Weather permitting, Junko Watanabe, known to some as the Sweater Girl, sells her mixed-up remade Japanese-American vintage creations each weekend at the Melrose Trading Post flea market.
Watanabe designs clothes, but not in the typical way. A sculptor looks at a colossal hunk of marble and sees the horse hidden inside it; Watanabe looks at a colossal hunk of knitted polyester sweater or kitschy tourist tee and sees the cute inner jumper dress.
Those versed in the lingo of high style will recognize influences of Marc Jacobs' spring/summer 2010 ready-to-wear collection in Watanabe's oeuvre. But even those unversed will — perhaps quite literally — recognize their wacky old Uncle Ed's Bill Cosby–era winter 1984 Christmas turtleneck.
“A lot of the time I ask, who used to wear this? It's crazy,” Watanabe says of the vintage clothing before she rips into it. Recently, she found a maxi skirt from the 1960s with neon cats all over it. She cut out each of the cat faces and stuck them onto cardigans like medallions.
In all fairness, people are not entirely convinced of her sanity. It takes a kind of courage to wear an old man's sweater with matching leg warmers made from its cut-off sleeves. Or a dress made from a novelty tee printed with the slogan “I'm out of bed and dressed, what more do you want,” with a giant ribbon perched on the shoulder like a parrot.
“Some people, they think my stuff is crazy,” she allows. “My customers are not the regular girl. They have their identity. They have their style.”
Watanabe says that the girls who buy her clothes are often girls who wear their hair swept to one side and whose overall style is “Don't smile.”
Sure enough, a bunch of pretty, scowly-faced girls saunter over to sift through the racks in Watanabe's tent at the Melrose flea market.
“Your stuff is really cute,” says one, frowning.
“Arigato!” Watanabe replies with a quick bow.
The floral jumpers are selling well, Watanabe says, as the girl pays for two dresses. “Also I'm doing good with the shirts with bow on the shoulder. My stuff, it's flattering but not too sexy, because I do have a lot of young girls, from 17 to 25. They have the best taste, teenager girls.” In her melodious Japanese-accented English, “girls” sounds like “gals” or “gulls.”
“Myself, I have, like, a lot of different styles going on. Like, this is '80s,” she says of a tube dress that used to be a man's collared shirt. “I love the '80s. Then this is bohemian. This is Tokyo pop. Lately I like '90s. You know, like Beverly Hills 90210? The '80s is getting old. You have to catch up with these teenager girls.”
In a sense, though, the teenage girls are catching up with her. Watanabe is 38 now, and fashion has finally come back around to the styles she enjoyed and sewed two decades ago.
“When I was a teenager … I would make it for my friends,” she says, remembering her youth in coastal Chiba Prefecture. “Chiba, it's kind of suburb. If Tokyo is L.A., it would be like Long Beach.”
After a moment, she says, “Mainly I have a story going on in my clothes.” She reaches for a striped shirt with flappy dolman sleeves pinned with a pair of miniature plastic sunglasses. The story that shirt tells is of a carefree young Japanese woman who emigrated to sunny California 15 years ago and fell in love with American culture, who bleached her black hair blond, and wished she could live in both countries at the same time.
Then again, it is just a silly little shirt. It is a story lost in translation.
“I like to have a little bit of uniqueness that makes you laugh,” Watanabe says. “Some funny thing. Like in this would be the sunglasses.”
Many people are drawn to some funny thing or other in her clothes. An American bride-to-be snapped up one of Watanabe's fake-tuxedo T-shirts-turned-dresses and wore it to her bachelorette party, for example. Asked how many sweater-and–leg warmer sets Watanabe sells, her husband looks up from tidying hangers, rolls his eyes and mutters, “Whoosh. Too many!”
Watanabe swats at him, then estimates, “Probably a hundred.”
The girls are crowding into the tent now. “I like this one,” says one of them, pointing to the sweater Watanabe is wearing, a cotton-candy-pink fleece number that was once a Windbreaker.
“I can take it off,” says Watanabe.
She sews and sells everything herself. “Yes, I am tired,” she admits. “But a lot of these designers just stay in the studio and that's it. That's why I love to be in the market. Like, I love selling clothes as much as making clothes. You get to see what people are wearing.”
Because there is a fine line between “This won't sell” and “Someone will like it,” working in the trenches gives her an edge when she's out scouring thrift stores for raw materials. One must ask of each shirt, Is it faded, or too faded? Is it weird, or too weird? “The key is would I wear it?” she says. “If I would, other gals would.”
Japanese style may be big in Los Angeles, but at the moment Los Angeles style is big in Japan. It is difficult for Japanese hipsters to get authentic American vintage clothes, however. So, a used tee from Cal State Northridge that Watanabe remakes into a minidress can sell for $88 in Japan.
In a minute, a girl buys a tube dress and decides to wear it out. “Girls in Japan wear that with T-shirt under. It's cute, but it's not too feminine because it's men's shirt,” Watanabe advises her.
“Japan is crazy with mixed culture. It's really nuts. There are girls with really deep tans, and conservative office-looking girls, and high school girls with blue contact lenses and blond hair.”
Girls in Japan are serious, she says. “They beat you up if your style is wrong. They throw blood on you. No. Not really,” she says and giggles.