Stylist Shirley Kurata has described her look as “mod secretary,” but with all due respect to the steno pool, this doesn’t do her justice. Whether styling her own outfits or decorating her incredible home in L.A., Shirley creates this giddy, Starburst-colored world full of winking mid-century references. She’s whimsical without being precious, and referential in a way that feels totally fresh.
Shirley has dressed Miranda July, Zooey Deschanel, Cass McCombs, and Devendra Banhart, but I’m especially enamored of her editorial styling, which is so smart, cinematic, and full of attention to detail. Shirley often collaborates with the amazing photographer Autumn de Wilde (who shot her own favorite secret spots in L.A. for Rookie back in October). I loved their editorial for Paper based on Weetzie Bat, Francesca Lia Block’s must-read novel about weird punk kids coming of age in L.A.
Shirley has also been styling Rodarte’s runway shows since their very first one in 2005. She shares an apartment with Kate and Laura Mulleavy during New York Fashion Week, where their horror-movie-and-taco night was once interrupted by a surprise visit from Vogue’s André Leon Talley (do you want to be their BFF yet?).
Shirley’s own style is ’60s mod (bright Crayola colors, A-line dresses, and opaque tights) meets ’70s pottery teacher (slim-fitting turtlenecks, knee-length skirts, and little berets). I admit that ever since I first started following Daily Shirley, Autumn de Wilde’s addictive chronicle of Shirley’s daily style, I’ve become a total Shirley wannabe! Here’s an all-thrifted outfit I’ve been wearing lately that I hope screams Shirley and not Velma from Scooby-Doo (although Velma had pretty rad style, too, now that I think of it):
And since we can’t all be lucky enough to thrift perfectly garish orange sweaters and flippy tennis skirts, here’s a Shirley-inspired outfit that I put together just for you:
Shirley was awesome enough to answer some questions for us about her own inspirations. Read on for her advice on developing your own style, her favorite Japanese horror movies, and the atheist Smiths fan who changed her life. Oh, and we get some deets on that star-studded taco night, too!
I want to start by asking you: what were you like in high school?
Well, I went to an all-girls Catholic high school in Pasadena, which I hated. I just never felt like I fit in there. It was a school for white, privileged, preppy girls. The turning point in my high school life was meeting my friend Sharon, who is dear to me to this day. Sharon was outspoken about her atheism and did plays about it in religion class (to the dismay of our teacher, a nun). She dyed her hair blue-black, loved Thoreau and Oscar Wilde, listened to the Smiths and the Style Council, and showed me that it was OK to be different. And together we griped about how much we hated certain classmates and our school! She was the one that took me to the great vintage stores in Orange County, which was near her mom’s house, and that started my obsession with wearing vintage. I actually liked wearing a uniform in high school. It’s kind of nice to wake up and not think about what you have to wear, and there’s something about school uniforms that’s visually appealing. But I think it also gives you this drive to find your own identity. Being Japanese-American, I would go the Japanese bookstores in L.A. and get fashion magazines from there. I loved the styling in them because it was so not sexy—as opposed to what you saw in American fashion magazines. It was cutesy, androgynous, quirky. Because my upbringing at home and at school was so sheltered and contained, I naturally needed to break free from that world and be as different from everyone else as I could!
How did you get into styling? Was it something you always wanted to do, or did you have another career in mind?
I’ve wanted to be a fashion designer since I was 10. I had my mom teach me to sew, and I took sewing classes in high school and then eventually studied fashion design in Paris at a school called Studio Bercot. Starting a fashion line was kind of a big beast that I felt I didn’t want to tackle, so I got into costuming and styling. I interned on a bunch of low-budget films and TV shows. It wasn’t a meteoric rise by any means. But I think it gave me the constitution to stick to this line of work. Styling is not easy.
I love your runway work for Rodarte. Do have much autonomy in creating a vision for their collection, or is it more collaborative?
It’s definitely collaborative. Kate and Laura are completely involved in the total vision of their collection and their runway shows. I’m not an ego-driven stylist that would push a designer to do something they didn’t want to do.
Who are your favorite designers, and who would you love to work with?
Well, of course, Rodarte and Peter Jensen. From a historical standpoint, I love the work of Yves Saint Laurent, André Courrèges, Rudi Gernreich, Ossie Clark, and Cristóbal Balenciaga. I love Miu Miu and Prada and Marni, so I’d love to work with Miuccia and Consuelo.
Your personal style is so amazing, like Carnaby Street meets ’70s pottery teacher! Can you tell me a bit about how it developed? What have your influences been beyond fashion?
L.A. has great thrift stores, vintage stores, and flea markets. Since I wasn’t really finding new stuff that I liked in stores at the malls, I just tended to wear more vintage. Also, as a young student, it was more economical. And I loved the hunt to find a $10 Ossie Clark dress from Savers, or a Burberry coat from a Parisian flea market for two dollars. The mod thing kind of developed because I had mod friends and an obsession with the ’60s. But I could never be the goth or rockabilly kid that dresses solely in one style. I really do like mixing it up. I wear a lot of modern stuff mixed with vintage from different eras—although mostly ’60s, ’70s, and some early ’80s. My second love after fashion is film, so movies definitely influence my personal style—French and Czech New Wave films, in particular. I also love subcultures—the metalheads, the skater kids. I love the way kids rebel in their otherwise normal suburban world.
One of the things I love about your work is that it’s so rich in reference, like your Karlheinz Weinberger-inspired shoot for i-D. Where do you look for inspiration?
I learned about the photos of Karlheinz Weinberger from going to an art gallery featuring his work. So museums and galleries are definitely a source of inspiration. And I regularly pick up fashion magazines and books. I do read some blogs, but there are so many now that I kind of feel overwhelmed by them and am backing off a little.
What are your favorite horror films, and do you find they influence your work? I can’t help but think of The Exorcist whenever I turn my pea coat’s collar against the wind, or Rosemary’s Baby when I wear a babydoll dress.
I still think the scariest horror film is The Shining. Whenever I dress identical twins, I feel like they HAVE to be dressed identically. And Shelley Duvall is one of my style icons. I tend to be drawn towards films with a surreal pagan world, like the Wicker Man and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. The innocent girl in the white dress is a horror film staple. I love Japanese horror films because there tends to be this perversity mixed with weirdness. My favorites are Audition and House.
I have to ask about this: I read that you always share an apartment with the Mulleavys during New York Fashion Week and that one time André Leon Talley interrupted your taco night! Can you set that scene for me? I’m picturing him sweeping in wearing a giant fur hat and caftan and saying something really genius and bitchy about tacos.
OK, I’m glad I have a chance to fully tell the story because it was condensed in an interview with me to just a quote saying “He’s so tall,” which made me sound dumb for stating the obvious. So it was after their runway show [in 2010], and we hadn’t slept a wink the night before, and we were famished and exhausted. We were staying at this place that we called Chateau Brioche. It was an apartment that the Mulleavys rented that was decorated in this tacky ’80s French style. We were all hanging out and had ordered Mexican food and were in the middle of eating our tacos and watching TV when Laura gets this phone call that André Leon Talley was going to stop by for a visit. So there was a slight panic because the place was a mess. But we agreed that he should see it for how it was, so we left the TV on and the food in front of us. In he walks with his assistant and the most enormous orchid arrangement as a gift. And yes, he was wearing a fur hat and a caftan. He walks in the room just as you would imagine—very grandiose and effusive. No bitchy comments whatsoever. Since the apartment was small, the only thing available for him to sit on was this little faux-French stool. So he’s sitting there, all 6'6" of him, and I seriously felt like he could’ve been a character from Star Wars or some noble king from some far-off land. He seemed larger than life.
Finally, I know this is the cliché question, but is there any advice you’d like to give to teenage girls, something you wish someone had told you?
Yes, I’ve actually thought about this because I was a really gawky, self-conscious teenager. And because I went to an all-girls school, I was even more awkward around boys. I used to beat myself up for not being more cool. Now that I’m much older, and now that I’ve worked with the people that I have, I’ve found that some of the musicians or actors that I thought were so cool and so confident were surprisingly shy or socially awkward in person. Had I known that, I wouldn’t have beaten myself up so much. The point is that we are all human, and we have our insecurities, and that’s OK. What makes us cool, ultimately, are the sincere and interesting and unique things that we create and do and believe in. Some of the coolest people I know are self-professed geeks. So embrace your inner nerd! And your inner uniqueness! I really get saddened by the women represented on TV—the Kardashians, Paris Hilton, anyone on MTV and Disney. They are so vacuous and dumb. I hope that teenage girls find role models in women with intelligence and integrity and talent, and eventually become role models for future teenage girls! ♦