By Steffie Nelson
Special to the Los Angeles Times
April 17, 2011
Anyone who has set foot in Shareen Vintage, a vast downtown warehouse space lined with endless racks of sparkly cocktail frocks, gauzy hippie robes and an eclectic mix of other garments, will hardly be surprised to learn that the shop's owner, Shareen Mitchell, is starring in a new reality show, "Dresscue Me," premiering Tuesday on Discovery's Planet Green channel.
Tall and blond with sculpted cheekbones and an imperious bearing that reflects her Seven Sisters education and thespian training, Mitchell also has a seventh sense for fashion. Not only is she consistently a few years ahead of the curve, she makes it her mission to match the right piece with the right girl. Her motivation is simple: "I don't like to give up," Mitchell says. "I like to win. I like to be the answer."
Unlike shops where salesgirls hover silently outside the fitting room should they be needed, or maybe disappear altogether, the Shareen approach is strictly hands-on. There are no dressing rooms — hence the big chalkboard sign reading "No Boys Allowed!" And Mitchell and her staff stand by to pull selections from the racks, yank sticky zippers, find a belt or a sash and help women of all sizes safely wriggle into or out of something.
What's more, these vintage gems have been plucked by Mitchell from the mountains of old clothes at the rag factories where she sources 90% of her merchandise. Working fast and buying in bulk, she keeps her stock fresh and her prices low (nothing in the store costs more than $200).
"It's not a glamorous experience," says Mitchell about her weekly forages. "It's physical labor, the buying. If I'm not in a dumpster, I'm bending my body into a bin."
She pauses and laughs. "I think about my friend Evelyn [Ungvari], who owns Diavolina, and how she buys, and I think, how come I'm not sitting with my legs crossed at the end of a beautiful runway in Paris, just writing down very calmly the things I'd like to order? No, I had to pick the business where I'd be buying off the floor of these dark, dingy warehouses."
She shrugs. "But I love the dig. I love the find. I love the excitement of seeing something pretty show up."
Shareen's summer racks are filled with reworked halter dresses and "batwing" tops from her "Shareen Again" line, flowy floral "grunge" dresses, glamorous '70s gowns and acres of re-hemmed minis — "because we're wearing skirts shorter today than ever before, including the Twiggy era," says Mitchell, dressed, as per her usual manner, in a chic black-and-cream silk shift whose indelible stains at the cuffs guarantee that nobody will try to buy it off her back.
A private section of the store for designers and stylists features silhouettes and details that Mitchell "guarantees" will be key in future seasons. "You're wearing mod clean today, but tomorrow you're gonna want neon bright," she pronounces, gesturing toward dozens of Lilly Pulitzer-like smocks and rows of western ruffles, haute peasant pieces a la '70s YSL and a boarding school closet's worth of woolen kilts.
"The fact is," she continues, "all the designers are inspired by vintage, and if you look at the runways, it's all a slightly reworked version of something from before. There's only so many beautiful ways to dress a woman, and I can do that for everybody."
Mitchell arrived at her current career in a roundabout and sometimes painful way, working as an assistant at Mademoiselle and then Vogue after college at Smith, then scouting for Elite models before studying at the Actor's Studio and building a successful film and TV career through the '90s. She appeared in the 1992 drama "American Heart" with Jeff Bridges and had a role on the Tony Danza police comedy "Hudson Street," among many others. But with the rise of reality television, she found herself out of work, and had to babysit and clean friends' houses just to be able to afford to eat.
"I was heartbroken," Mitchell recalls. "I didn't remember what I was good at anymore, and I was too scared to even figure it out. I babysat for a year, and I cried every day."
In the summer of 2004, Mitchell returned to her first love, fashion, opening a small booth at the Melrose Trading Post that caused an immediate sensation with its impeccable selection of dresses at a time when jeans had saturated the market. Through some combination of luck, timing and vision, the booth became a permanent retail space. Celebrities including Kirsten Dunst, Katie Holmes and Ivanka Trump were regular clients, and Shareen Vintage became the best-known fashion secret in L.A.
Seven years later, Mitchell now owns a store in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood and still dresses Trump — who stopped in on a recent L.A. trip, newly married and pregnant — as well as other high-profile clients including Ashlee and Jessica Simpson and art world glamour girl Rosson Crow, who wore a stunning hot pink '80s taffeta dress from the store to last fall's MOCA gala.
The focus of "Dresscue Me," though, isn't about red carpets and bold-face names but the daily dramas of Mitchell and her employees (only two of whom survived the show) and the stories of the women who come through her door. There's a pregnant bride who needs a custom wedding dress, a military wife whose husband is returning from overseas and a tomboy who wants to look pretty at her family reunion.
"When I watch that show I can safely say I'm proud of it," says Mitchell, who insists she returned to TV reluctantly. "I didn't feel secure and confident. It took four fabulous gay men to bring me down," she jokes, referring to Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato and the team at World of Wonder, her producers.
She characterizes "Dresscue Me" as "funny, inspiring, educational and touching." And, she adds, "It turns out I'm a nut job." She bursts out laughing. "I am so arrogant, it is outrageous! But you know what? I can't help it. I will always fight for a woman, and if she doesn't look good in my opinion, she's not buying it."
"Dresscue Me" premieres April 19 at 10:30pm on Discovery Planet Green. For shop information, visit http://www.shareenvintage.com.
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