If sin is unavoidable, then Denise Levesque wants to make it beautiful.
Levesque embraces all things odd because she can’t help it, readily admitting that in another time, she probably would have been burned at the stake.
The Laguna Beach native hopes to fill a void in the area with a brand new shop called “Sin is Pretty,” located at 1850 S. Coast Hwy. It will be a real gothic alternative to Black Friday.
Like something out of “American Horror Story,” Levesque’s shop resembles part vintage clothing store and part insane asylum.
That’s because some of the pieces actually came from the now-closed Agnews Insane Asylum in Santa Clara, such as the still-functioning ether machine.
As in life, there are many inexplicable things that are hard to describe, and you are too afraid to ask: an antique birthing stool, monkey skeletons, 19th century Victorian taxidermy, a portable embalming table, bats, jewelry made out of beetle wings, shoes with vertebrae.
“I’ve gotten people who will say, ‘This kind of scares me.’ And I’ll say, ‘Good,’” Levesque said. “I haven’t gotten a hardcore Christian woman; I haven’t gotten any of that yet. Everyone has been pretty open to it and digging it.”
Tattooed with a fondness for punk rock, Levesque, 31, freely admits she took the long road, detouring through a stint with drugs, early pregnancy and aimlessness. She said she has seen more than 600 punk shows — The Cramps is her all-time favorite band — and became engaged during a Marc Almond concert, lead singer of Soft Cell.
Now almost 10 years sober with college under her belt, she never lost sight of owning her own business and giving back to Laguna.
“Growing up here, I just want something different,” she said. “Most of what I sell is my oddity type things.” “I just want to bring that odd side back to Laguna like when I was a teenager. I love that.”
She is not alone.
There is the TV show “Oddities” that has made mummified cats, straightjackets and art assembled from nail clippings mainstream.
Levesque laments the popularity in some ways because it turns everything into a freak show competition.
“It’s a little discouraging,” she said. “I started doing all this stuff when it was still early, so I’ve watched it become more popular. Like tattoos, I think it’s just become more mainstream.”
For Levesque, it’s more about the art and the quality of the corset stitching.
A trained seamstress, she makes her own custom corsets, among many other obscure talents.
“I do a little bit of my own taxidermy. I articulate skeletons. I’ll find remains and do all that kind of stuff,” she said. “I used to make chicken bone jewelry in high school.”
Even before she had her own shop, she would sell her creations on the street outside her parent’s upholstery store on Ocean Avenue. The store was started in the 1940s by her grandfather.
“I called it the ‘Bizarre Bazaar’ because I had little oddities,” she said.
She doesn’t adhere to any particular beliefs. She is not a witch. There is often nothing more symbolic in some of her art other than she just felt like creating it in a certain way — albeit twisted.
Like the statue of the Virgin Mary with deer horns.
“There is the Latin phrase, ‘memento mori,’ remembering death,” Levesque said. “It’s like bringing darkness to light. That’s my edge, it’s girlie, nice stuff, but it’s got a little bit of an edge to it.”
She feels that sins are pretty only if they are brought to life.
“I’ve tried to turn my life around but still stay true to myself and what I believe,” she said. “I think me coming out of the darkness and into the light — it goes together in a weird way. It kind of signifies my life.”
It’s a life that most people only embrace in broken pieces, sins that we may acknowledge but try to forget.
On her website, she describes it as “talismanic affectations, unordinary and insane, Victorian, decycled, mangled vintage patterns, apothecary, funeral, corsets, taxidermy, vintage patterns, steampunk, deathrock, hobo, macabre, jewelry, bones, feathers, fur, fangs, gnashing teeth, poison, oddities … and more.”
It’s the kind of store where you stand and stare much longer than you should, trying to grapple with the meaning and history.
You stare at Krampus pulling the hair of a bad little girl.
You stare, dumbstruck, at the real baby skeleton.
Nearby is a very old “practical burial slipper,” marketed for its ease of use.
You stare at all of these things, as if looking in a blurry mirror, not wanting to admit that you fit right in.
DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at email@example.com.