So far, this spring has been a plodding one. I’ve been working so hard on the next Rei book for that I’m feeling a bit fuzzy and plan a shopping break tomorrow with my mother.
Still, my thoughts aren’t far from Rei, who’s also experiencing the Ides of March, but in Tokyo. How I wish I could get her into something cuter than what she’s been wearing for the last couple of chapters ( men’s jeans, and a newsboy cap and North Fleece down coat). I had an email conversation with Sabrina Chun, a Facebook friend and longtime reader about Rei’s fashion style, and the fashion challenges for petite women who exist outside the world of fiction. You can check out Sabrina’s outfits at her blog, thepetitestyle.com.
Q: Sabrina, tell us about where you grew up and how you became a fashionista.
Sabrina: I grew up in the Bay Area (the East Bay, specifically) in a small city forty minutes from San Francisco. Even at a very young age, I still remember my grandmother buying patterns and cloth, sitting at her sewing machine and making me clothes. Ever since then, I’ve always been interested in what to wear, how to wear it, and to wear it well. I also loved reading magazines. Certain haute couture editorials and spread for each season struck me as so beautiful and creative! Also, fittingly enough, novels and literature played a major role. I really enjoy it when authors describe what their characters are wearing–which is part of the reason why I love Rei Shimura so much!
Q. You’ve mentioned that you enjoy the clothing in the Rei books–thanks a lot. Are there any outfits that stand out in particular books?
Sabrina: I’m an enormous fan of vintage. Like Rei, I adore rummaging through my mother’s closet to borrow pieces, although they’re lesser known Taiwanese brands from the 1960s and ’70s. Rei’s style strikes me as feminine but functional; she seems to only favor heels when needed. I love how she runs from professional to dressy to casual, just like me. This is exemplified in The Flower Master, where she is first shown in a casual outfit with her beloved Asics, then is in a flirty little red slip dress and heels on a night out, and later is dressed in an exquisite Japanese kimono for a party.
Q. Rei wears kimono more often than the typical woman in Japan. What are your feelings about young Asian American women wearing national dress?
Sabrina: I greatly encourage young women to embrace their cultures! Although I’m definitely very much an American girl in most respects, I do love my Chinese and Hawaiian background. When the occasion arises, I try to wear cultural clothing; for this past Lunar New Year, I donned a qipao (traditional Chinese dress for women). And there are definitely ways to take traditional items and make them modern again. For example, in one of my posts I wear Chinese style shoes that work surprisingly well with my outfit.
Q. Have you encountered any fashion violations in my books that make you cringe (like her running wear)?
Sabrina: As a whole, I very much enjoy Rei’s fashion choices. But like you mentioned, I would probably nix her wearing athletic shoes (that is, if she’s not actually running). My personal picks are heels, boots or flats, but I understand that a sleuth would need to get around quickly!
Q. There is usually a climactic scene toward the end of each book where Rei winds up wearing a dramatic costume to pull off solving the mystery. She wore anime attire in The Floating Girl, a formal kimono in The Bride’s Kimono, a Lolita look in The Typhoon Lover, and dyed her hair blond for Girl in a Box. Did any of these transformations speak to you?
Sabrina: I have noticed and I love it! It speaks of Rei’s incredible resourcefulness, cleverness and versatility. To me, those costumes are not only interesting to read about, but they serve to further emphasize to both the audience and our heroine what has been learned in regards to a different Japanese subculture–be it Zen Buddhism, anime and manga, or the intricate details of Japanese kimono.
Q. Hugh wears Thomas Pink shirts and Hugo Boss as well as other European labels. Michael dresses all-American in Brooks Brothers. Takeo wavers between Greenpeace T-shirts and loose linen Japanese designer suits. Who’s hottest? Do you have tips for any of them on how to look better?
Sabrina: The hottest for me would have to be Hugh. I’ve always had a bit of a crush on him (and how could I not, as he’s described as looking like a younger Harrison Ford!) I’ve always liked that the three men in Rei’s life are distinctive in their fashion choics. And Hugh’s keen eye for style and interest in Rei’s closet reminds me of my own boyfriend.
As for tips…I’d say that Hugh and Michael could definitely go a different direction for casual wear, maybe invest in jeans (some nice A.P.C. ones, perhaps?). And some classic plain black tees, like Takeo. Speaking of which, I actually rally love his casual style. His vintage Levis speak to my heart. I’m not really one for loose-fitting suits (though I’m sure it looks delicious on him), but I’d advise that he get one or two of them fitted.
Q. Rei has a longtime best friend, Richard, who happens to be gay. For a fashionable young woman, is a gay BFF an asset?
Sabrina: San Francisco is pretty much the gay capitol of the States, so I definitely have more than my fair share of gay friends and coworkers. However, I think that’s a bit of a misperception that’s been popularized by the media and fashion world. In my opinion, you don’t need a gay BFF–anyone who has a sharp eye for style is golden and allowed to romp around Union Square or hunt for sweet vintage finds down in LA with me!
Q. Do Asian women–and small-boned or petite women in general–face unique clothes challenges? If so, what are some things that drive you crazy, and how have you remedied it?
Sabrina: Ah…I could write an essay on this! While being small does have its advantages, there are definitely disadvantages as well. Just the other day at work, I was significantly dressed down for Casual Friday and a coworker kindly pointed out that “I looked like I could be in the fourth grade.” One really can’t do much when someone thinks that you’re supposed to be snapping gum and mouthing off to math teachers, but I do believe you can make outfit, hair and makeup decisions that make you look older, more mature and commanding of the respect you deserve.
And yes, I’m guilty of frequenting both the juniors and children’s department for certain items. Actually, Zara can be on point with their kids’ department. I’ve gotten some excellent skinny black pants and the most amazing trench there.
Q: Have you ever had the experience in the US of being mistaken for a foreigner (I have!).
Sabrina: This hasn’t happened too often, as I’ve been very blessed to have grown up in this fairly diverse melting pot that is the Bay Area. However, although I’m fifth-generation American, my Asian face has definitely been viewed as foreign by the more ignorant. This ranges from “You speak excellent English!” to outright racial slurs. Let’s just say that the latter hasn’t been met with polite or civil replies. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened in recent years.
Q: How is fashion in Hawaii different than on the US Mainland, and what trends should Rei consider?
Sabrina: She should invest in lots of slippers and flip-flops! Haha. And loose dresses. But overall, her casual street style would not be out of place on the islands. To me, fashion in Hawaii strikes me as quite similar to Southern California–laid-back, casual, and quite beach-oriented.
Thanks to Sabrina for this amusing and thoughtful interview. Until she becomes a features writer for Vogue (I hope) you can find her pictures and writing at thepetitestyle.com.