Thursday, February 02, 2023 | Rajab 10, 1444 H
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The Costume Designer at the Center of the Universes


Shirley Kurata wore a pink long-sleeve T-shirt designed by her husband, Charlie Staunton; a vintage pink floral Comme des Garçons skirt; and yellow and purple Melissa x Opening Ceremony sneaker jellies, one of at least two pairs she owns. The large round L.A. Eyeworks glasses are exclusive to her, in a marbled pattern and tobacco colour called “bronzino.”

Kurata, who gives her age only as “Gen Xer’’, has a signature style, mixing vintage with high-end designers, and is drawn to an intense colour wheel — an exuberant look she has cultivated since her brother’s girlfriend gave her hand-me-down Barbies from the 1960s. (“I thought, ‘Wow, these clothes are so much cuter’ ”than Barbies from the ’80s, she recalled.)

She has brought her aesthetic to the Linda Lindas’ new music video “Growing Up’’, Rodarte’s recently released look book for its fall 2022 collection, the MiuMiu short film “House Comes With a Bird” and Vans’ capsule collection with rapper Tierra Whack. But perhaps most notably, this sought-after costume designer’s original eye was showcased in “Everything Everywhere All at Once’’, this spring’s sleeper hit feature film.

“She’s able to take the dumbest-looking things and turn them into high fashion’’, said Daniel Kwan, who, along with Daniel Scheinert, directed “Everything’’, which is now streaming. “In a lot of ways, she’s a kindred spirit to our process and very much focused on the same endeavour, putting highest and lowest on the same level and showing people maybe they’re two sides of the same coin.”

“A lot of the movie is regular people wearing kind of frumpy things that are very specific to an IRS office or a laundromat, and it was exciting that Shirley was just as passionate about that as the far-fetched, wild aspects of it’’, Scheinert said. “Shirley was a slam-dunk for this movie.”

For the film, Kurata spearheaded the costumes for actors Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu and Jamie Lee Curtis as they traveled between multiple universes — including nearly a dozen wild looks for Hsu, who played Joy Wang, the daughter of a Chinese American couple running a suburban laundromat, as well as the villain Jobu Tupaki.

“The interesting parallel is my parents owned a laundromat, too’’, said Kurata, who grew up in the Los Angeles suburb Monterey Park and attended an all-girls Catholic high school in La Cañada Flintridge. “I really related to Joy’s character.”

Based in Los Angeles, Kurata describes herself as a “creative collaborator.” She has dressed Billie Eilish (including for her current world tour), Whack, Lena Dunham, Jenny Lewis and Pharrell Williams. Among her fans are directors Autumn de Wilde, Cat Solen and Janicza Bravo. And Kurata herself emits an aura of celebrity — as a fashion icon, a model, a muse and a co-owner, along with her husband, of the lifestyle store Virgil Normal — even if fame is not how she measures her success.

The youngest of four children in a Japanese American family, she said she didn’t fit in at her “predominantly white and preppy” school. At a freshman ice cream social, she recounted, “One of the seniors asked me earnestly, ‘Do you speak English?’ ”

“You’re just as American as these other white students’’, she said. “But in terms of the mainstream, there wasn’t much that reflected who you were. It was always a challenge or dilemma to assert your Americanness.”

She expressed herself through fashion.

“I was really into Japanese magazines’’, Kurata said, adding that she loved the fashion and styling and would try to do her own version on “free-dress days’’, when school uniforms weren’t required. “I had a friend that lived in Orange County, and she introduced me to the whole world of thrift shopping.” While studying art at Cal State University Long Beach, she decided to move to Paris to study fashion design.

It was during this formative three-year period attending Studio Berçot, known for its avant-garde curriculum, that Kurata’s interest in film burgeoned. “There was such a big appreciation for film-makers and there would always be film festivals — Godard, Jacques Tati’’, she recalled. “I was like, ‘Who is this Cassavetes?’ I had a thirst for seeing cult and indie films and the fashion in them.”

“I really consider Shirley to be one of the top five stylists in the world’’, said Peter Jensen, chair of fashion at the Savannah College of Art & Design. Jensen founded (and has since sold) a namesake label that once featured a collection inspired by Kurata — with colour-blocked ’60s silhouettes and models all sporting her glasses and hairstyle. “She comes from a fashion design background. She knows the language. She understands the nuance and small elements and how to put all of it together to become a full story.”

Much of her inspiration comes from the world she has built around her, including Virgil Normal, the East Hollywood store she opened with Staunton in 2015 in a former motorcycle-repair shop that was also the hangout for their moped gang Latebirds. The shop’s patio hosts events such as a pop-up for hand-lettered signs by She Chimp, fundraisers and gatherings to rally support around local causes.

Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sisters who founded and are the designers of Rodarte, have worked with Kurata, along with stylist Ashley Furnival, since their first New York show, in 2006. Its fall 2022 collection — presented in a look book instead of a runway show — featured a cast of actors, musicians and directors such as Kathleen Hanna, Rachel Brosnahan, Lexi Underwood and the Linda Lindas. Laura Mulleavy talks to Kurata almost everyday on the phone.

“Shirley is very much connected to a visual narrative’’, Mulleavy said. “Creating character, an intention to come across in the clothing, extreme or subdued, she understands the theatricality. She understands the history of fashion in a very interesting way.”

“The first time we met her it was over Zoom and she had her cat on her lap’’, said the drummer for the Linda Lindas, 11-year-old Mila de la Garza. (Kurata has two black-and-white tuxedo cats, Fanny and Moondog.) “She was already there petting her cat. And she has her glasses. And we were like, ‘Wow, this girl is cool.’”

“For us, it’s important that you’re comfortable and you can move in your clothes and you’re confident in what you’re wearing’’, Lucia de la Garza, 15, a guitarist for the group, said over Zoom as her bandmates nodded in agreement.

That’s what punk is, according to Bela Salazar, 17, another guitarist: “a way of doing things and thinking, so it translates into fashion.” “It’s a way of expressing yourself’’, she added. “And we trusted Shirley.”

Kurata has taken a momentary pause to field scripts before signing on to her next major project since the surprising box-office success of “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

“I don’t want to be working on things for superficial reasons, because I need money or to build my book or whatever — I did that when I was younger’’, she said. “I’m seeing how much the movie has affected people. Being part of something like that means a lot to me, where you see Asian representation not in a clichéd or stereotypical way.”

Kurata is also involved in workers’ rights in her own field, as a board member on pay equity for the Costume Designers Guild. “In film right now, it’s still very much a boys’ club, so throw in being a person of colour, that’s another challenge. I’ve definitely felt that. I think it’s still a battle.”

Though she’s reached a certain level of success, Kurata says she’s far from done.

“For me, it was a long path’’, she said. “It wasn’t like I was discovered, I didn’t have the contacts. I worked on the crappiest low-budget movies for years. It was very slow and it took a lot of hard work to get to where I am now. I’m still not even where I could be, but getting there.” — NYT

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