Some people spend a lifetime searching for their calling. Joellen Lu had an inkling at an early age.
"My dad found a box of stuff from my childhood," she says, sitting in her downtown Santa Ana clothing shop. "For a Girl Scouts camping trip in fourth grade, I had sketched out all of my outfits—even my pajamas! I guess I always gravitated toward fashion."
The 22-year-old psychology student is the creator of Tarte, a store filled with eclectic vintage and contemporary pieces that prompt strangers on the street to ask, "Where did you get that?" Everything's a little edgy and totally fun, from the floral bodysuits and studded denim cut-offs to a rare Death Row Records tee and a "Kelly Kapowski" acid-wash bustier.
Tarte, 206B E. Fourth St., Santa Ana, (714) 856-4160; www.shoptarte.com.
"I look for things that can't be found anywhere else," she says. "There has to be a sense of uniqueness."
For Lu, who grew up in Orange, the shop emerged from her personal blog, JoellenLove (www.joellenlove.com). In 2008, she bought a new DSLR camera to visually document her weekend adventures at music shows, new restaurants and art-gallery openings. Yet most of the comments from readers centered on what she was wearing. To remedy her overflowing closet, she decided to open an online shop, which eventually became Tarte Vintage (www.shoptarte.com).
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Lu describes her style as "nostalgic," fusing pieces from different eras for a look that's current, never costume-y. Today, she scours local estate sales, charity shops and swap meets ("The ones where you have to really dig," she says) for items that are at least 15 years old and can assimilate well into modern fashion. On her website, she offers tips on how to style the clothes. (How to wear a geometric bomber jacket? "Pair with high-waist disco pants and neon jewelry, or throw over an acid-wash [body-conscious] dress!")
In May, Lu achieved a longtime goal—opening a brick-and-mortar shop. Tucked behind Fourth Street, the store also has a small men's collection curated by her boyfriend, Chris Gonzalez.
"I've found my passion with all this," Lu says. "I'm staying true to my own style."