Style

Secret Style Icon: Shirley Kurata

Talking tacos and the benefits of being a nerd with the smartest stylist around.

Image via Refinery29

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.

Autumn de Wilde for Papermag.

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.

L-R: Shirley with the Mulleavy sisters via Band of Outsiders; Elle Fanning in Rodarte, styled by Shirley, via Cahier de Style

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?).

Images via Autumn de Wilde

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):

Image via Born in Flames

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:

Clockwise from top left: hat, $26, Monki; sunglasses, $14, Asos; Zoe dress, $110, Nordstrom; purse, $26, Monki; Cube ring, $8, Monki; tights, $16, Topshop; shoes, $55, Asos; Pierre Cardin by Elisabeth Langle, $20, Amazon; buttons, vintage, Etsy

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.

Shirley and Elijah Wood by Autumn de Wilde

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.

Shirley by Autumn de Wilde

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! ♦

38 Comments

  • ravenflamingo April 24th, 2012 7:09 PM

    I love how colorful her style is. It kind of reminds me of my grandma (in a good way)! Also, I’m obsessed with that French look. Those sunglasses are amazing. They could be a pretty cool DIY actually.

    http://ravenflamingo.tumblr.com

  • MissKnowItAll April 24th, 2012 7:30 PM

    Awwww. She’s too cute!

  • Celiabow April 24th, 2012 7:42 PM

    This was the best article!!!!
    Shirley is my icon she has one of the greatest styles around. GO SHIRLEY!!!

  • purplebabaushka April 24th, 2012 7:54 PM

    I think I’m in love! She’s amazing!

    http://purplebabaushka.wordpress.com/

  • Tyknos93 April 24th, 2012 7:56 PM

    Guys is she even REAL??? That picture with the flowers I…it’s so lovely.
    http://blazoningpens.blogspot.com/

  • kittenmix April 24th, 2012 8:19 PM

    Oh that green green blue striped dress is amazing, and with those tights! I think I just found religion.

  • KinuKinu April 24th, 2012 8:29 PM

    OK,Shirley is by far the most awesome lady EVER.She is 100% amazing! I like the picture with the girl with the SPARKLY eyelids….. we have the EXACT same haircut.She looks like me if you squint REALLLLLLY hard.Shirley is just awesome.

  • Katherine April 24th, 2012 8:50 PM

    I think I want to be her when I grow up. She is so amazing! I wish I was brave enough to dress like her. Her Edna Mode (The Incredibles) glasses are fantastic.

  • Hazel April 24th, 2012 9:08 PM

    Fell in love with her after seeing that post on Refinery 29. Shirley, YOU are my role model!

  • marimba_girl April 24th, 2012 9:23 PM

    I love her clothes sooooo much! I had never heard of her before but I love mod clothing and she looks totes awes!! She also seems like a really interesting person, how do you guys actually find these people to interview?

    p.s. I think it would be interesting if you interviewed random teenage girls and asked them fairly deep questions, I bet you would get some really cool responses.

  • TheAwesomePossum April 24th, 2012 9:25 PM

    Yeah, she’s cool…

    (*inwardly shrieks with excitement* OHMYGOSH THIS GIRL’S STYLE IS SO AMAZING!!)

  • Jakeline April 24th, 2012 9:51 PM

    Super advice at the end! Shirley Rocks!

  • teenager April 24th, 2012 9:57 PM

    OK why is she the cutest woman EVER?? I dig that Yoko Ono shirt, I’ve always wanted one of my own! Oh my lanta I’m in love, this lady is such an inspiration. Thanks for posting!!

    http://interstellarsuburbia.wordpress.com/

  • TessAnnesley April 24th, 2012 10:32 PM

    dfsgahigdsahjkgdfjsagfjk SHIRLEY IS MY ICON
    this is article is da best

  • jyk595 April 24th, 2012 10:38 PM

    thanks SOOO much for putting this article up. I have been obsessed with shirley for about a year now and everything she says i take as scripture. it’s so great to see how a creative mind works and most importantly is unique (just like she preaches!)

  • Lascelles April 24th, 2012 10:56 PM

    Anyone else see PC on Sunday Morning last Sunday? It was kind of amazing.

    http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7406200n

  • BT April 24th, 2012 11:11 PM

    Thank you for this! I find her style and her attitude very inspirational and iconic! My girl crush is showing…I must go back to my cave now.

  • EmilyL27 April 24th, 2012 11:27 PM

    I’m like trying to become an adult these days and when people say business casual I don’t think they mean super hot rock star from the seventies (my usual kinda goal) so I usually go for mod secretary because it’s still fun.

    Either that or waspy grandmother.

    Does anyone else theme dress every single day?

    Good inspiration.

    • marimba_girl April 25th, 2012 1:33 PM

      I do actually theme dress pretty often. When I’m not wearing my band geek chic I try to look like a hippie who influenced by her punk bf to faux-hawk her hair and wear a fuck u expression :)

  • taste test April 24th, 2012 11:32 PM

    her style is so cute! I never really thought mod and cute could go together, but now I wonder why I thought that. I never heard of her before this post, but she’s pretty amazing. I love the interview, too.

    unrelated: you guys should do a secret style icon post about jem. it’s a super cheesy, super 80s cartoon, but the various bands in it have insanely cool outfits all the time.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEUqtQFiL-I
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ko59AQfm1FU

  • fanny April 25th, 2012 12:11 AM

    oh my she is so precious! i just found a new hero and more fashion inspiration, thanks rookie!

  • Adrienne April 25th, 2012 12:37 AM

    I’ve never heard of Shirley, but now she’s for sure one of my style crushes! I’d love to pull off any of her looks. And all of the colors are so bright and happy!

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

  • gnarwhals April 25th, 2012 1:26 AM

    “What makes us cool, ultimately, are the sincere and interesting and unique things that we create and do and believe in. ”

    Perfect. Absolutely Perfect.

  • whodatgal April 25th, 2012 1:55 AM

    Yeah. This was (sorry to copy gnarwhals) perfect!

  • mayaautumn April 25th, 2012 1:55 AM

    she’s great! that red and orange outfit reminds me of velma from scooby doo!
    LOVE.

    http://cottonmixblog.blogspot.co.uk

  • Ben April 25th, 2012 1:58 AM

    At first I thought the tacos where talking, now I know your just talking about tacos! LOL! The weetzi bat photo shoot is BEAUTIFUL! I already wanted to be their BFF! I love them so much! I want to meet them next time i’m in L.A. (to go to disneyland)! It would be the coolest thing ever! She looks really cute and Velma is pretty cool ;) I’ve always wanted to be a fashion designer too but I think styling would be nice too! I always thought it would be kind of easy though because I put together nice outfits for myself all the time, What’s so different about doing it for others? I like how André Leon Talley is like that even behind the scenes I guess. Anyway, nice article, thanks!

    http://bensstylecorner.blogspot.com/

  • insteadofanelephant April 25th, 2012 3:00 AM

    she is so darling! love the pops of color and quirky accessories she adds

    instead of an elephant

  • unefillecommetoi April 25th, 2012 3:05 AM

    I love how the world of styling has many roads you can take to it. Film, design, aah it’s so beautiful and endless :)

    http://helenadormida.blogspot.com

  • Helena April 25th, 2012 5:25 AM

    OHHH this is sooo good!! Thanks Rookie!!

  • Arwen April 25th, 2012 12:56 PM

    great interview! She seems refreshingly talented and intelligent (:

  • nutellacube April 25th, 2012 5:51 PM

    She seems so awesome. I love that she takes inspiration from French and Czech New Wave films. I envy anyone who dress after characters in films.

    http://pennilesszen.blogspot.com
    http://canned-mumble.blogspot.com

  • emcarls April 25th, 2012 7:42 PM

    SHIRLEY! i love you

  • zaphiros April 25th, 2012 7:59 PM

    She’s so awesome! I’ve never heard of her before this, but there’s some major style stalking going on now :)

    http://zaphiros.tumblr.com/

  • IZZE April 26th, 2012 1:52 AM

    OMFG, i’m in love… her style is super unique.

  • bitchesiiwitches April 26th, 2012 10:05 PM

    met her at autumn’s book signing and her illuminating coolness killed me and this is actually my ghost typing…

  • Bebe April 26th, 2012 10:56 PM

    Oh my gosh, her style is so great! It’s like Peggy Olsen styled by Yayoi Kusama. This makes me even want to try to wear colors…

  • kaylafay April 27th, 2012 9:08 PM

    Just read the refinery29 interview/slideshow and found out she lives in Los Feliz. OHMYGOD OHMYGOD I AM SO STARSTRUCK RIGHT NOW I LIVE IN LOS FELIZ ITS LIKE WE’RE NEIGHBORS I JUST WANT TO BE HER BEST FRIEND AND WATCH ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT WITH HER

  • FlaG May 2nd, 2012 12:51 AM

    Hrrrrrnghh Elijah Wood.

    That is all.