Why I'll Never Be Too Old For Back-To-School Shopping

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BTS_1_Hisashi OkawaIllustrated by Hisashi Okawa.


The general populace may take the time around New Years to do a little self-evaluation, but fashion folks go through it in the fall. Candy Pratts Price was telling the truth in The September Issue: September is the January of fashion.

New York Fashion Week kicks off this personal (closet) examination for most editors, but things are a little bit different for me. I've been shopping for September in the exact same way since safety scissors and gym shorts were on my list, and I admit that I've accidentally (or nostalgically) referred to my yearly autumn spree as "Back to School" shopping many times. It's a ritual that's embedded deep within my psyche — regardless of that fact that I don't go near schools anymore except for when it's time to vote for something — and I'm going to make the argument that you should bring the BTS spree back into your life, too.

Fashion Week and Back to School may be completely different occasions, but they've got a lot in common. There are just as many minor dramas and hierarchical politics to navigate (and avoid). At both times, we reunite with our peers, most of whom we haven't seen all summer. Then, we spend eight hours shuffling from being seated hip to hip in one room to another. Both bring with them tremendous pressure to present a certain image — about who you are, and what (or what publication) you represent. Sure, at the shows we're comparing our Zalenciaga and borrowed handbags instead of Ninja Turtles lunch boxes, but it's pretty much the same routine.

My September shopping yen started before my very first school year. Nevermind the fact that most of my supplies were stolen from my dad's office and my backpack was a hand-me-down from a neighbor's son, it was all new to me. Being given these goods was like Christmas, my birthday, and the Chinese New Year rolled into one — a combination that obviously made it my favorite "holiday." We were an immigrant family with two young kids living on a grad-student salary, so my parents never set aside much of a budget for clothing. (There's always some family friend outgrowing their things at the same rate you're growing into them, after all.) But, they always made an exception come September.

Despite what advertisements might allege, there's nothing specific about August and September that necessitates a new wardrobe that minute. You don't just grow your allotted yearly inch or so all of a sudden. There's no school style police force mandating at least a 5% "brand-new" quota in your outfit rotation, and it's not as if stores are barren wastelands except for in the fall. The reason my parents indulged any of my whining for new things at the start of the school year was simple: sales. Without having to deal with the crowds at Black Friday, the picked-over merchandise of post-Holiday, or the constant hustle of coupon cutting, they could cheaply and quickly stock up on nearly everything their kids needed for the rest of the year.

BTS_3_Hisashi OkawaIllustrated by Hisashi Okawa.


My motivation was much more sartorial in nature. Like most fashion people, I remember major life moments by what I was wearing. The year I started speaking up in class was predicated by an epic smiley-face blouse that was the first item of clothing that got me compliments from my peers (not just their parents). The sneakers I resorted to getting after my arguments for a pair of Doc Martens were dismissed led to me meeting my best friend in fifth grade (who happened to have the same pair). The Worst Year Ever was marred by a misguided pair of heeled loafers and Abercrombie lookalike tees that I thought would make me more likable, but just made me more self-conscious, instead. And, the first time I made the choice to go for weird instead of regular not only kicked off a couple years of a socks-and-heels obsession, but also helped me realize that people tend to like you best when you're being yourself.

There was another part of that seasonal shopping that a Type A planner like myself totally indulged in, and that was strategizing. For someone whose favorite game as a 6-year-old was "Itemizing The American Girl Catalog by Price, Category, and Genre," the fact that I got to plan what I could buy and actually received a reasonable allowance to make it happen was like a prize unto itself. You should have seen the spreadsheets I used to draft in my Mead notebooks.

Each item was split into columns where I'd calculate its versatility (number of potential outfits created using existing clothes) and price-to-specialness ratio (using the cheapest dollar amount I'd find after doing the necessary comparison shopping). Additional care was made to ensure that I was filling any holes I'd identified in my wardrobe during the year before, and all new considerations fell under a certain mission statement for the year. Fifth grade was all about Laura Ingalls Wilder meets Claudia Kishi, for example. The 11th Grade was British Mod as conceived by Teen Vogue's prom issues. After strategizing, I'd make my decisions, gather my notes, and spend every last cent of my budget in one long day of shopping.
BTS_2_Hisashi OkawaIllustrated by Hisashi Okawa.


Though my style doesn't pivot quite as wildly anymore, I still find myself shopping with a particular focus in mind. Japanese Fisherman Goes To Clown College was my 2013. All Band-Tee Everything could sum up 2009. And, my current aesthetic? Let's call it "Style Nanda As Curated By Dries Van Noten." It's no coincidence that I found a career based on personal style — and one that requires resetting it every so often.

If there's anything that I believe about clothes, it's that they can be powerful. During the 2012 elections, I attended an event celebrating the first-ever Presidential Barbie, and one of the speakers there brought up an excellent point regarding those who dismissed the new doll as something silly: The first step to becoming something is to imagine becoming it. If young girls are to ever to become our female presidents, they have to believe in that possibility. While an outfit won't literally get your name on a ballot, choosing to wear it may be the first small way you bolster yourself for a challenge that may turn out to be the the first step you took toward office.

It's so much easier to feel like you're an optimistic person when you're dressed in head-to-toe color, and it's easier to feel like you can speak up in a boardroom when you're in the kind of outfit that fills you with power. When what you're wearing on your body and what you're thinking and feeling inside are aligned, magical things can happen. Having the opportunity to take inventory of what all those things can be, and manifest those ambitions in the form of something real and tangible, is something that I'm never going to grow out of. It's why, every September, I take stock, figure out what I want to be and say in the months ahead, and make sure my wardrobe is up for the challenge. If it's not, I hit the racks.

Sure, most of the planning happens inside my head instead of on looseleaf these days, and I'm adding things to a digital cart instead of heading to the mall. But, for someone who avoids my birthday and New Year's Eve for existential, time's-moving-too-fast reasons, I make sure that I milk BTS for all it's worth. Even if it takes you all year to restock your closet, and your clothing budget depresses you (both things that happen to me frequently), I think that getting into that back-to-school mindset is a healthy practice. It's a way to tune into what you need by identifying some easier stuff: what your closet needs. So, sharpen those number two pencils, and start preparing your own supply list — consider this your first assignment.