Shirley Kurata, who is nominated for the Oscar on Sunday for Best Costume Design on “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” was also behind the scenes of one of the most memorable fashion runway shows of the women’s fall 2023 season: Rodarte’s Gothic fairytale.
She’s styled the California label’s shows since fall 2006, and never missed a season, even when she was filming the movie and had to rush out the door from the fall 2020 show and hop on a plane to be back on set.
Working on Rodarte’s runway shows — which take inspiration from everything from Japanese slasher films to vampires to the gritty Santa Cruz, California, boardwalk — was not unlike working on Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s film, a tender family story wrapped up in a bonkers multiverse adventure.
“The shows Kate and Laura [Mulleavy] do are almost like short films. For this season, the mood was very Goth, black dresses, slinky and long, and then easing into this Victorian world and sprinkling in elements of color and ending with these fairy gowns that their mother did the drawings for, and this amazing silver winged look,” says Kurata. “There is a story there and it’s very similar to how you’d design a movie in what emotions you want to represent in a scene. A show is more immediate, but you want to build something, a feeling of drama, etherealness.”
Kurata is an L.A. style fixture with a bespectacled image that makes her as recognizable as another legendary film costume designer. “I did always love Edith Head,” she says.
She has worked on videos with the Linda Lindas, a world tour with Billie Eilish, styled Jenny Lewis and Tierra Whack, and done campaigns for brands Miu Miu, Melissa and Vans, not to mention tons of commercial work for Westfield, Target and more. And she’s a retailer, co-owner of Virgil Normal in East Hollywood, a former motorcycle shop turned clubhouse that stocks up-and-coming labels.
The collaboration between Kurata and Rodarte came through an introduction from mutual friend, film director/photographer Autumn de Wilde. “The day before the show, we realized we didn’t know how to organize or coordinate getting everyone dressed,” says Laura Mulleavy, explaining that Kurata flew out that night. “She’s been one of our best friends ever since.”
Kurata, who won the award for best sci-fi/fantasy film at the 2023 Costume Designers Guild Awards, will be wearing Rodarte to the Oscars on Sunday.
“It’s very rare with modern costume design to be recognized and the fact this [film] was shows how the community has been so behind this film,” says Mulleavy.
For Kurata, the movie is a culmination of 20 years in the fashion and entertainment business.
She was brought onto the project by one of its producers, Jonathan Wang, whom she’d worked with before on commercials.
“I am super grateful they took a chance with me,” says Kurata, explaining that The Daniels gave her a Pinterest page of looks they thought were cool, but gave her the freedom to have fun. “They said make costumes people will want to dress up in for Halloween,” says Kurata. “And this past Halloween, I was very relieved!
“The budget for the entire film was probably the budget for one Marvel costume, so it was very tight,” she says, noting she took inspiration for Jobu Tupaki/Joy Wang’s multiverse-jumping personas from everything from Comme des Garçons to Jeremy Scott’s teddy bear-covered streetwear.
Kurata is from a Japanese American family but grew up in Monterey Park, California, where her parents owned a laundromat, like the Chinese American immigrant family in the film.
“Growing up, I’d often tag along with my mom or dad, so that whole story of being the daughter of an immigrant family, I totally understood that. Also the generational trauma Joy was going through and the disconnect, even just the language. But I also know my parents would sacrifice their life for me. Even though it was never spoken,” says Kurata. “Sometimes ‘I love you’ comes out as ‘you’re getting fat.’ Or with my mom, it was ‘why don’t you get some contact lenses?'”
(Kurata’s eyeglasses have become such a personal style trademark, they landed her a campaign with L.A. Eyeworks.)
When she was researching how to dress laundromat owner Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), she went to her own mom and looked at her fleece vest. “Definitely an Asian mom thing,” says Kurata. “I also went to Chinatown in L.A., to Saigon Plaza. I got lots of things there.”
Meanwhile, daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) has a disaffected look. “We wanted to show she was rebelling against her mother, and dressing grunge was a way she was doing it.”
IRS agent Dierdre (Jamie Lee Curtis) was all mustard-yellow schlump — and no padding. “She would just relax her body and let it all out, it was great,” says Kurata.
Joy’s alter ego Jobu Tupaki’s multiverse skipping looks range from a Comme des Garcons-inspired jumble to designer head-to-toe tartan designed by Claudia Li. “This was pre-COVID[-19], but for me it was Asian. I said let’s have her wear a matching mask and visor and we will see this all plaid look.”
With the rise in anti-Asian sentiment, Kurata is humbled by the attention the film has gotten.
“It’s great we proved a movie with Asian leads could be successful…There’s this whole thing about immigrants are dangerous or freeloaders, and the majority who are here just want to make a better life for their family and the movie did show that. And for me, success isn’t always proven by financial success. Ke [Waymond Wang] to me, his character’s weapon is kindness. To me, he’s spiritually successful, and on your deathbed, do you want to look back on how many mansions and cars you had, or were you a good person? To highlight that without being in your face is a really important story and message.”
Next up, she wants to keep doing a little bit of everything, including running Virgil Normal, where now people stop in to talk about the film as well as shop chef pants by L.A. workwear brand Meals, snap back hats by Free And Easy, and the shop’s own brand of Ts and hoodies with artwork urging “Let’s Get Nice.”
“We’re surviving, I guess, in the sort of post-COVID[-19] world,” Kurata says of the business she opened in 2015 with her husband Charlie Staunton. “I think that having a sense of community is really important to us, so it’s kind of a labor of love, you know? We’re not making a lot of money but it’s very fulfilling to be able to meet new people and showcase cool designers or artists and have a place for people to hang out.”
After all these years, Kurata is still inspired by L.A.
“The skate culture, the surf culture, it’s a little more laid-back, and seeing people who aren’t part of the hipster scene…” she says.
It’s its own multiverse.