I can trace the origins of my personal style back to 1997, back to one pair of sneakers. They were baby-blue, high-top Reeboks with a double Velcro strap and made in patent leather. They also didn’t belong to me. They sat, wrapped in protective cellophane, in the window of my local sneaker store. My classmate, Brian — his family owned the place — gave me my first hickey, smelled like Versace Blue Jeans, and always wore the freshest kicks. He was the reason I loitered on Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue, the reason I walked past the baby-blue Reeboks 10 times a day. I saw them so often that I started to believe they already belonged to me. I shared this theory with my mom during one of our biannual trips to Payless, which was conveniently located three blocks from the sneaker store. I explained that the shoes were on sale, see, not like all the other sneakers I’d begged for (and been denied) in the past. “How big a sale are we talking?” my mom asked. She was challenging me; to her, “sale” was not interchangeable with “affordable.” I told her I didn’t know (a lie — they were $34.99), but we should stop and look? So that’s exactly what we did: look. “Those shoes don’t even match anything! You’ll never wear them, they’ll be out of style in two seconds, and you’re just gonna ask for something else six months from now,” my mom said as we left the store empty-handed. I disagreed. “Mom, they’re not going out of style. They’re Reebok Classics for a reason.” They were also the cheapest brand-name sneakers I’d ever seen. Walking away meant another season of fruitlessly circling shoes in my brother’s Eastbay catalog, leaving it open to the page boasting SALE!, and waiting for some family member to take mercy (or a hint). My mother did not care about labels. In fact, I think she hated them. She would often question my desire for designer clothing: “Would you jump off a bridge if your friends were doing it?” (No, but only because I don’t trust you to bury me in something magnificent.) And: “You wanna dress like a walking advertisement?” The short answer to that one was yes, I did. I wanted to advertise that I came from money (I didn’t), had style (I didn’t), and was on the pulse of cool (I wasn’t, clearly).
My mom, a grown woman, did not have to wear expensive clothing to project this image to the world. She was gorgeous. Her clothes hugged her body just right. She knew how to accessorize, how to do her makeup, how to stunt in $10 sneakers. I inherited her height and freckles, but not her confidence or ability to fill out a T-shirt. I was Gumby-ish, all flailing limbs and flat chest. No one with eyes would find me interesting — not unless my parents bought me a black-and-red First Down bubble jacket, preferably a reversible one so that I could pretend I owned two. Even now, I don’t know if my mother’s aversion to brands was authentic or a way to soften the blow of our being broke. My guess is the latter, because once per Christmas/birthday cycle, my parents would acquiesce and buy me a well-intentioned, tangential-to-what-I’d-actually-asked-for outfit. One Christmas, I received a beautiful pair of leather Timberland boots that 29-year-old me would’ve loved — but since they didn’t look like they belonged on a construction site, since they weren’t that classic wheat nubuck as seen on the feet of my friends and Jennifer Lopez, I didn’t know what to do with them. And in my tween mind, this was as bad as the Payless sneakers. After all, I wasn’t in this for craftsmanship or legacy. I was in it because I wanted to emulate other people until I disappeared completely. My friends didn’t come from money any more than I did, but still managed to dress the part. I found this baffling and frustrating — what were my parents trying to pull, exactly? I couldn’t begin to speculate on the tradeoffs that kept my friends in the latest Jordans, so I didn’t. Instead, I borrowed whatever I could. I squeezed my size-eight feet into kids’ sizes, the knuckles of my toes visible enough to trace through the leather. I hungrily accepted a Tommy Hilfiger polo shirt with blood stains on it, because my friend had been wearing it when she’d been struck by a car. I never worried that nothing fit or how clueless I looked. I just cared about the borrowed logo splashed across my chest. My family left Brooklyn for Rockland County, NY, in 1999. I was 13, and by then, my brand fever was call-an-ambulance hot. In Brooklyn, a decent coat and pair of sneakers were enough to carry an otherwise cheap outfit. But in Rockland, I was introduced to all manner of mall stores that hadn’t ever been on my radar. Tiffany dog tags ran amok. Abercrombie abounded. I was seriously disturbed. My style became 100% erratic after that. Wanting options, but too broke to afford them, some of my friends and I began shoplifting from the bottom of the mall food chain: DEB, Old Navy, Mr. Rags, maybe PacSun. This was an adequate strategy for acquiring staples and surfwear, but I also needed clothes that would appeal to the Juicy-butted, $100-sweatpants crowd. So I’d dig through richer friends’ closets looking for the oldest, ugliest Abercrombie shirt they owned and ask to borrow it — to which they’d respond, “That? Um...keep it.” I received pit-stained graphic tees like they were communion. Blessed! A year later, when I was old enough to work, my tactics expanded. I’d travel to Chinatown and follow strange men through alleyways and up several flights of stairs to buy knockoff, translucent Louis Vuitton purses. I’d coax my mom to the mall under the premise that I needed a ride, then convince her to buy “just this one thing” from the sale rack at Guess. If I suspected for a moment that she was about to purchase something for herself, I convinced her it’d be an act of bonding to buy me the same exact thing (or something of equal value). I still own a teal, bejeweled Guess by Marciano bra that’s one cup size too big because my mom needed belly-dancing attire and obviously, so did I.
These insidious shopping trips were short-lived, because my dad lost his job when I was 16. My extended family carried the weight of that loss for a year — my cousin most of all. For my birthday, she decked me out in Jane’s Army jeans: a brand that is no longer with us and might not have been all that popular even then, but to me, reeked of upward mobility. One pair looked as though they’d been put on sideways — a butt pocket where a front pocket should be, the button fly resting on my hipbone. I was obsessed. I’d been attempting to collect the look of money for years — and only rich people invest in statement jeans, right? Those sideways jeans changed my perception of what Monied Up looked like, and I spent my paychecks accordingly. I bought a pair of tire-fire orange Miss Sixty pants that were covered in inky black dots — what might happen if you washed the laundry without removing a pen from your pocket. And the teensiest Coach bag, watermelon green and pink, barely big enough to hold a wallet. Also, a pair of blue-and-red Nike Air Max 95s, the colors criss-crossing into purple ‘til they looked like the universe. I spent 60% of a check on a half-suede, half-mesh, yellow-and-turquoise Von Dutch hat. If it was a brand’s biggest mistake, I bought it. What I never 2 + 2ed is that the clothing I was drawn to — the eccentric, the patterned, the peacockian — didn’t attract me because of how nouveau riche, unique, and zany it was. It attracted me because it was more affordable than the normal-looking clothes by the same brand. My entire wardrobe was an agglomeration of what I could beg, borrow, or steal — and when it blurred together, I came off bold, like a risk-taker, someone who’d wear patent-leather, baby blue Reeboks and be like, What, bitch? A few years back, my mom ran into an old classmate of mine. This classmate was (is) beautiful and stylish; she dressed like a drone had scooped her up from a SoHo boutique and dropped her into my lunch period. And you know what she told my mother? “I always admired Steph. She had her own style. I wish I’d been more like that.” When mom told me this, my first thought was, !!!!, and then, Wait, what? I recalled this girl once complimenting me on an awful pair of Candie’s sneakers I owned (they were yellow, red, and orange; I wore them with the Miss Sixty pants). I thought she was being cruel. But it occurred to me that in being broke, cheap, or both, I had found a sort of freedom that wasn’t forced on girls who had the bankroll to dress “normal.” My classmate and I had both used whatever resources we had to fit in, our images shaped by the choices we were able to make. And my choices — made with the goal of disappearing — had made me stand out, instead. I wouldn’t have loved knowing that in high school, but hearing it years later, from someone I’d envied, made me proud. I felt like I hadn’t been wearing clothes, but the entirety of my upbringing — and that wasn’t a bad thing. My style was never a conscious decision. I’d actually call it a capitalist-nightmare accident. But appreciating the funky things, the bright things — it wouldn’t have happened if I’d been able to dress like everyone else. It was born out of years of begging, of second-besting, of looking at price tags and labels before sizes or design. It’s not just a style, it’s a lifestyle; one that, for better or worse, I wear on my sleeve. Ten years later, I still gravitate towards the sales rack, to whatever sticks out or doesn’t belong. Only now, I don’t do it with shame. I do it while thinking about the admiration of my classmate or the way my mom managed to shine despite a label-free existence. I do it thinking maybe I’d be the first one to jump off the bridge: a blaze of orange and teal in my wake, Mom yelling down, “Those sneakers don’t even match anything!” And me responding, “Exactly!”