Designed, Reworked — Erin Wignall Han

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Visiting the recycled clothing concept East West Shop was a visual treat. We were in a variegated landscape with all manner of wares for sale on North Broadway in Chinatown, Los Angeles. Unlike typical indoor malls that are completely enclosed with central air conditioning and heat, the peek-a-boo structure of Far East Plaza is an open-air format, letting in sunshine and the cool breeze that is typical of Los Angeles year-round.

Built in the early eighties, the plaza entrance is flanked by restaurants new and old, such as Lasita which stands across the courtyard from East West Shop and Kim Chuy on the street facing side of the plaza. Our LA Photographer, Alexandria Ramos, and I met up with shop owner, Erin, who is half of the husband-and-wife design duo of East West Shop, which is located on the building’s lower level. Erin takes us upstairs to chat at an outdoor table in front of a Taiwanese street food joint that has since closed.

Her 6-year-old business, East West Shop, is the plaza’s self-described “information booth” where passersby often inquire about surrounding businesses. Erin is passionate about helping her neighbors.

Erin’s journey in fashion began when she interned for Vivienne Westwood (studying abroad at the London College of Fashion while she attended Iowa State University). This glimpse of the world outside Iowa gave her the itch to travel. She moved to Los Angeles in 2001, and by 2004, Erin landed a role as design director for Shepard Fairey’s clothing line Obey. She worked there for 11 years, utilizing her experience and knowledge of local LA production gained from previous jobs.

At Obey, Erin liaised for her company with overseas manufacturers to produce their women’s line. She frequently visited factories in China, sometimes India, and took annual trips to attend European markets. Erin realized she had an insider’s view to the polluting effects of apparel production, and she even saw that she was partly responsible. There were harmful effects on land and people that her colleagues and customers didn’t see firsthand, and she wanted to make a change. At Obey, she pitched alternative production methods to incorporate more environmentally friendly dying techniques, but it proved impossible to upend existing processes.

After her first child, Erin started to amass her own personal collection of one-of-a-kind pieces. These were mostly items pulled from a vintage sorting facility in South LA. At first, she used them for samples to inspire her at work, occasionally picking up special pieces for friends. Eventually, her garage was filled with items that she came to realize needed a retail space to display. At the same time, Erin had outgrown her role at Obey. With a newborn, she was exhausted at work, and to make matters worse, she started to feel she was less valued when she couldn’t stretch herself in the same ways she did before becoming a mother.

All I could picture was … [having] a space where I felt free, which probably meant not working for my company … where I had open light, and sun, and wind. That’s what I meditated on and what I thought about all the time. I want to be in a light filled space with lots of windows where I could look out and see trees — and the sun —when it rises and when it sets. I wouldn’t go into a dark office [anymore], not see the sun, be in front of a screen and then walk out into the dark and not even know what happened to my day. I couldn’t do it anymore. My last trip to China, I was in Jiangsu Province and the air pollution was causing an above average reading on the air quality index. I had a small respiratory infection before I left. I lost my breath, and I couldn’t get it back. There wasn’t enough oxygen in the air for me to breathe in after I coughed. That scared me. I think that was the first time [air quality] affected me personally. My son was two at that time.

As Erin grew increasingly disenchanted with the design process and the immense waste that it produced, she started to look into other ways to make an impact through design on her own terms.

My husband and I both realized that we were pretty unhappy. I was trying so hard to keep myself together for this job, where I was making something that I didn’t even feel good about anymore. We could take a graphic and print it on a shirt, but we weren’t doing anything to [actively] support the mission behind sustainability. We were just printing.

Erin’s penchant for sustainability goes back to some of the jobs she had as a teenager in Iowa. She tells us about 4-H, a nationwide youth organization that offers contest prizes for growers in various categories, like livestock or produce, and how she learned that there were prizes not only for growers but also makers. This inspired Erin to try her hand at making clothes at an early age.

I sewed my own outfit, made my own beaded necklace to go with it and then I had to walk on the runway. A really basic outfit, but I was super proud of it. We didn’t have a lot of money. I was told, “If you want something, you have to make it.” My mom taught me how to embroider when I was four or five. I was working when I was 14, because I had two younger siblings and I didn’t want to stay at home and watch them for free. By the time I turned 16, I was working at Goodwill and that’s where I really started to understand the donation system.

Erin’s talent for handcrafts began to manifest in her personal collection. She frequented a thrift store that was attached to a giant sorting facility to stock her vintage, which spurred a need for space to store the items.

The vintage warehouse would get huge bales of clothes from Salvation Army or Goodwill and break the bales apart. People standing along both sides of a conveyor belt pulled different things for different markets. A woman right in front of me would pull for American vintage, down the line there’d be a woman who only pulled house goods, another only pulled shoes. They let me stand behind the American vintage worker so I would get all her scraps. I started to realize that a lot of the vintage that I grabbed was the damaged vintage, and that’s why it was cheap. To sell it, all I needed to do was fix it. That’s when I started repairing the items in my collection. I turned our garage into a little store and invited our friends over on Sundays for a few hours.

We came to this plaza one day. My husband, Dennys, said, “I want to bring you to my favorite Vietnamese place,” because he would come for lunch often when he worked at Huf, nearby. The plaza was pretty empty at that time. I said, “Maybe we can ask and see about [a store in this] building. I’m tired of designing out of a tiny office in Orange County behind a screen.” Part of the problem with fashion and apparel design is that themes are regurgitated because everyone’s looking at the same pictures online rather than what is raw, in the city, in the street, with real people.

Erin developed a positive relationship with the building’s landlord, George, who proved to be a very helpful. “He has always been there to answer questions regarding business and compliance that are all new to a first time retail store owner.” In preparation for her new business, Erin also attended free seminars at Inner City Capital Connections.

We originally signed a six-month lease; it was only going to be a pop-up. At first, I wasn’t planning on leaving my full-time job. I was hoping that I could spend at least a day a week here so that I could get to know the community in a real way. When we saw the hood windows and opened the roll-gate — that’s when we changed our minds about doing it part time — we were looking at everything we had pictured.

It was then that Erin started thinking seriously about running her store full-time. When she first shared her store concept with a mentor who operated in traditional retail circles, the feedback was discouraging. She was told that a clothing store adjacent to restaurants would have difficulty getting funded. Despite this, Erin funded the business with equity in her home. Her son attends school in the neighborhood, and her husband is her business partner.

I truly believe that energy sticks with things. I feel that if you say, “I hate the shirt,” and you give it to me, but I don’t say, “I love the shirt,” then I’m not sure I’ll ever sell it. If I also say, “I hate that shirt,” put it on a hanger and set it there, then it’s definitely not going to sell. Sometimes [this process] includes saying nice things to it, or it could be that it needs a repair. Not only am I going to repair it, but I’m also not going to use a machine. I’m going to hand sew it and do sashiko (a Japanese mending technique) on it, because that feels, to me, like a better homage to what this garment has been through. I need to put the time in and do a hand repair on it. That’s when I’ve re-intentioned it into something somebody cared for, that’s beautiful. To me, that’s the future. It’s almost like finding healing in whatever aspect it needs to be. For me, I needed to find healing for myself after my work in the apparel industry, but I also feel like I need to pass that on to the people that I encounter and the garments that I sell to people.

East West Shop is a space worth experiencing in-person. The store specializes in vintage clothing, often hand mended by Erin herself. Certain items undergo nontoxic small batch dying processes. Many items include sustainability labeling to show customers what factors make the garment more earth-friendly.

Conversations with Jess Lo. Written by Jess Lo. Edited by J Wheaton & Eugenia Macias.

Cover Art by Sarah Emory. Brand Design by Meghan Hricak.