We chatted to New York-based vintage fashion designer and blogger, Laura Okita.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Laura Okita. I’m originally from Boulder, Colorado, but now live in Brooklyn, New York. I worked as a model for over 10 years in New York and Europe. I have had a basket full of odd jobs in several industries, but finally in the last two years, have had the courage to pursue my passion. I am now working as a boutique custom designer and curate a vintage store online. I would have to say that I finally decided to listen to my heart and break away from the world of desks and answering telephones when I began dating my husband. We met when he came to the Dojo where I was a beginner learning Kendo (Japanese Fencing). He had just moved to New York from Japan and was quite an impressive Kendo player. The connection was instant and we began collaborating on work together. I would teach him English and he would teach me to be free.
Why a blog?
When I worked as a model, I was always a part of the shoot, but never had much influence in direction. Most of the time, models don't even get to see the reference for a shoot. I wanted a place where I could be free to express myself creatively. I love that blogging has made it possible to connect and share with so many other designers and vintage enthusiasts. It’s really a pleasure to see everyone’s perspective on vintage.
Who or what inspires you?
I've been lucky in my life to have so many strong women around me. My grandmother was a model, a seamstress and a waitress all at the same time - and she had six kids. Her father, my great-grandfather, was a farmer. She says he needed another boy in the family since her older brothers had started their own lives, so she was going to have to be his boy. She never let anyone push her around and went for what she wanted. She is always laughing, always working and always inspiring me to be like her. She taught me to sew when I was little. "You have to take it out and do it again if it’s not correct!" I remember sitting on her sewing room floor and making dresses for my dolls while she worked and listened to Patsy Cline.
Style-wise I am inspired by film noir, old Broadway shows like Ziegfeld's Follies and couture fashion. My favourite eras are the 1930s-40s, but my favourite designers are Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. Everything that they made was so glamorous and detailed. In a recent conversation with my history literature teacher from high school she said: "There was a time when going to the grocery store in your pyjamas was just not acceptable." - referring to when women used to wear a hat and gloves when leaving the house. I like that. I like putting oneself together and looking nice. Daily fashion used to rely more on impeccable style rather than being comfortable.
When sourcing for your online store, is there anything specific that you look for?
My online store includes both vintage items and my personal designs. My personal designs are all made by hand, by myself, and could be anything from aprons and collars to evening wear or wedding dresses. I usually only add about one a month because I want to give each piece the proper amount of time and care.
When I source vintage pieces, I look for something unusual that has great detail or bright colours. When I find an item, I like my first impression to be: no! Then, when I take a second look at it, I think, this is awesome and different. I want the items in my shop to inspire someone to be a little daring or creative.
What’s it like living in New York?
When I first moved to New York it was too big for me. I wasn't used to so many people. Everywhere is busy and fast-paced. Now, after seven years, I am in love with New York and if I ever have to leave, I will always think of it as my home. New York constantly gives you those great “wow” moments that you see in movies. Standing on a street corner at sunset, you can look down the avenue and see magnificent tall buildings shimmering in a golden sunset. Streets at night are filled with the red and white glow of taxi lights, the fashion of 5th avenue is always glamorous and the true grandeur of the architecture is almost surreal. The best part about living in New York is that it has everything. You name it, New York has it.
Favourite places to visit in New York?
My husband and I have a weekend routine: every Saturday, we wake up, dress up in our vintage best (of course), and go to brunch at Juliette. It’s a little french café with vintage countryside décor and the best Eggs Benedict I've ever had. Then we walk up and down Bedford Avenue, which is full of vintage shops along with the Brooklyn Flea Market.
My favourite vintage store in New York is in Soho, What Goes Around Comes Around. It has stunning pieces from the 30s and 40s that are in perfect condition. It’s more like visiting a fashion gallery.
If you agree that diamonds really are a girl's best friend, then you will love Doyle & Doyle. Located in the Lower East Side, they showcase antique estate jewelry. It’s worth stopping by just to make a wish list.
My guilty pleasure is sampling all the bakeries and ice-cream shops. I actually go in and ask for two of everything!
Empire bakery in Chelsea has my favourite cookies, and Sundaes and Cones in the East Village is a must since they carry Japanese flavours like black sesame.
The best hang out for relaxation is Bryant Park. It’s in the center of the city with cafés and shops all around. They show movies outdoors in the summer behind the library. One of our first dates was watching a Monty Python movie there on the lawn.
You really can't choose just one museum in New York, but the museum at FIT is great for fashion history. They frequently rotate the exhibits, so you can visit more than once.
Your favourite people to follow on Instagram?
I follow Pat McGrath on Instagram. She posts work from the span of her career. It’s a daily feed of editorial history; all the trends in make-up and fashion for the last 10 years.
I also follow Vintage Gallery who posts old Hollywood movie starlet portraits. When I see actresses like Lauren Bacall or Louis Brooks, I instantly feel inspired to create something I think they would wear.
Atomic Art Haus is new for me. It’s something a little different - vintage pin-up atomic comic illustrations from the 1950s.
If you could go back 50 years in time, who would you love to have tea with?
I would love to have tea with Andy Warhol. He was a true bohemian, innovator and very daring by mixing pop culture into art. He was brave for sharing his creations and his life freely. Not to mention the fact that he was openly gay before social movements made it acceptable. I would like to know how he thought, where he drew his inspiration from and what his creative process was. The chance to speak with such a ingenious mind would be an experience of a lifetime. I probably wouldn’t remember to drink my tea!
What advice can you give to aspiring fashion designers?
Follow your dream and don't give up. Making it in the fashion industry often depends on those who are persistent and want it the most. Don't forget that it’s your passion and remember to have fun and enjoy what you do. Believe in your work and in yourself.
What does vintage mean to you?
Vintage to me is an escape. It’s like a daydream or a great book. The possibilities of the imagination in a vintage world are endless. Every piece has its own story, a secret life hidden within it, waiting to be appreciated, used, and loved once again. Old things seem to have an aura about them that they actually feel different. When I put on a dress from the 40s, I become that woman. I walk differently, I see things differently, I can imagine the story behind its creation. Maybe it was a girl waiting for her sweetheart to come home from overseas. She would start by carefully choosing a pattern from the mail catalogue. She would then walk some distance to the bus and ride into town to select the perfect fabric. She would sew for long hours into the night after work. It had to be perfect for that moment she dreamed of, waiting for him with anticipation. Everything has a story to share with us, to whisk us away into its past.
Visit Laura's blog: www.papermothballvintage.com
Photographs by Laura and Yusuke Okita