe colour, people are so shocked and scared of it!”
Aside from colourful, though, Sykes describes her style as fluid, one that ebbs and flows and changes by the day. Some days, it’s all about being wigs and expressions of hyper femininity; other days, it’s tailored suits and slicked hair and “being a full dude, for a day.” Her favourite part of fashion, however, is the opportunity it provides to try on different characters for size, rather than just different clothing: “for me, fashion and style is massively about performativity, and being able to perform who you want to be on that day.”
Talking to Sykes is like talking to a cool older sister. She speaks plainly and openly, freely giving advice that's genuine and thoughtful but never patronising. Her out-there sense of style hasn’t always been a part of her life, though. “I grew up in a small town, so it was very hard to ever feel comfortable expressing yourself,” she explained to me.
After briefly moving to London at the age of 18, Sykes finally felt comfortable enough to act on her desire for self-expression, and began experimenting with the weird and the wonderful of the fashion world. “I basically got home, threw out my entire wardrobe, and went hard-core op-shopping. I just reinvented myself into the person I've always wanted to be but felt too insecure to be.” Bit by bit, she says, she has learned to express herself in bigger and increasingly extravagant ways.
From a young age Sykes had been building up a visual library of inspiration. “When I was like, 12, I used to save folders of images on my dad's desktop computer - images and images of all these incredible, beautiful colourful women.” Stimulus also comes from the people she surrounds herself with, both virtually and in real life - and yet more simply pops out of thin air into her head, she says.
The queer community have also had a huge impact on Sykes’ style and her expression of self. On the day I meet her, she has bold blush high on her cheeks; a haze of green eyeshadow swept across her eyelids; and a bold red lip, perfectly applied despite her self-professed lack of artistry. “I love playing around with makeup to add to a look,” she said. “That's massively been inspired by the queer community, and drag, and all these incredible people that have come into my life. They're so talented at makeup and they've helped me so much.”
The digital fashion community have also been a large part of Sykes’ journey. Instagram in particular has been her creative platform for the past three years, providing a space for her to explore herself and her style in anything from editorial shoots to self-timed snaps on an iPhone in her bedroom. But as she explained, she tries not to lose herself in the fantasy of a perfect digital world: “Keeping a distance whilst acknowledging and understanding how it can be a good tool is key”.
Whilst she certainly has found her own space online, Sykes says she’s still searching for that spot in real life. “I don't really see myself as fitting into any particular nook or cranny of the fashion industry. It’s scary but also totally OK, because it means I can just be me”. Having experimented earlier this year in working on music video styling, she says she’s keen to continue exploring the different avenues of styling, like costuming for films. “I think if I just continue to work hard on whatever projects come my way, I will have a space,” she explained. “I don't see myself as super high fashion, or super commercial, so I sort of see my path as being one that I will more or less carve out for myself.”
Sykes’ confidence and charm is evident constantly throughout my morning with her: she strolls along easily in her bold boots, almost oblivious to the people double-taking as they walk by and take in the explosion of colour. The ease with which she coolly coexists like a rainbow personified alongside the generally dreary fashion palette of Sydney is nothing short of inspiring, and brings a smile to many of the faces that pass us.
“Does your style ever get you any weird reactions, though?” I ask her. “All the time,” she replied with a laugh. “But I love it, and that's why I do it. It's very fun to be provocative.” Any negative reactions she gets, however, are definitely outweighed by the empowering nature of simply being herself and flaunting her identity to anyone who happens to pass her by. “It sucks when you get men saying degrading things, but I'd still rather express myself how I want and be proud of that than bow down to pressure; conform to covering my body up, or wearing something modest - that's just not me,” she shrugged.
Before I say goodbye to Sykes, I asked her if she has any additional thoughts for me. “Final thoughts?” she asked with a coy smile. “Be a slut, do whatever you want,” she told me, laughing riotously.