Fresh style insights, tips and commentary by Michelle Tea, Michael Braithwaite, Leo Plass, Page McBee and Carrie Leilam Love.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Hello World! Welcome to Rebecca Johnson

I'm going to say something that people in San Francisco are never supposed to say: I love Los Angeles. I love its sun-bleached shimmer, its self-referential culture and the ways in which the city pushes bizarre boundaries (the last time I was there I was given a Caipirinha snow cone from a bowl "smoking" with dry ice in a bar that looked like a mad science version of Alice in Wonderland).

LA is a rough town, though. For fashion. On the one hand, it has everything you might expect from a major metropolis--an abundance of boutiques, amazing shoe stores, unrivaled sunglasses opportunities, couture and cosmopolitan confidence founded in a rich and diverse history. Los Angeles is why Noir exists. Noir, people!

In the first half of the 20th Century it was the sparkling star in the West. Hollywood was replete with stunning coifs, artistically glamorous fashion configurations and eyebrow arches that could smother you in an enigmatic mix of desire and repulsion. Why, then, the masses of the City of Angels so often choose to drown themselves in ill-fitting embroidered jeans, belly rings, two-toned (and, oh god, the occasional THREE-toned) hair, gaudy Ed Hardy and Von Dutch is a mystery that may never be solved. Garbo and Gable must be rolling in their graves.

Enter (thankfully) Rebecca Johnson. Who is Rebecca Johnson, you ask? Rebecca is your new style hero and she lives in Los Angeles. Besides being your hero (GAWD, don't be so demanding), Rebecca is an actress on both stage and screen. Most recently she's been seen in Pippin at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. and the critically acclaimed anniversary revival of Children of a Lesser God with Deaf West Theater (yep, she signs...and not just the bad words). She's the star of Easy Bake Lovin', a comedy web series co-produced/written with friend Annie Mebane and received rave reviews for her performances in Zanna Don't. Check out her newest role as a florist who has to deal with the awkward amorous advances of a dweeb in the WB series, Downer's Grove (she makes the best annoyed/disgusted faces I've ever seen).

Beyond being a gifted actress, Rebecca KILLS it when it comes to vintage style of the fashion and home decor varieties. Do you understand about vintage? Everyone thinks they do, but often doesn't really. It's one of those things that's become so commonplace in everyone's mind that they think they understand how to properly use it, like the wine key I only just discovered I've been using improperly for years now. True story. I almost wrote about it in a diary I'll never keep.

I'm going to be honest. I don't know how to choose or wear vintage, myself. I gave up the ghost years ago when I couldn't find anything that didn't smell like a foot or make me look like a version of myself that should have died in 1942 in a shack somewhere. Rebecca, though, Rebecca KNOWS how to use vintage. She knows how to wear it so that she looks like a sophisticated adult, with thoughts and insights, rather than a precious bourgeois "pauper" from the 70s, or worse, 80s.

I was lucky enough to be able to pick her brain about what she does and how she does it. Let's learn something, shall we?

When you were 16 would you have guessed that adult you would own a Victrola and part of a carousel?

Oh god no! I think I was still secretly collecting themed mini tea sets and Anne Geddes books! 16-yr-old Becky would probably look at some of my stuff now and think, “This is awesome, but where are all the dried flower and raffia swags?” My love for decorating and vintage stuff didn’t really kick in until I had lived in New York for a little while.

I remember the first antique piece I ever bought at a little flea market in Chelsea. I stopped by on a lark and found, buried in this old man’s jewelry stand, a beautiful antique ring. And it fit perfectly. It was the first thing I ever bought myself that felt truly special. Every time I wore it I would think of little stories about where it had come from, who had owned it. I felt as though I was honoring the history of the piece by taking it out on the town, giving it another life. I still try to do that with every antique I find, decoration or clothing. I try to buy things that really speak to me, things I can’t stop thinking about the moment I see them. The purchase then feels more worthwhile, as though that piece were somehow meant for me.

Your interior design style and your personal style are extremely distinctive, particularly in LA. How did your interest in Art Deco, historical ephemera and vintage clothing develop?

It all started in Boston. During my year at Emerson College, I was inundated with a town full of history and ghosts, places I could actually walk to and touch that had been a part of some of the most incredible stories. Most memorable though, was when I worked on a musical in the city’s historic Majestic Theater. On my lunch breaks I would sneak up to the second balcony and sit in the old seats with the original upholstery, stare into the rafters and just daydream about what the place must’ve been like in its prime. There was even a little crawl space around the exterior of the theater dome that had all these leftover scraps of history (newspapers and such from the 30s and 40s) that had been forgotten and left preserved there. I was in love. Suddenly I was poking my head into antique shops, flea markets, thrift stores…I felt like an archeologist, uncovering and preserving things that seemed to find me as much as I found them. And for the most part they all seemed to come from around the same era.

I'm a little bit in love with your wardrobe, I don't think that's any secret, but I have a hard time finding vintage clothes worth spending money on. Where do you find such fantastic pieces?

There are some AMAZING vintage stores out here, namely Playclothes in Burbank and the downtown St. Vincent de Paul’s thrift store. But the key is to get out of town. If I get the chance to travel, that’s my first stop. For the most part though, a lot of my clothes come from places like Anthropologie, Urban, J. Crew, Target, etc.

This summer I was determined to change it up a bit. Everything is pretty casual here, it’s really easy to get stuck in a t-shirt and jeans black hole. So I went deep-sea closet fishing and found an old pair of seersucker pants, a navy ruffled top from Christmas (thanks Mom) and an old pair of stacked wooden platform sandals from the Gap. I thought, what the hell, let’s see if I can actually wear this, and surprisingly, it worked.

A pair of saddle shoes, a blouse-y white shirt, and a linen vest later I felt like I was successfully pulling off a “style”, kinda 1920s-day-at-the-shore vibe. For me, the most important thing, especially with a piece that’s really wild, is that it will pair with at least two other things I already have, so I know I have a couple of options for it.

How do you view your style (decor and wearables) in relation to your personality?

I’m kind of old fashioned. I really appreciate when people take the time to be polite. I think it’s a forgotten art. Social graces. When I go out to a nice dinner I enjoy putting on a dress, getting ready, the whole thing. I think it makes my companion appreciate the fact that I’m treating the evening like its special. The same goes for different events. You’d be hard-pressed to find me in a pair of jeans at the theater. Listen, I know it happens sometimes, but all of the time? The last Broadway show I attended, I was surrounded by tube tops, flip flops and gratuitous texting. Guys, you’re sitting in a velvet orchestra seat, chomping your gum while thirty or so people are singing and tap-dancing their hearts out for you. Grow some manners!

I think it’s respectful to the artists and the art itself to make a little effort with your appearance. When people are dressed nicer, they act nicer.

Ok, enough venting. Back to fun stuff. Interior-wise, I try to incorporate things that I find interesting or striking but that don’t detract from a homey environment. I have formal pieces all over my house, but everything is pretty useful and/or comfortable. My only wish is that everyone be at ease and feel as welcome in my home as they do in their own. I never want someone to sit and feel like they can’t curl up and put their feet on sofa…maybe just take your shoes off first!

What's your favorite thing in your house/closet (I'm going to put out there that those peacocks are my favorite thing of yours)?

The peacock family is definitely one of my absolute favorites, lord it took me forever to find those suckers! And the carousel board above the door in my bedroom is pretty delightful, especially at night with the lights off and just that hazy, blue glow. It’s magical… ghostly. Like that feeling when the carnival is completely empty and the lights are all turning off one by one. Wait, that’s scary…ok, like that but not slasher film-y. No killer clowns or anything. I’m searching for the history on that piece. I would love to dig up a picture of the actual carousel to hang below it!

As for my favorite piece of clothing…it’s actually something I haven’t even worn yet. For about a year or so I was obsessing over this late 40s, early 50s evening gown from my favorite vintage store. It was sea green with a kind of mermaid bodice on it, and it came with the matching long silk wrap. It stopped me in my tracks the first time I saw it. I just kept thinking, I really don’t need it, it’s kind of impractical…ugh, I would leave the store and constantly think about it. And then, suddenly, it was gone. I figured, alright, it wasn’t meant for me. Six months later, for my birthday that year, my friend Annie and I were exchanging gifts and lo and behold, there was the dress. She had heard me talking about it so often, she knew it would be the perfect surprise. I don’t think I’ve ever treasured a gift like that dress. Someday, when an appropriately big event happens, that’s what I’m going to be wearing.

Is there something you've been looking for, but can't find (I mean this in a literal, purchasable sense)?

Finishing my bedroom is my next project. I would love to find a pair of antique round-back (Louis XIV/Bergere style) chairs, and an old cheval mirror to make a sort of sitting parlor area. Maybe an antique apothecary cabinet for the guest bathroom, and a really beat up old industrial rolling cart to use as a bar in the living room.

And a pony.

LA folks, for the most part, don't have the most... a-hem... classy sort of style. Do you feel out of place there, or do you enjoy standing apart from the masses of Ed Hardy?

Geez, listen, if bejeweled tigers on your butt make you feel glamorous, go for it! I don’t necessarily feel out of place, just different.

I miss New York a lot, especially in the fall. That was my time of year out there; I wore hats every day, and everyone was breaking out their new coats and boots...the leaves all started to turn. It was a spectacle. Out here, it’s just a different sort of spectacle. I still wear an amalgamation of my NYC style, but of course it had to be altered to be functional. Hats are not so practical sometimes. And some of my vintage coats only get a few evenings out a year.

But I never feel like I don’t belong style-wise here, the beauty of living in a city is that there is bound to be someone else wherever you are rockin’ something unique. When you catch sight of one another, you both nod, like, “nice to see you."

The elements of your home and your fashion are extremely complimentary to one another. Do you have an overall buying strategy, or do you just find things here and there?

I am blessed to have incredibly stylish friends, one of whom is a fabulous interior designer. I love to pick her brain for ideas and see what kind of fun stuff she’s finding…a lot of my favorite pieces (the old mammal chart above my desk, a fantastic antique globe) were given to me by her.

For the most part I am an ebay scavenger and love architectural salvage yards. The carousel piece I found at a warehouse in downtown LA, which I swear, you walk into and you’re suddenly Alice in an industrial treasure wonderland! Random antique stores in small towns too are gold mines for amazing and cheap finds. I have a few original prints from etsy. And there is a website that absolutely kills it, I would like one of everything, please.

Do you feel that your style has evolved/is evolving as you get older?

My style is constantly evolving! I suddenly have a hankering for antique nautical pieces, old star charts, globes, heavy industrial objects that are functional and just really different. I hope my tastes continue to bend and twist into new things.

I want to be able to look back at what I’ve amassed and feel as though I have a tangible scrapbook of myself through this collection of weird, fantastical objects.

Does your Victrola bring all the boys to the yard?

Damn right, it’s better than yours…I can teach you, but I’d have to charge.

*All images in this post courtesy of Rebecca Sapp Photography


  1. WOW YES!!!!! Absolutely amazing. Old world LA style! Perfect.

  2. Well, apparently someone already is everything I wanted to be when I grew up. Including the red hair like Anne of Green Gables.

    That ladymirror in the last picture! That perfect desk lamp! Her tiny straw hat! Every detail is delicious.

  3. man who is you interior technician?

  4. Hi Rebecca, i´m from São Paulo Brasil, congratulations for your work. Drink the best cachaça of Brasil to caipirinha: !!!!! your comments to !!!!
    thank´s !!!!