Michelle Vilavanh just wants to make things look nice.
The 23-year-old graphic designer and Arizona State University graduate is all about simplicity with a hint of pizzazz. Whether it's a new design or a new outfit, she's creating it all on her own terms.
"Everything can be simple," she says. "But there are so many ways of showing your personality. When I wear something, it's pretty plain, but I believe that things like some great patterned pants are a really cool way to add pizzazz."
Vilavanh, originally from Chico, California, looks up to style icons who excel at the art of pizzazz. André 3000, Susie Lau of the fashion blog Style Bubble, J. Crew's Jenna Lyons, and actress Zoë Kravitz all possess a badass simplicity and unique swagger that Vilavanh admires. Her biggest influence, however, is her sister, who first challenged Vilavanh to start paying attention to what she wore.
"I was a little tomboy who wore sweatpants that zipped off when I wanted to turn them into cargo shorts, but my sister was kind of a fashion icon in our high school. She was really methodical. She drew pictures of what she wore each day. She created these flashcards and read fashion magazines to try to find new ways to do her hair. She encouraged me to try things differently."
Amid all her influences, Vilavanh wants to create her own sense of style. Breakaway sweatpants behind her, she now carries a self-described "weird '90s street flavor." Perhaps the greatest gain from her transition from skater girl to indie chick to what she calls "a weird hodgepodge" in her early college years is her new-found embrace of her femininity.
"I think being a female is amazing," she says. "I just try to flaunt it as much as I can and feel powerful at the same time." For Vilavanh, embracing how awesome it feels to be a woman is synonymous with being free to do whatever she wants. "I'm past the stage of caring what people think. I am who I am and it feels great. I like that freedom."
As Vilavanh, like many recent grads with a knack for style, moves away from the college student lifestyle, she's begun to actually own more of the clothes she really likes. With her own outfits, Vilavanh tries not to plan too much, wing it, and satisfy herself. At the end of the day, she knows fashion is supposed to be fun.
"It is so fun to try something new and look good," she says. "This is a short life, and if you want to be remembered for wearing a T-shirt and jeans, that's fine with me, but I'm going to live my life fabulously."
What are you wearing? H&M pants that I got on sale, a tank top from Target, a Vans jacket I have from back when I worked there, and these strappy Steve Madden heels
What is the last item of clothing you bought? I bought my Steve Madden heels to wear for New Year's.
Name five items every woman should have in their closet. 1) A nice white T-shirt 2) A really nice light jacket 3) One awesomely casual dress 4) An awesome formal evening dress 5) One thing that fits you like a glove
What's one fashion trend you can't stand? I don't like when people carry a backpack and a purse. What's the point? Are you trying to accessorize with your backpack? What are you trying to say? Is it a functionality thing? I'm all about consolidating. Choose one or the other.
Give us a childhood memory of you and clothes. I tried a lot of stupid stuff in middle and high school. I remember tearing up strips of jeans and then putting them in my hair.
I was also really influenced by a picture I once saw of Brody Dalle from The Distillers. She put a zipper on the front of her T-shirt, and I thought it was badass. I started to put zippers on my shirts, and I thought it was cool how I could make V-necks out of them or make them look like little jackets. I was pretty proud of myself.
What is your one piece of fashion advice for Phoenix? Look good, feel good, and own what you wear. There are so many possibilities with fashion, and you can convey any type of personality that you want. It's all about attitude.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.