The Business of Good Style

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Shirley Kurata was 19 when she decided to move to Paris to study fashion. The Los Angeles native had read an article penned by Bill Cunningham in an issue of Details that described a school pushing the boundaries of fashion and culture, and Kurata knew it was her calling.

After studying for three years at Studio Bercot, Kurata moved back to the U.S. to earn her B.A. at California State Long Beach in Fine Art. Since then, she has worked on a range of television, film, print, commercials, videos, and fashion projects, collaborating with the likes of photographer Autumn de Wilde and Juco, designers Rodarte and Peter Jensen, and actors and artists such as Lena Dunham, Miranda July, and Pharrell Williams.

We talk to the stylist about how she found her distinct style, hard work ethic, and how a good outfit can speak louder than words.

How did you get your start as a stylist?

I think your personal career journey starts when you decide what to be and the education you give yourself to fulfill that dream. For me, this started when I was about 12, when my mother taught me how to sew.

I was always interested in fashion and dressing up and dreamt of being a fashion designer. I took sewing lessons in high school and devoured Japanese fashion magazines because I felt like they were so fashion forward. I was also obsessed with French fashion and culture and knew I had to go to Paris to study fashion. I spent three years in Paris at Studio Bercot. It was a fashion school known for its avant garde and forward-thinking curriculum. I knew I had to go there. Going there and absorbing the art and culture was one of the most enriching experiences of my youth.

After Paris, I moved back to Los Angeles, my hometown, to get a degree in art. Having an education in art is invaluable in any career, but almost indispensable if you are working in fashion. At that point I was questioning whether I wanted to work as a fashion or costume designer, but felt that LA was a better environment for costume designing. I interned on numerous low budget films and worked as a costumer on different tv shows and movies for several years to learn the craft.

During that time, I met photographer Autumn de Wilde. We immediately developed a strong kinship due to our mutual interests in art, film, and music. I feel like that was the point where I went from costumer to stylist — when I began to style Autumn’s shoots. I think our first shoot together was with Nancy Sinatra. From there we went on to work with artists such as Beck, Jenny Lewis, Miranda July, Elijah Wood, and Rodarte. I was able to build my portfolio with Autumn’s amazing photography, which then facilitated me working with other photographers and directors and artists.

What were some of the lessons you learned early on?

Styling is definitely a craft, and it takes years to learn the art of it. It involves a lot of hard work and dedication and if you commit to a strong work ethic, it will definitely pay off. You also need to love what you do — it is what drives you to be your best at what you do.

What have been some of the greatest challenges?

Time and money are the two biggest challenges. Many times, you are on a job where you are not given the time that you really need to get things done. Sometimes casting happens late and you don’t get sizes until the night before fittings or a shoot. Or decisions get made last minute and you have to scramble before the costume houses and stores close. I’ve also been on shoots where the budget was very limited and I had to get creative with the little money that I could spend. Styling involves a lot of problem solving and you learn to get really good at that through the years!

You clearly have a pretty distinct style. Was it always so defined? How did you go about creating that?

I went to school from kindergarten to 12th grade wearing a school uniform. I think that drove me to seek out something different and distinct. I also think my love of Japanese fashion really influenced my style. I love how they mix different styles in a way that is so different from American fashion. I also think my love for French new wave cinema is at the root of my love of sixties fashion. And, my love for art influences my love for wearing colors and patterns.

So much of your style seems influenced by Los Angeles, as well as mid-century design, film — what do you consider to be your main influences?

Los Angeles is my hometown, so its had its influence. It is a city that is really a bunch of suburbs grouped together. And with suburbs, you get a variety of subcultures: skaters, surfers, preps, goths, punks. I love all that because these kids learn to develop a style from different sources. From piecing together things from thrift stores, malls, skate shops, their parents’ closet — they find creative ways to display their identity.

Film is another main influence in what I do. I love film almost as much as I love fashion and will always be a student to film. My goal in life is to watch every film in the Criterion catalogue. Film brings so much inspiration to styling.

I read this quote from you: “I think as a stylist you need to understand what that person’s personal style is, and what you can do to enhance it.” (via) How do you bring out others’ personal style?

I think it’s important that a person feels good in their clothes. It should flatter or suit their body, but also embody who they are as a person. I try to find pieces that reflect that. I also like to throw in a few pieces that are outside the box from what they are used to, just to experiment and see.

What would you tell someone looking to discover their own unique style?

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Play around with what makes you feels good. It’s important to feel good with what you are wearing because people feed off of that energy. Positive energy is everything.

You’ve been styling Rodarte runway shows since their very first in 2005. How has that relationship and collaboration evolved over time?

I see it as a play at a theatre. The first performance, though very exciting and fulfilling, might need some nuances worked out, but you figure out what you need to make it better and apply that toward the next one. As each performance goes on, you learn from it and you improve. There are still challenges with runway shows, but I feel like we have learned and grown together a lot.

I am so proud of Kate and Laura [Mulleavy], aka Rodarte, for their ability to constantly design collections that are so creative and so personal. The fact that Vogue named their runway show one of the best of the season, up against fashion giants such as Chanel and Gucci, is true testament to their talent.

What are your ideal types of projects? Any dream projects you haven’t tackled yet?

My ideal projects involve something unique and creative and involves collaborating with people that think outside the box. I’d love to work with directors I have admired for a long time — David Lynch, Wes Anderson, Wim Wenders, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Agnes Varda. I’d also love to work on more period films!

What are you excited about right now?

I am excited about the shows and collaborations that I am involved in with my store Virgil Normal. I hope to continue that as well as branching out the clothing line for it. And of course I am excited and honored to be working with Pharrell and the i am OTHER team.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out on their career?

Hard work, dedication, and positive energy will get you far! Start off interning with people you want to learn from. Styling is not always glamorous and there is a lot of hard work attached to it. So, you have to love it to do it. I’m still learning my craft and will always be a student. Being humble and a being inspired by what I learn allows me to aim to be better and do better and makes what I do more fulfilling.