Interview: Alicia Estrada, Founder and Head Designer of Stop Staring!

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A model shows off some Alicia Estrada designs

By Gareen Darakjian, Special to LAist

Now that the future is looking grim, maybe embracing the past isn’t such a bad idea. While fashionistas look to ultramodern silhouettes for inspiration, Stop Staring! founder and head designer Alicia Estrada sees her visions in black and white. With a retro sensibility stitched through every piece, the vintage-inspired label which launched in 1996 samples from every era starting with the silver screen siren of the 40s to the groovy 60s pin-up to produce the ultimate in feminine fashion. As a begrudgingly aspiring accountant, the former punk chick could have never imagined trading invoices for inseams, but climbing the couture ladder, she discovered the formula for the perfect fit. We chatted with Alicia about her days of donning shower curtains, Paris Hilton’s brand loyalty and confessed our envy of her college experience. Hanging out with Sublime and No Doubt pre-fame? Jealous. ~

What about retro clothing draws you?

Back in my college days, I really loved retro. I was punked out and into bands like The Cramps and Agent Orange. I’d make my own clothes to mimic 60s meets punk rock. I’d wear leopard cigarette pants and fancy 40s-style dresses and turn them into punkish type dresses. I was really into the 60s in college. When everyone started wearing low rise pants and tube tops, it wasn’t punk anymore to me, so I decided to switch it up. As a girl who loved to be different, I naturally stared going 50s.

When did you start designing?

I actually started sewing at age 16. I have six sisters and three brothers and money was kind of tight, so my mom taught us the basics of hemming and patching so we could sew our own clothes. We wore a lot of hand me downs so I had to get creative to wear clothes that matched my personality. I took it to the next level just sewing and sewing and eventually bought a heavy $30 machine and kept practicing.

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Alicia Estrada
How did the clothing line come about?

The Cramps were playing at Hootenanny and it was turning into such a cool rockabilly scene. In my pursuit of being different, I took my dresses to the show because I saw people selling vintage. My stuff ended up taking off and sold out like wildfire. I got a few indie stores to pick up my dresses and that really got it started. I didn’t even see it coming. I was planning to work my 9-5 job and just sew on the side, but I realized, “Wow! This is fun!” I’m not just going to party at these shows, I’m going to try to invent something. I eventually went to Cal State Fullerton for accounting but dropped out after two semesters after my clothing line took off. My professor noticed how well I was doing and pulled me aside and actually encouraged me to drop out! I never thought I would be a designer. I figured I would become an accountant like my sister and sew as a hobby.

How did you come up with the name “Stop Staring!”?

In my punk college days, I was literally making skirts out of shower curtains and everyone was always staring at me. I loved the attention, so one day I got the idea to write “Stop Staring!” on the back of my skirt with a black sharpie in punk rock letters. At that point, I couldn’t even imagine starting a clothing line, but I would joke that if it did happen, I would name it Stop Staring! I remember hanging out with Sublime and going to No Doubt shows when they would play in the coffee house on campus. I remember the No Doubt guys yelled “Stop Staring!” one day when I walked by them in my skirt. After one of their shows, Gwen came up to me and said she loved my dresses and we chatted about how we both sewed and made our own clothes. No Doubt eventually wrote a song “Staring Problem” and she sings about a girl she is jealous of who is wearing really cool clothes. The song goes, “S-T-A-R-I-N-G I can’t stop staring.” I don’t know if it’s about me, but that would be really cool!

LAist loves that your designs come in many different sizes. Was this intentional?

Actually, in college, I was a size medium, then I went up to a size large, and eventually to an extra large. Because my body was fluctuating, it was natural that I started designing for curvier body types. It was cool because then I got to see firsthand, being my own fit model, how body shapes change from one size to the next. Becoming a size 14 was meant to happen because it taught me so much about size range and grading and how bodies change. I made my dresses up to size 18, and some even up to size 26 simply because I wanted to be able to wear them. My clothes are made specifically to show off our curves, flatten our tummies, but accentuate the bust with a V-neck and higher arms with cap and raglan sleeves.

What is your favorite piece from the line and why?

Ten years ago, I designed a dress called the Starlet Rose, and that dress still remains our top sellers. I wore the dress ten years ago at a fair. It sold out and I’m still wearing it because it is so flattering. It is really form-fitting in the stomach and has cute cap sleeves with a tie in the front. When I designed it, I wanted the ultimate dress I could wear day or night. I still always follow those same guidelines to design by: timeless, classic, well-fitting and flawless so that you feel confident empowered. It has a 30s neckline, 40s midriff, and kick pleats inspired by the 50s.

estradadesign.jpg Who is your favorite retro fashion icon?

There are a lot, but I would definitely say Joan Crawford as the fashion icon for the 40s and 50s era that my designs are inspired by. She was just so graceful and beautiful and she was very empowered with a positive outlook, but at the same time, she played so many different roles - femme fatale, screen siren, sexy film noir queen. It’s one thing to wear a beautiful dress and it’s another to stylize it and own it. She really did that for the silver screen. Her dresses were among those that were replicated throughout the years. She had amazing style, but I think her designer inspires me more than she does. His name was Adrian and I think he worked for MGM. He designed all of her on-screen gowns and some of her clothing off-screen.

Do you think LA has retained a retro sensibility in modern times?

I do, I think it’s really neat how LA has embraced the past. If you go Downtown, there are the most beautiful art deco buildings built in the 40s. They’re not hiding them! The building I’m in specifically was built in the 30s. They had hidden the architectural detailing with drywall, but they recently removed the drywall and there were all these beautiful details even in the elevator! The fact that LA realizes how cool retro is and how they embrace the beauty of that style is so great. If you think about art deco, they were trying to be futuristic. Even in the clothing of the 40s and 50s, they were trying to embrace the future.

What is your favorite piece of vintage that you own?

You know, people are always shocked to hear that I rarely buy vintage! I have a lot of vintage hats and purses and accessories, but I mix them with modern shoes and accessories. I was in Montréal recently and found an actual Adrian. It was labeled the way his signature was shown in the movies. I know at one point he had his own clothing line after the silver screen era died down. The way he designed pieces was so intricate. The dress has so much vintage detailing. I knew it was an Adrian the second I saw it. It is probably my absolute favorite piece because it has meaning beyond the fact that it’s vintage. It’s a little light blue day dress, but it’s demure enough to wear to church, which is unique because he usually designed really sexy screen siren type dresses. It’s a really beautiful color, with great pleating and darts and tucks.

Is there a specific vintage store in LA that you go to?

My favorite stores actually carry Stop Staring! Wasteland on Melrose has a huge collection and they actually carry my clothing. My first lines that came out were 1960s clubwear-meets-Star Trek. That’s what I first sold at Wasteland. They would come and buy whatever I didn’t sell for that season and they’d resell it. It was cool hanging in the coolest vintage store on Melrose and seeing my clothes there. I also love going to the Antique flea markets like the Long beach Veteran Stadium. It’s similar to the Rose Bowl flea market - you can go in there and shop for hours.

Which modern celebrity do you think embodies a vintage glamour?

There are a few modern celebs that I think recently started doing retro - Christina Aguilera and Paris Hilton are among them. I love Paris, she wore a couple of my dresses on her Stars are Blind tour and is still seen wearing them. Gwen Stefani definitely got into pin-up glamour. I think a lot of people really got into it. I think there are few celebrities who really went that way and some who just touched into it like a trend. I think my all-time favorite would be Nicole Kidman because she always looks so flawless and she’s been wearing retro for years before it became a trend. She’s always picked clothes that are timeless and classic. Red carpet or interview, there is always a tinge of pin-up glamour. Of course there are people like Dita von Teese, but to me, I think Nicole Kidman because I know she loves beautiful things. Katie Perry has also brought back a bit of the vintage glamour. She actually used one of our playsuits for a photo shoot.

Now that the economy has downturned, how do you think consumers will react to local stores?

Honestly, I think that when you do slow steady building like Stop Staring!, you last that much longer as opposed to a company who is a one-hit-wonder. They don’t have the staying power. We have always focused on giving our clientele good service and good products. When you focus on taking care of your customers, nothing can change your success. People will go where they love the product. As a shopper, I’m going to go somewhere tried-and-true. Customers will give loyalty to the product that worked best for them whether it’s a mom-and-pop or department store. If you hold on to your dollar, you’re going to be cautious about where you spend it.

Will the line foray into other fashion eras?

It kind of already has. We did a few 60s pieces that I wore in my college years. Buyers have come in and seen my old pictures and they flip out and want to carry it. They want me to bring back some of the old cool stuff that I started with inspired by 60s and 70s. I was really inspired by Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but not as costumey. Very art deco-inspired.

How did it feel receiving an award for “L.A.’s Minority Manufacturing Firm of the Year” in 2005 by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa?

It was just such a blessing. I wrote a 13-page essay the day before it was due because I didn’t have time because of work. I couldn’t have let that opportunity pass by. Ironically, my dad passed away that same night. Most of it was written about my dad and how he had influenced my life with all the hardship he endured. He grew up on the farms picking cotton and lettuce and, a lot of times, they slept out on the fields. I remember dedicating chapters to my dad because I wanted them to know where I had come from. I didn’t believe I had won until I met the mayor and members of the Small Business Administration. When I went up to receive the award, I just started talking about my dad. At that point, everyone wanted to meet him and it was so sad that he couldn’t be there. He was definitely up in heaven pulling strings. I felt grateful that my dad had taught me so much about life and earning an honest living and trying to do business in a moral way.

What’s next for Stop Staring?

We’re planning to open our first flagship store in the near future. No exact plans, but I really see Stop Staring! going into lifestyle branding. So many people are constantly e-mailing about the purses, ring and shoes they see in the photos. Everyone wants the whole package.

Find Stop Staring! on the web at Shopflick and at Stop Staring! or pop into the showroom at 850 S. Broadway, Suite 804 10AM-4PM weekdays.