STORIES

Shirley Kurata Styles the Wealthy While Keeping It Street

By Trina Calderón on November 2, 2018

Stylist and retail store owner Shirley Kurata is pleasant, unassuming and Angeleno—a perfect example of the kind of hometown creative that Los Angeles possesses unlike any other city in America. People move here looking for the kind of influences she has inherent through her connection to the city. Kurata, who was recently featured in Los Angeles magazine’s "13 Powerful Women Who Are Making L.A. a Better Place," is a prolific and productive stylist living in her art. She smashes her editorial work, styles for Rodarte and runs a small concept lifestyle shop called Virgil Normal (“a friendly store for friendly people") in Silver Lake with her husband. PRØHBTD caught up with Kurata to talk more about her stylin' life.

You’re an LA native?

I am a native Angeleno, born and raised. I'm of Japanese descent, so my parents speak Japanese in the household. My dad was actually born here in the U.S., but he went back as a really young child, so his native language is Japanese still. My mom was born in Japan so I definitely have that cultural aspect of being Japanese but I'm definitely pure American and have lived here all my life. I did go to fashion school in Paris for three years, so I lived there, but all my family's here so my roots are very deep in LA. I think that's why I've stayed here, and I'm very attached to the city. For the longest time, LA was considered the not cool city. People have trashed it, but now everyone loves it, seems like.

I think everybody from New York is moving here.

Or San Francisco.

Or San Francisco. Because of their own gentrification.

Yeah.

It's different now, and I agree with you, it was kind of cool to not be cool.

Yeah. It kinda was. But then it's also like, it's nice that people are finally appreciating the city for what it is, which is a very diverse city. Much more liberal. Open-minded. That's definitely a world that I want to live in.

You’ve been collaborating with Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte for more than 10 years. That's a huge relationship. How did that happen to you, and how do you connect so well together creatively?  

It happened through Autumn de Wilde, whom I am friends with and have worked with for a long time. Kate and Laura of Rodarte, when they had their very first collection made, needed someone to photograph the looks, and that's how they met Autumn and became friends. I met them maybe once at a bar, but it was a group situation so I didn't have a good chance to sit and talk to them. But then they had their first runway show in New York.They had a presentation before, but the first runway show was like the day before, and they were freaking out 'cause they'd never had a runway show before. Then Autumn called, and she's like, "We're freaking out, the show's tomorrow." And I was like, "I'll fly out. I'll come and help you."

I didn't have a ton of backstage experience, but I'd done enough where I kinda knew, okay, this is how you wanna line up, run the show. [I needed to] have all the models' looks there with all their shoes and accessories. It was pretty much them and a very stripped-down staff running it. So I was there from the first runway show and ever since. Watched them grow and develop. Every show we figure things out more, make it more efficient. Have more people on hand. Every year we've grown, and they're just so, so talented, and I'm so honored to be able to be a part of that.

You’re talented, too. It sounds like you have a good balance together.

Yeah, I think so. I understand that they're very strong about what they want their vision to be. I respect that, and I'm not going to put my ego over like, "Hey, I think it should be this way." I think it's a collaborative thing. I think that's important to them. There's someone that listens to them and understands what they want, and together we work and try to get their vision across because it's ultimately their brand. Autumn's always been there for every show, too, so I think there's been a family that's grown. Ashley Furnival, who's another stylist, kinda came in a few seasons to help, and then we became this family that has been there for many, many seasons.

That relationship is really unique. For you, what’s the difference between being a stylist and designing fashion?

Styling, I feel you have to cater to the person you're dressing or the client that you're working with. Whereas a designer is catering to a bigger audience so there's more. You have to understand who you want to reach—if you want to design for the masses, if you want to design just for the wealthy one percent. It's all on your hands, and I feel like styling and designing go hand in hand, but I think it's at the same time two very different worlds.

People ask me, would you like to have your own brand or collection? Which I'm kinda starting with Virgil Normal, but it's a different thing. I don't know if I am so ready to take on what Rodarte does, like that. I feel that's such a full-time job already, that for me it would be one or the other. I would pretty much stop styling and just commit to a collection. I'm not the type who can juggle so many things like that at once. I think that I'm that type of person who likes to just really focus on one project at a time.

You have an affinity for prints, geometry and floral design. Some of your earlier influences were '60s Barbie doll fashion and Japanese fashion magazines. What kind of elements have you pulled from those things as a stylist?

I've always been drawn to bright, colorful patterns and prints. I'm always interested in unique silhouettes, too, which I think most of the Japanese magazines [do] ‘cause I feel like, in Japanese fashion, their silhouettes [are] a little more different. Especially designers like Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto, whom I respect and love. They really experiment with silhouettes.

Does your ethnicity tie into your work?

I love the minimalism that the Japanese cohere to—the Zen peacefulness of their designs—but then I also think they're a little more adventurous at times with just the way they dress. When you go to Tokyo, it's so much fun people watching because they can do the extremes, but they can also do something very simple. But it's just tailored so perfectly, and I love all those different elements.I don't want to be the kooky crazy person either, you know? But I also have my days where I want to be a little bit more simple and minimalist, too.

It's funny ‘cause when I did the L.A. magazine thing, they were like, "Oh, dress in neutrals and whites," which I did, but I did it my own way wearing the neutrals of Comme des Garçons vintage. Someone messaged me like, "That's the most subdued version of you I've ever seen." It’s in the details.

When people are calling you to style, what is it that they're usually looking for? Why do you think they're calling you?

I think some of it is because they know I love color. I have a job coming up, which I can never really discuss the details too much, but it's very color driven, so they were saying, "You'd be great for this because you appreciate and love color." Which is true. I do love color.

But then also I still question that sometimes. "Why did they call me for this job?" Or, "Why does this person want me to dress them?" I think maybe they just want a different point of view from what other people have.

They connect with you. You opened Virgil Normal just a couple of years ago. How’s your art and business relationship with your husband Charlie Staunton, and how did the shop come about?

Charlie is a great graphic designer. It was like, “We should open this shop, but you should use your skills in designing clothing, t-shirts, whatnot, into the shop, and I can use my eye.” I love vintage hunting. I'm pretty much the one that sources the vintage. He used to have a men's clothing line, so I think he has the eye for just knowing what especially men want.

We originally said this was a men's shop, but we have so many women shopping in our store so it's not really a men's clothing store. It's just gender neutral. It's open to whoever. It kind of morphed into that more, not gender specific, but a play on some of the basics and classics. But some of it's a little bit more fun and a little bit of the streetwear and a little bit for the more vintage-minded person. Sort of a mix, [for] someone who likes art, someone who likes interesting things.

Can you please tell me about some of the brands you collaborate with in the store, like Brain Dead?

Brain Dead, we have collaborated with a few pieces, and I think we will continue to do that 'cause Kyle [Ng] from Brain Dead is a really good friend of ours. I think Kyle really appreciates music and art and incorporates all of that. He had his own TV show, and he also does a lot of stuff with NTS. I like those designers who are not just about clothes, you know what I mean? It's for the lifestyle. Embracing art and music and culture. Be involved in a lot of things. I like brands that do that.

There's a brand we've been carrying that is also a band called the Silverlake Psychics, and the funny thing is they haven't really released their full album yet. They released their merch first. I just love the way they've been designing the shirts, and they've been selling really well. I don't even think people know that it's a band or anything yet. It’s reverse marketing, but it's also kinda cool because there are no rules to how things are. You can release your merch before your album drops. Doesn't have to be a specific timeline. People are just releasing clothes now whenever they feel like it and doing collaborations.

There's a brand called Aldies. We've had them for a couple of seasons, but they're from Japan, and they just make some really fun things like t-shirts, and their socks are super cool. Yeah, they're a good colorful streetwear line.

Some brands we just like, like Monitaly, which is based in LA but run by Japanese designers. I just love the aesthetics of it 'cause there's something very unisex about their clothing, but it has a cool Japanese aesthetic to it, the way it's draped and everything. We're trying to find new brands to circle through 'cause I'm always supportive of up-and-coming designers and mixing it up. We'll continue to do that and bring in new labels.

How do you define streetwear?

Streetwear, to me, is connected to a lifestyle. There's skaters and there's people that surf, or whatever it is, and they all have something that they're out and active doing. They wear these clothes that reflect their activity. It's a lifestyle to me.

But it also reflects... it’s like you wear it on the street. There has to be some sort of level of comfort and function, and usually streetwear is accessible. Although streetwear in the fashion world has evolved to where brands like Balenciaga are making it, to me I find that a little bit conflicting 'cause not everyone can afford those $1,000 hoodies. To me, streetwear should always be accessible. It's for the people on the street, and in my mind, it should be something that's accessible and not limited to just people with money. We're trying to keep Virgil Normal on that same level. We don't want to carry too high a price point. We have some items that are a little bit higher, but we don't want it to be too inaccessible. There's already shops out there in LA that cater to people with more money that want to wear some nicer, high price point items. But for us, we want to have it where someone can go in and buy a $32 t-shirt, or a $42 t-shirt.

Is there one movie that you think you've watched more than any other movie?

There's several. Harold and Maude is always a favorite, and when I was younger, I was really into Merchant Ivory films like Room With a View. When I was younger, I was a big River Phoenix fan, so Stand By Me. The John Hughes [movies] growing up were like a regular thing, although now you realize some of the stuff was not so PC. It's funny how you don't think about it when you're a teenager, but in retrospect you're like, "Oh. Wait, that's not cool." Long Duck Dong is not cool or the sort of rape innuendos stuff like that.

Like the many '80s James Spader characters.

Yeah, you're just like, "Oh, okay." But fashion wise, I like Molly Ringwald. Pretty in Pink was such an influence because she just thrifted. Like a friend was saying [about] the footage of her opening her drawers, there's all these vintage bracelets and jewelry, and she was like, "I wanted my room to be like that." So she just thrifted like crazy and now she's got this amazing collection of vintage jewelry, bracelets and stuff like that.

I've always loved mixing, I love the high low. I loving mixing vintage and buying things for nothing, and then I also appreciate fashion and high-end designers. There is a place for them ‘cause I feel like there's definitely a point of view that they have. I also think that's important to buy things of quality because it lasts longer and more people are inclined to recycle that. No one's going to want to hold on to their H&M piece.

You go to thrift stores now, and all you see are Forever 21 and H&M things. Things like Prada are super expensive, but at least it's going to stay out in the world. Upcycle, recycle, lots of pieces. I appreciate the high low mixing and styling, and vintage is better for the environment, too. I like to hold on to encouraging that, so that's why I think we have our store part vintage, too.

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