July 13th, 2006
Meet Michelle Romo, winner of Fred Flare’s Next Big Thing Contest (her oh-so-cute crocheted ghost necklace nabbed the award!) and Los Angeles-based designer of adorable tees, pins, necklaces, patches, and more. At the ripe young age of 23, the graphic artist and illustrator already owns her own online store and clothing line, and a dozen boutiques have the honor of carrying her goods. Omiru is pleased to bring to you our chat with Michelle about her interest in fashion design, her inspirations, and her own sense of style.
O: When did you know that you wanted to be a designer?
M: I started getting really interested in design when I was 16 years old. I had always liked drawing and doing crafty stuff, but when I was 16 my mom brought home a new G4 computer. It was loaded with Illustrator and Photoshop, so I started messing around doing graphics and teaching myself those programs. A couple of years later, I started Yellow Toothpick – and started making iron on t-shirts with my graphics on them. At that time I also got into sewing and taught myself how to follow simple patterns. Crowded Teeth kind of grew out of that into what it is today.
O: What makes your collection unique?
M: I don’t even know if I am unique! I guess what makes my collection unique is me - I’m kind of a weirdo. I just want to make things I like – even if they aren’t “cool.” I guess I’m just lucky if people like what I’m doing. I think what makes my business unique is I have a total DIY spirit. I do almost everything for it, from design, to handling production, to packing orders to making phone calls, accounting, and web design! I’m a busy gal.
O: What are you inspired by?
M: I get inspired by so much. My childhood had a strong influence in my designs. I wasn’t brought up with a super strong or traditional Japanese upbringing, but my mom is Japanese, and growing up, my grandparents visited me every other summer. I always had weird snacks, books, toys and little snippets of culture thrown into my regular life. I like cute little things and love Hello Kitty and Licca dolls. I also had a very all American side of my childhood that included a lot of 80’s TV, and vintage furniture, packaging, electronics, and jewelry, (my grandma rarely threw anything out) and I think that influenced my taste and style in design. I am also inspired by a ton of artists, some of my favorites right now are Ryan McGinness, Audrey Kawasaki, Beci Orpin, Mark Ryden, Junko Mizuno, Brendan Monroe, Saelee Oh, Souther Salazar, Kozyndan, Stephen Britt, – the list goes on forever. I am lucky I live in LA and am exposed to a lot of great art.
O: Design philosophy?
M: I think my design philosophy is just to make things I like. I have a day job that requires me to make just what is in style, and because of that, I have to design a lot of stuff I think is crap. I’m not saying that my stuff is crazy deep or inaccessible, but I think there’s a certain amount of myself I put into my design. I also always want to be making something that is affordable – because that’s important to me. I like to make money like everyone else, but I think sometimes things are priced a little ridiculously. I don’t ever want to be the guy selling an $800 t-shirt that cost me $2.50 to produce. I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a pretentious asshole Maybe I’m a bad business person - I just draw things.
O: Who do you want to see wearing your clothes and accessories?
M: At this point? Anyone! I haven’t had a real life Crowded Teeth sighting ever. I got lucky and dropped off my stuff at the set of the TV show Scrubs, and the costume designer liked my designs. So I get to see my t-shirts on the cast of Scrubs pretty often! I think from a nerdy standpoint I would like to see my designs on anyone from the cast of Mr. Show, or anyone I admire in the art community. In the regular world – I wish that I would have nice people come up to me and say that my designs make them smile.
O: How did you go about selling your collection in stores?
M: I started off doing consignment with a few stores, and it kind of went from there. I didn’t have any idea how to get into stores. I would just email random people and see if they liked me. I am the WORST salesperson ever. After a while, I started making catalogs and mailing them to stores I thought would be interested in my products. Occasionally people would contact me. It was hard, and I am not good at selling myself. This past February, I did the Pool Tradeshow in Vegas, and that got a huge number of stores interested in my line. Buyers are there just looking for new lines, and a lot of people seemed to like me. I got a great response and I am going to do the show again in August.
O: If you were to design a new product line to add to your current business, what would it be?
M: I really, really, really wanted to do jewelry this season – just simple metal cut out necklaces of my characters. But I couldn’t afford it this time around, and am just going to have a solid t-shirt line. If things progressed ideally, I would just make everything. I want to have a line as expansive as Sanrio or Paul Frank – from housewares to men’s clothing.
O: Can you talk a little bit about your 40-hour-a-week design job?
M: I work as a designer (my official title is Lead Graphic Designer and Specifications Manager – so fancy!) for a company that makes mostly junior’s apparel and accessories (think Hot Topic and Urban Outfitters). I do initial product designs and follow them through into production and do correspondence with China. It’s a small company that does a lot of business, so we are constantly working. It’s fun because I get to design new and different products every day. I can do jewelry one day and then work on bags and t-shirts the next day. It’s really stressful though because the design department only has three people, and we all have a lot of responsibility. I used to think that designing for my day job and designing for my self was conflicting, but I’m hoping I am just a never ending fountain of ideas. I think I am capable of designing great things for both companies. They were upset with me for having my own line for awhile, but I would never stop doing Crowded Teeth for any one but me.
O: How has your style evolved over time?
M: I think I have always had a lot of the same design sensibilities, but I think over the years I am getting better and better at Illustrator and my work now has a more complete feel than when I was just starting out. I’m also a little bit more grown up now, and I do follow some trends and I think those things help with the evolution of my line.
O: Do you care about what you wear?
M: I do care about what I wear, but not in the sense that I have to have the latest fashions or most expensive brands. I dress pretty casually all the time - t-shirts, tank tops, and jeans. I’ve always been a layer-er. I like simple things that fit my weird long torso correctly. I am a sucker for a hot pair of shoes. I think I dress like a lazy indie hipster.
O: If your house was burning down, and you could only keep one thing in your closet, what would you keep?
M: My diamond studded, solid gold sports bra. Just kidding. I don’t know. I can’t think of anything in my closet that I absolutely love. Everything in there is pretty replaceable.
O: What clothes have you worn that you’re now ashamed of?
M: Oh so many! In high school I was really into Ska music and dressed like a “Rude Girl.” It was cute, but it seems almost like a costume to me now – and it was super uncomfortable. I used to wear a lot of men’s slacks that fit me poorly – why didn’t anyone tell me they made my legs look short and funny? In 4th grade I used to donut my socks and wear these terrible pseudo-denim floral printed shorts that were awful. I wore sweatpants as actual pants until I was like 13. More recently, I cut off some Levi’s slack/pants at the knee and they make me look like a pirate – they are pretty ridiculous and embarrassing but I wear them anyway.
O: Can you tell us how you came up with the name Crowded Teeth?
M: Everyone always asks if I actually had crowded teeth – but I didn’t. I never had to wear braces, and I have straight teeth. I got lucky. I came up with the name was while I was drawing a skull for some project. I was describing it to someone and said it had “crowded teeth” – I liked the way it sounded, so I emailed my web host friend and had him buy me the domain. I just decided on a whim to change the clothing line from Yellow Toothpick to Crowded Teeth.
Shop Michelle Romo’s adoradesigns at CrowdedTeeth.com!