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Her Secret Stash

In a downtown warehouse, up a flight of stairs, Shareen Mitchell helps her 'girls' find the perfect vintage dress.

June 17, 2007|Elizabeth Khuri | Times Staff Writer

"I'M sorry I can't sell that to you," Shareen Mitchell says to a customer squeezed into a tight black dress that bunches at the neck. "The size is all wrong."

"That needs a slip," she says to another, who models a sheer 1950s shirtdress. Then she grabs a black one and matches it with the navy dress. "That looks very chic, don't you think?"

"You're wearing that waist too low," she tells a young girl trying on a magenta and turquoise striped dress that looks like a circus tent, with gigantic puffed sleeves. Mitchell fastens a thick black belt around the girl's middle. "Pull it higher; right now it looks dowdy."

On Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, a stream of artists, designers, stylists, fashionable teenagers, vintage junkies, "It" girls and wannabe "It" girls journey deep into the industrial heart of Los Angeles, climb a flight of green stairs and enter Shareen Vintage. There awaits a barely discovered gem of a vintage store where owner Shareen Mitchell offers not only a handpicked selection but also an unabashed eye for what works and what doesn't.

"I'm funny about who owns what," she says. "My true philosophy is that I want everyone to look great and cute."

Amid a wrought iron bed, odd antique chairs and antique full-length mirrors, women wiggle in and out of clothes in the middle of the room and eye one another's finds. The collective energy seems more like a giddy slumber party than a Rodeo Drive boutique. And it's OK to be naked, Mitchell assures: No boys are allowed.

Mitchell's salon-slash-shop has drawn a following that includes Brooke Shields and Zooey Deschanel, and players from the art world such as Amanda Fairey and Emi Fontana, who appreciate not only her brutally honest advice but also her vintage wedding dresses, cotton sundresses, '70s printed polyester dresses, puffy '50s numbers, furs, clutches, thigh-high boots, mod-girl minis and two-tone '40s pumps. Here fashion insiders find their epic pieces and the assurance that the look is right for them.

"What really makes a difference is that she's trying to style you," says Maisie Tsui, a sales associate at Oilily and an aspiring clothing designer. "The personal attention is truly unique."

Styling comes naturally to Mitchell. She worked as part of what she calls the "Fashion Army" at Mademoiselle and Vogue magazines and the Elite modeling agency. Then came a second career as an actress at the Actors Studio in New York and on ABC's "Hudson Street."

After a eureka-like moment at a vintage store, Mitchell set up shop in 2004 at the Melrose Trading Post, an outdoor flea market in the Fairfax High School parking lot, with two racks of Chloe-inspired dresses. The idea was to sell vintage, but vintage with her imprint. Instead of musty, straight-from-the-closet dresses that only a grandma could love, Mitchell washed, mended and altered the hemlines, sometimes lopping off dresses at the upper thigh. She also added ribbons, 2-inch waistbands and petticoats, and recommended that her "girls" wear the dresses with boots and hard belts.

"That trend of dresses ...." Her words trail off as she becomes excited by the memory.

"At that flea market booth, something happened there. Every girl started to buy dresses and wear dresses and come back to me and say, 'I don't ever wear my jeans anymore.' "

Mitchell eventually moved the business to her current location just east of downtown. She also launched a reworked vintage line called Shareen Again.

And, inspired by what her customers reach for and the shapes that look good on them, she created her own line, Shareen, which is sold in Los Angeles at Diavolina, Dari, Milk and Fred Segal and at Poppy in New York.

"Out of vintage," she says, "we do see the future of fashion."

Now Mitchell's vintage buying has reached a national scale, and she's busy with her new lines. But she still seems happiest when dressing her "girls" and fussing over their outfits. Each week she introduces new racks, and every third Saturday of the month she sells dresses for $1 to $3.

"Girls leave with sheets full of dresses," says Mitchell, who actually wraps the mass purchases in bed linens. "It's very playful and festive in here."

elizabeth.khuri@latimes.com

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Little dresses with a past and a future

Shareen Vintage, 350 N. Avenue 21, Los Angeles; (323) 276-6226. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, noon to 6 p.m. Sundays. www.shareenvintage.com.

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