At her bohemian-style warehouse store in the days leading up to the Academy Awards, Shareen Mishrick Mitchell ’80 is keeping a sharp eye out as top Los Angeles stylists peruse rack upon rack of vintage fashions. They’re shopping for Oscar party finery, and Mitchell wants to make sure they find the perfect something to take back to their famous clients. “They have the eye. I give them access to my collection, and I pull the best pieces for them,” she says. “I want my clients to feel confident. I’m their champion; I’m very much about helping them shine.”
Mitchell herself cuts a dramatic figure in a black 1990s ensemble that she culled from her collection of vintage clothes. Outside the store, Shareen Vintage, on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles, a blackboard sign reminds, “No boys allowed.” Inside, customers don’t bother with a dressing room to try on Mitchell’s sought-after creations. “It becomes an all-female fashion locker room, and trying on clothes becomes a collaborative and playful process,” she says. (The same rules apply at the sister store in New York City’s Flatiron district.)
Although today Mitchell is running a million-dollar business, dressing celebrities and outfitting TV and film productions in her signature wear, a few short years ago, her future seemed anything but bright. Her early post-Smith successes—complete with glamorous stints in the high-fashion worlds of New York and Paris and acting roles in film and television—ended as quickly as they had come. By 2004, the acting jobs had dried up, leaving Mitchell $38,000 in debt and working as a babysitter. “I was in the depths,” she recalls.
What came next—a spiritual epiphany, a resolve to live debt-free and a well-timed visit to a thrift store—put Mitchell back on the road to success and has made her an evangelist for the power of building relationships as a way to make things happen rather than relying on credit cards. “I learned how to humbly ask for help, and I changed the way I lived my life,” Mitchell explains. “God would find a way for me. He would inspire other people to help me.” With less than $100 in her bank account, she cut up her credit cards, gave herself over to faith and took any job that was offered to her—from babysitting to helping a friend set up at a flea market. “When we don’t use credit, we’re forced to live within our means and to establish strong relationships,” Mitchell says now.
In the midst of her year of despair, a thrift store visit reawakened her interest in fashion. “On that day I saw that I could take these garments and alter them to speak to the current runway collections,” Mitchell recalls. Soon, via a connection from the acting world, she landed a coveted spot at the Melrose Trading Post, a trendy outdoor market. Her 10-foot-by-10-foot booth flourished, allowing her within months to expand to a warehouse downtown. In the days before social media and without hiring a publicist, she built her company on word of mouth. Press followed; her first write-up was in the New York Times style section, a coup for any designer.
Initially, Mitchell just reworked vintage clothes by trimming and altering, making outfits more relatable to current tastes. Now, she also designs her own collection, influenced by timeless silhouettes but adapted to clients’ preferences for more revealing, sexier looks. Mitchell’s sought-after bridal gowns come from this category of updated vintage styles.
Along the way, Mitchell’s singular style, confidence and on-camera experience attracted reality television. In 2011, she starred in Dresscue Me, which gave a backstage view of her day-to-day creative challenges; it aired on Discovery Channel’s Planet Green and was eventually distributed internationally. That exposure still brings new customers from around the world.
Nowadays, Mitchell remains behind the scenes, collaborating with and guiding the people she dresses, emphasizing personal style over trends, which she says rarely work for everyone. “No two people should dress alike,” she says. “I believe in claiming your originality and celebrating it.”
Kathy A. McDonald ’80 is a freelance writer in Los Angeles who writes regularly for Variety, Los Angeles Confidential, Fodor’s guidebooks and other publications. This article appears in the Summer 2014 Quarterly.