Terumi Murao Stylist and model

INTERVIEW Althea Simons

PHOTOGRAPHS Sasha Turrentine

"It’s your time to explore and figure out what you want to say about yourself and how to actually say that with clothing. For me it felt like I'm bringing creativity back into the dressing process or the styling process."
-Terumi Murao

Althea:You recently moved to NYC to pursue fashion. What you were doing just before you moved here?

Terumi:I’m from California, and before I moved to New York I was working at a global design company called IDEO in San Francisco. I ended up there after working for a super small design startup in Los Angeles, where I was doing everything from personal assisting to production to social media. It was my first time in a creative industry and I thought it was so cool; I need to work with designers. When I moved from LA to San Francisco I applied to IDEO and started a job on their marketing team. I needed to be in that creative environment; it’s very collaborative and you’re around a bunch of artists. I was doing project management, and I also managed the speakers program and did matchmaking for conferences.

A:It’s pretty amazing that you got a job at IDEO. I come from that world too, so I know how difficult it is to get a job there. It's like the rockstar place to work.

T:I will be totally honest; it took two tries. The first time I interviewed, I had just gotten back from a climbing trip in Europe. I was totally in “hippie granola” mode. You feel invincible when you come back from those climbing trips, but your brain gets a little bit mushy. Your brain shifts to a more primitive, instinctual way of thinking. I had not spoken intelligently or in non-climbing lingo for three weeks. I got off the plane totally jetlagged and went straight to this interview. I thought I was crushing it but I wasn't making any sense; I totally botched it.

Then I applied a second time two years later and it ended up working out. In between I was working at the start up in LA, and I guess I would say I was the woman that wore many hats. I gained a lot of experience and was also super humbled. I understood how much more I needed to learn to get to working at IDEO. I needed that experience.

My first interview was with the Chief Marketing Officer. I was so intimidated by this woman and her incredible curriculum vitae. I remember exactly what I wore. I felt that I needed to show who I was; even though this was an interview, I wanted to be me in all my colors. I had purchased these amazing silk, pink- and gold-printed pants. It was like a party on the bottom and then business on top. I found this Theory pantsuit, and I wore the blouse and this very proper blazer, with a crazy headband thing. There was a lot going on but it was very authentically me. She told me after the fact: “as soon as you walked into the room wearing what you were wearing, you were hired.” Of course I went through the whole round of interviews, it was like six or seven interviews, but I guess you could say that my outfit got me the job.

San Francisco is not a fashion capital by any means, but I used to call IDEO “the oasis.” People care so much about aesthetic, and also about sustainable fashion, so I was introduced to a bunch of new perspectives on fashion. There were a lot of European designers, so I saw a lot of Scandinavian influence and Italian influence. I got to see a lot of cool outfits and be around a lot of creative people in general, and that’s when I realized that I needed to continue being in this creative space. But even though this was very close to what I wanted to do, I was still approximating. There was still something missing.

I started freelance styling for fun. I had no idea what I was doing, but I started to put together shoots. I wanted to create art. I started doing it for fun with friends, and I would tag Goodwill in my photos [on Instagram]. Goodwill ended up sending me a direct message saying: “we love your stuff, we see you in our stores all the time, will you work with us?”

I started producing shoots for them for social media and doing small campaigns and hosting events with them, all styling from their warehouses and stores. It was super scrappy, but so much fun. I was picking the photographer, and I was picking models who were not professional models. I care a lot about representation; I was featuring women and men that wouldn’t usually be featured in a fashion campaign.

A:What does that mean?

T:People who weren't signed with an agency and didn’t fit the more traditional and old-school standard of beauty, maybe not five-nine, thin, and white. I really tried to push that limit.

I would create art with what I could find at Goodwill, and I loved that challenge. Fashion started to become really personally meaningful. I loved finding things that other people had thrown away and creating something beautiful out of those items that other people thought were ugly or not wearable anymore.

When my partner and I decided to move to New York, I figured it was time to take the leap. I left the nine-to-five, which was really more like an eight-to-eight and I loved it, but it was time to leave and pursue my own thing. That's how I ended up here, styling secondhand in New York City.

A:How does what you learned at IDEO affect how you approach your creative projects and styling?

T:There are three huge things that I took away from IDEO:

The first one was, I didn’t have the kind of a female mentor that I wanted until I got to IDEO. I worked on a team of 90% women, the most badass women in all senses of the word. They were really educated and brilliant, but also curious about the world, travel, athletic, artistic, mothers, and somehow manage to do it all because they were so passionate and put so much heart into what they do on a regular basis. As soon as I got there, I was like this is exactly what I need, I need a model for how to navigate my own career path and not compromise on things that I also care about, like spending time outside, caring about my family, and having a social life. IDEO as a business itself is a very socially- and environmentally-conscious company. It kept showing me that there is a way to do what you want to do without compromising who you are and what you want. I found really strong female empowerment and leadership.

The second thing was: one of my mentors, Susan O'Malley, said “Serendipity is deaf to silent intentions.” The point is that if you don't put yourself out there, serendipity doesn't happen. I had this light bulb moment: I had been admiring all these people who seem like things just fall into their laps, things just work, and the universe helps them actualize their dreams. I thought: “what am I doing wrong?” I realized that if you don't put your passions out there, serendipity doesn't happen, and the moment you do people are attracted to that energy and want to help you – you're getting inspired by other people and networking more.

The third lesson is from the former CEO, Tim Brown, who said: “if you want to increase your rate of success, you have to double your rate of failure.” That's also just a Silicon Valley mindset, but it’s important to make a ton of mistakes. It's okay if you botch a bunch of interviews. It's okay if you shoot a bunch of stuff that is totally unusable because you're learning from it somehow. It's getting you closer to your goal.

Always creating Art

Terumi knew early on in her career that she wanted to be in a creative environment. She created art in her spare time and it became her career

A:When you decided to start creating your own work and your own art, why did you decide to use secondhand clothing? I imagine in a sense it's practical because it’s cheaper, but I can also see that repurposing clearly is inspiring to you.

T:It is practical in that is cheaper, but it's also impractical because you can't get what you want. You can't say: “I'm going to go in and buy this white blouse and find it in that size.” You can't show up to Goodwill and source that same shirt in five different colors and sizes for a fitting.

There's so much thinking on your feet and improvisation that I believe fuels creativity. Part of my issue with fashion when I was thinking about a career or vocation, as creative as it can be, as an industry I feel like fashion is removing creativity from the individual. There's certain people at the top, incredibly talented artisans and designers, who are being creative and putting something out in the world, but when you actually buy and wear it a lot of it is being kind of spoon-fed to you. They’re saying: “wear this, buy that; this is how you style it; this is who you want to be, who you should hang out with, and where you should be seen.”

It felt like there wasn’t the creative space for self expression that I wanted. Goodwill feels much more like a studio or a lab than a store. It’s your time to explore and figure out what you want to say about yourself and how to actually say that with clothing. For me it felt like I'm bringing creativity back into the dressing process or the styling process. Yes, it's harder but, again, the IDEO designers would say that you need constraints in order to come up with the design. I use that as a constraint, and it also happens to align with my sustainability values as well.

A:I totally agree with that constraint thing, as you might imagine. What do you think is the message or point of view that you are trying to get across with your work?

T:I really want to create beautiful content that can visually compete with high fashion and couture editorials, so that people really understand what second hand can look like, what sustainability looks like. I love sustainable brands like Grammar, and at the same time I think that we need to be able to show secondhand fashion in many different colors, shapes, and sizes. The more people like you or me are creating, then the more people can actually relate to the sustainable fashion movement.

A:You could say you're trying to make sustainability and secondhand more relatable.

T:Yes more relatable, and also broadening and sharpening at the same time what sustainable fashion looks like. I want to bring the creative process back to styling and dressing for yourself every morning, bringing that self expression back in. I think that there's definitely a huge opportunity there in second hand clothing because it's something that's already been used. How can I reframe that shirt into something else? How can I wear it in a different look or give it a new life?

A:It’s interesting, that idea of bringing creativity back – do you feel like we as a culture of kind of gone away from that? I could see that definitely in Silicon Valley with this uniform that people wear – hoodies and whatever. Where do you think that we lost that [creativity]? Why do you feel it's so important to get that back?

T:I agree that it happened. There's sort of this uniform in Silicon Valley. I would argue there's uniforms in New York as well because you're wearing the hippest Carhartt pants, even though it's trendy and fashionable, it doesn't mean that it's not a uniform. I think it's super important because – I think it’s like when you change the space that you're living in – your apartment – to fit who you are and your lifestyle, you feel a lot lighter. You feel happier and you're actually able to accomplish more and be more efficient.

I feel the same way. If I'm wearing something that doesn't amplify who I am, what I want to do, and what I want to say, I feel like it's working against me.

The benefit of this creative process when you're getting dressed you learn a lot about yourself. You become more aware of what you're putting out into the world and how people are perceiving that. It's a really important method of communication. It's also communication that I think people don't pay enough attention to, and then when they do put a little bit of effort into it and start paying attention to it, they realize how much it can actually affect your happiness and your ability to be yourself.

Fashion can be a mask and you can hide behind it, but it can also be a platform and you can put yourself up on that platform. You can wear something that pushes your boundaries and you end up pushing your own boundaries in life, tackling things that you might not normally. You are pushing your own limits gradually with what you wear.

A:Also it can be a way to confront yourself authentically. If you feel like yourself in a piece of clothing, it allows you to almost forget about it; it becomes an extension of who you are. Clothing can be a very natural way to relate to the world.

T:You can amplify who you are. I feel like fashion and the way I dress has raised me just as much as my family and my environment has. It has really helped me learn who I am. There are times when I'm insecure and I'll say, “what can I wear to kind of shake things up?” Sometimes you’ll put something on, and it makes no sense but it forces you to readjust and look at yourself in a different way. Sometimes you might wear something edgier than you feel, and because people were responding to you in a certain way, because they see the edge and feel the edge, you actually become a little bit edgier. I've pushed myself in my own emotional and personal development through what I wear.

A:It helps with finding your identity, right? You might try certain things that make you feel edgier and then you think: “actually, I don't like that. That's not authentic to me.” It’s like when you're a kid trying to figure out who you are. That is a great way to think about secondhand as well because it is sort of a playground; it has that element of discovery and experimentation.

T:With couture and “high fashion,” the standard for the aesthetic is so high that it's a really intimidating place to experiment. In second hand there isn’t that barrier because someone threw it away and thought it wasn’t fashion, so what you put together is inherently an improvement. Psychologically, I think it's easier for people to experiment. It's intimidating to go into a really beautifully curated store; you might be afraid to put something together outside of the way that it's been shown on a mannequin or in the ads.

A:I feel that way about what I make. I don't want to be prescriptive in my aesthetic, which is part of why I make white shirts. You can wear them however you want, and they work with every kind of style. They're comfortable and versatile so you can really wear them in a way that is authentic and true to you. It’s about taking away that artifice so you can go about your life in a really authentic way, and that's empowering.

T:It is empowering. With secondhand, I'm fascinated by the problem of satisfying that dopamine hit of shopping. It’s a completely natural thing; we are excited by newness. I want to solve that problem: how can we create that same happiness and spark of joy without actually purchasing a new garment? I found through my experimentation that I can recreate that joy if I use something I already own in a completely new way, or if I wear a skirt as a shirt, or a dress as a scarf. That kind of repurposing and recycling gives me the same high, and sometimes an even better high. That is really addictive to me.

It’s like when you have like a fridge full of random stuff and you’re like “ugh I can’t really use this,” but you whip something up and it comes together in such a beautiful, delicious way, and it feels so good to not waste all that food. There's a real flow that happens when you reduce your waste and you use something that could've gone into the trash; It’s circular.

The joy of dressing

Terumi loves recreating the "joy" we get from buying new clothing and putting together a great look

A:What are some of your favorite ways that you've repurposed something?

T:I frequently use garments or accessories in ways that they weren't originally intended; I use headbands as belts, belts as necklaces, dresses as skirts, sweaters as skirts. I stopped thinking about the category, like “this is a shirt,” and I started classifying my closet just by color. That way, instead of thinking “I need to put on a layer on my bottom half, I'm going to go the pants drawer,” I think “I'm feeling a certain color or a certain texture,” and I can put something together. As a stylist, I always have a million safety pins and clamps on me so sometimes I’ll pin or clamp things together. I do have a sewing machine; sometimes I sew things together.

I like using something that might seem – for example – really preppy for a very different look. I have a private-school-girls-uniform-looking plaid skirt that I've used in an edgy, rocker way and in a sort of maximalist, print-on-print-on-print way. Typically you see that on a hanger and you think “this is just one style that I wore in high school while it was popular;” I love to take something that's 20 years old and turn it into a completely new look.

A: I have two comments about that. The first is that it's very “fashion.” A fashion designer usually is trying to take a garment or silhouette or style and put it in a different context to make it new. That's essentially what you're doing with repurposing; you’re creating something new, but rather than buying something new you’re doing it with the same garment.

The second comment is that it’s sort of anti-Marie Kondo in a couple of ways. Rather than getting rid of things, you’re saying “no, actually save that [piece] from 20 years ago and find a way to make it work for you,” that’s how you spark joy. And secondly your way of organizing: the KonMari method organizes everything by category, but you're doing it by color, which is a more sensory way of getting dressed.

T:Categories are incredible for rational thinking and efficiency. I completely respect Marie Kondo and I love how much orderliness she's brought to many of my loved ones who needed that help. But once you've acquired that incredible skill that she teaches of organizing your life in a way that suits your daily lifestyle, that's when you can start breaking the rules.

I get dressed in a way that is more intuitive and sensory. I'll play music and think about what I'm feeling. I’ll think about what I want to eat, who I'm going to see, and the weather. Then I look at the textures and colors in my closet. It's a holistic process; it’s not so linear.

A:This is my issue with trends: people follow them outright, in fashion and in the culture generally. To your point, it’s very linear. People follow [the trend] exactly the way that they're told to, but really fashion is about taking that trend and incorporating it into your life in a way that works for you, or rejecting it if it doesn’t.

[With Marie Kondo,] on one side I think her concept of sparking joy is so great. I think about it all the time in my daily life, like [I’ll ask myself]: “do I want to go to this event? Does it spark joy?” If the answer is no, I’m not going. It's a great way to approach life; it’s the same as asking yourself ”is this authentic to me?” But on the other side, [because of the popularity of the KonMari method] we are throwing away so much stuff. Maybe if we thought more creatively we could repurpose or reuse these things in some way.

T:I've done a lot of thinking about why it makes me so happy to repurpose and reiterate on a piece of clothing over and over again. When you buy something you get that quick jolt of joy, but there are diminishing returns. The more you spend and the more you buy, the less joy it actually brings you. If I purchase something secondhand or upcycle or reuse something in my closet, I can repeat that feeling over and over. It increases the meaning I attach to that garment and connects me more strongly to what I'm wearing, and it feels a lot better.

A:What percentage of your wardrobe would you say is secondhand?

T:Everything I’m wearing is thrifted. I haven't shopped new in four years. Roughly 85% of my wardrobe is secondhand and the rest is probably ten years old. I have things from my grandmother and my mother as well. People give me a lot of clothes because they know I’ll use them, so they give me clothes they don't wear or don't like.

I walk into regular stores and look at brand new clothing for inspiration; I really appreciate the artistry in it. It's almost like if you've gone vegetarian for 10 years, you don’t care about meat anymore. I really don't crave shopping at a new store. I appreciate looking at it, but it's not something that brings me joy.

Turning your mind off

Terumi lets herself naturally gravitate towards different items when shopping at Goodwill as well as when she is dressing herself

A:Do you have any tips for thrifting, specifically in New York? I find that it's a challenge here.

T:Thrift stores are really changing. I think a lot about the future of secondhand stores. There’s already some that are very curated and beautifully done, but I'd say the majority of thrift stores are still a bit overwhelming and chaotic. People have different techniques. I tell people: let yourself gravitate towards what you like. Just stand there and I look at everything and whatever you're naturally drawn to, whether it's a color or texture or fabric, walk towards it, feel it, and grab it. I never go shopping for a specific thing; I usually just go in and let myself walk up to something, touch it, and if I connect with it immediately I'll figure out a way to make that look work later. But I want to have some kind of immediate attraction to the piece because if I don't have that instant attraction now then I probably never will. Ultimately it's going to live in your closet, so you want to have that chemistry with a piece of clothing.

A:Where are your favorite places to go shopping?

T:It depends on what I'm shopping for. Thrifting is not for everyone; often I have the luxury of time, which a lot of people don't. I like to go to the Salvation Army and Goodwill because it's so overwhelming and there's just so much there. It's a harder challenge and I'm kind of addicted to that challenge. I like going into places where it is hard to find a gem. I shop at Goodwill more than any other place. I also like Housing Works. They're both nonprofits that benefit causes that I really care about. I also shop a lot at Beacon’s Closet especially when I need more unique pieces for shoots.

A:Beacon's is more high-end and curated; they are definitely more selective. I've sold a lot of stuff there, and they don’t just buy whatever.

T: If you don't have much time and you're looking for more of a statement piece, then yes, go there. Their price points are a little bit higher, but there's always great things. I got these shoes there.

Anytime I'm traveling on the road, I love to go into tiny church thrift shops or local thrift shops. You can get so many interesting things and you're bringing back a piece of that place and that culture. It's frequently a lot cheaper, too, and it's like bringing back a little memento.

Those are the main places. And then of course my grandmother and my mother give me their old clothes. This belt was my mother's.

A:Things always come back around. Anything from the 70’s is going to work, either now or later. Everything comes back into fashion, like oversized blazers. I have this oversized blazer that was my grandmother’s that I just keep it because it'll be in style at some point. I might not feel like wearing it for like a couple of years, but then I’ll wear it all the time. It’s also just a silhouette that looks good on me, so even if it's not in fashion I still wear it.

A:We’re so lucky because in New York you can wear something that’s off-season, and you're respected for that. You can wear whatever you want anytime of the year or any season.

T:That's what's great about New York. You can do anything you want.

T:No one’s going to look at you like you’re crazy.

A:Even if you're actually crazy, like screaming at the top of your lungs running down the street naked, people will be like “eh.” That’s my favorite thing about New York.

T:You do you.

A:Is there anything else that you wanted to say?

T:I'm super grateful to be part of this; I'm honored to be a Grammar Woman. I have serious imposter syndrome. Sometimes I think: “what the hell am I doing here?” One year ago I was sitting at a desk; I was working in a completely different industry. Is this real life? What am I doing? So having these conversations with like-minded people who really care about conscious fashion is really rewarding. It's a reminder that I’m doing what I care about and should keep going. Fashion is a hard industry to change, to really change, so I appreciate coming together with other people who are trying to do it.

Making an impact

Terumi only styles with thrifted or repurposed items in order to make a positive impact

The art of dressing

Terumi loves the creativity of the dressing process

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