Shirley Kurata / Inside Story
This Los Angeles wardobe stylist for Rodarte, Elijah Wood, and Autumn De Wilde brings groovy personal style to an A-frame in the hills.
In the age of ever-trending online retail and education via Google image search, the concept of “personal style” is often mercurial and compulsive. A trip to Urban Outfitters, some blog recon of the Sub Pop catalogue, a smattering of “My So-Called Life” quotes and voila: insta-grunge. That is the great gift of the Internet—it makes a wealth of abridged information available in a single click, thereby giving us endless opportunities for referenced reinvention.
That is also what makes a person like Shirley Kurata so special; her style is truly personal—evolved from experience, curated with care, developed through calculated exposure to culture and then filtered through a singular, extraordinary eye.
Shirley is a wardrobe stylist who works with equally individualistic designers, photographers, and artists like Peter Jensen, Rodarte, Beck, Elijah Wood, Miranda July, and Autumn De Wilde. Her inspired editorials regularly grace the pages of Paper Magazine. She has worked for Target, Oliver Peoples, and countless other companies known for their unique approach to advertising. Great stylists must be chimerical, but they must also have a signature. Shirley’s signature is her deft use of strong shapes and bold color; her work is a retro tip of the hat, but maintains an unconventional simplicity, and sometimes a subtle cheekiness as well.
These stylistic calling cards pervade not only her professional portfolio but also her clothing, her home, and its contents. In each, she employs a perfect ratio of vintage and modern elements to create an environment that is perfectly Shirley, (or as she calls it, “futuristic folky”). We paid a visit to her space-age hilltop Shangri La in the Franklin Hills area on the Los Feliz/Silver Lake border and saw first hand what makes Shirley Kurata a true original.
Nothing Major: So, your house is amazing—it seems to sit in a groovy little midcentury enclave hidden in the hills. How did you find this place?
Shirley Kurata: I knew I wanted a midcentury modern house and looked for a while. I drove around a lot looking for things that might be hidden, but I had no idea this place existed. A lot of midcentury modern houses are so cold and impersonal—I liked that the houses up here had sort of a ski cabin feel—something folky and warm. It's like a little campsite tucked up in a knoll—it feels like you’re not really in the middle of a city.
Do you know anything about the architect?
The architect was Stephen Alan Siskind. He designed all of these houses. Mine was built in 1962 and apparently he was only in his early twenties when it was built. He built a few places in the Silverlake area before moving to Miami, Florida.
What was the house like when you found it?
When I saw the house it was a mess—broken windows, bad floors—but I knew that it had good bones. A neighbor told me I could move around all the inside walls. They’re totally modular and can be rearranged because the structure is self-supporting. It’s a rounded A-frame.
Do you find that you “style” your house the same way you style clothes at a shoot?
It's kind of a battle because I’m trying to be more of a minimalist—in my work and at home—but as a stylist its hard to get rid of things, so there’s the pack rat in me and there’s also the part that wants to eliminate the tchotchkes and keep it clean. I try to style the clutter as much as I can.
Your work, your home, and the way you dress all share the same strong visual vocabulary and aesthetic sense– you kind of physically match your house. With anyone else that could read really over the top, but your sense of style is so well developed it works.
I really love the whole ‘60s aesthetic, as well as the ‘70s—a little bit futuristic and a little bit folky. That reflects also in how I dress—I wear a lot of vintage but I mix it with a lot of new stuff. That mixture is important, I don’t want to be the extra in “Mad Men” or something, where it’s just one style. It’s too specific, costume-y.
Are there any product designers whose work really sums up that aesthetic for you? I see a lot of Alexander Girard.
Definitely Girard. Joe Colombo. Verner Panton. I like things that are a little bit warmer—pops of yellow and orange. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s that cold modern interior with the standard Eames chair—it’s kind of lifeless. I think with almost everything, you want something that’s unique, that has personality. Otherwise it feels like a uniform. That’s what’s cool about finding things at thrift stores; they’re a little more lived in, they have character.
Do you usually have an idea or a look in mind when you start a new project, or do you just let the content determine the direction you go?
It’s both ways. When there is an existing collection, like Peter Jensen, he often bases his collection on a muse, and that muse can morph along the way. The last collection had a very Hitchcock feel, so we based the shoot on that vibe, playing with black and white and color—the effects he uses for his dream sequences—that all came after seeing the clothes. But Karlheinz Weinberger’s photos inspired the shoot I did with the Latebirds. I thought: “These are so cool, how can we use this?” In that instance, the idea came before.
What type of media do you turn to for inspiration? You mentioned photography. What about movies, music?
It depends on the project but it’s usually a combination of the three. I like to reference photographers. I have so many favorites: David Bailey, Richard Avedon, Jean-Marie Perier, William Eggleston, Cecil Beaton, Tim Walker, Guy Bourdin and Malick Sidibe. Films are also a big influence: David Lynch, Godard, William Klein, Jodorowsky, Agnes Varda, Stanley Kubrick. And there are musicians that will always be influential and iconic: Bowie, Patti Smith, early Rolling Stones, Beatles, Dylan, the Band—those names often come up as style references. But I also love musicians whose style sets them apart from everyone else, like Siouxsie Sioux, or Klaus Nomi.
Are you inspired by the Internet?
It's definitely helpful when you have to do research and need references—much easier than going to the library. But I feel like there’s something sort of inauthentic about it all, this self-promotion with blogs and Twitter and Instagram. It takes away something. That’s why I started getting back into records. People would give me digital music and I wouldn’t really listen to it—maybe a song, but I didn’t appreciate music like I used to. With records, you’re seeking something out and actually paying attention to it. It's sort of like going back to a simpler place and time.
It seems that even with myriad sources for inspiration, fashion is very self-referential. We see the same trends over and over again. Is it possible to do something truly “new”?
I think that fashion has a twenty-year cycle. In the ‘80s there was sort of a ‘60s revival, and so on. It’s a constant battle to find something new and creative when everything has basically been done before. What you have to find is a way to take what's been done and make it your own—to add a twist to it.
A lot of your shoots with Autumn De Wilde have that twist—an element of surprise or something surreal. You have been working together for a long time. What is that process like?
We usually just get on the phone and go “Okay, what should we do?” If we have a loose direction, we just take it and start brainstorming. Sometimes it goes off onto a crazy tangent that we have to reign in, but even when we’re shooting the idea often morphs into something else. I was trying to find accessories for an editorial we did for Paper, and I was at Necromance here in L.A. and noticed these buttons—one said ACID and the other said LSD and I thought “These are perfect for something… I don’t know what.” The magazine wanted it to be a little whimsical or surreal, and so I put them on a girls cardigan and we shot it. It was very subtle, no other drug references, but it felt kind of “Twin Peaks” where something is just a little bit off.
You mentioned being inspired by David Lynch. Do you have a dream collaborator, someone you would love to work with?
I’d love to work on a Wes Anderson film. Also Jodorowsky, that would be amazing. As far as fashion goes: Marni, Prada. I am always attracted to their ad campaigns and think their stuff is really inspiring.
As a stylist, do you find it hard not to be influenced by what other people in your industry are doing? How do you combat that?
I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a certain type of stylist—I want to constantly reinvent. Right now I’m trying to be a bit more modern and clean with my work. I know the importance of having my aesthetic reflect in my work, but also not forcing it on others. It’s important to know and understand the aesthetic of who you are dressing. Often it’s totally different from my own. I think what is key is that the styling reflects who the subject is as a person, and that it has a unique and modern sensibility.
Browse Shirley's portfolio at shirleykurata.com