What's Old Is New: What Thrifting Taught Me About Fashion

"The thrift  store is where I find flow … the clarity some people feel when they’re running or meditating." Bernard in a thrifted look. She says buying denim can be tricky: “When in doubt, try a pair of soft old Levi’s.”

CLINT SPAULDING/PatrickMcMullan.com.

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“Where’d you get the new Céline?” asks a Vanity Fair Best Dressed list vet, eyeing my blue-and-red checked kilt at a NYC party packed with next season’s fashion statements.

“From a secondhand depot on the shoulder of a Maryland interstate,” I answer. With pride.

Closing the gap between freeway budget and runway style has been my mission for the past decade. Almost everything I wear is from the thrift store. I interviewed for my first fashion magazine job in a no-name, Stella McCartney–esque suit, repurposed countless old slips into black-tie attire and even caught legendary photographer Bill Cunningham’s eye with the thrifted Ann Taylor jacket I wore over my dress at the Met Gala this year.

It’s not that I want to look like a mock-up of high-fashion collections, but when someone mistakes my Jones New York for Dries Van Noten or J. Jill for Jil Sander, it confirms a theory about dressing that I developed when I was four. (Yes, four.) In hazy pre-sleep one night, it occurred to me that if I layered a voluminous cupcake skirt under a longer cotton dress, I could achieve the silhouette of a tulle princess gown, poufing out at the waist. I didn’t need the real princess dress and never would. I just needed the parts so I could build my own. And when I got older, I realized everything I needed to create any look could be found at a secondhand shop.

I started thrifting as a teenager with my best friend, Nicholas. We drove south down Route 1 in Nick’s gray Volvo to our favorite destination, Village Thrift Store, in Laurel, Maryland. We started going to Village Thrift because our parents definitely couldn’t afford designer clothes, and tapping into a source beyond our local mall felt like we had the power to remove ourselves from our suburban context.

This was before the onset of street style blogs, so as teens, we filled in our own inspiration between the runway and the street. We thought that by looking different, dressing in echoes of Comme des Garçons—makeshift looks sculpted out of blazers and held together by safety pins—instead of mall mainstays, we were confirming that we were, actually, unique people.

But in the process, we touched a lot of clothes, and that experience ended up giving us our basic fashion education. Camel, yes. Silk, yes. Poly-blend, no. We slid thousands of hangers across the metal racks. And when they were packed full, we flung our bodies against the garments to make some room in the row. We needed to see.

By the end of high school, I had collected several Gucci scarves and Oscar de la Renta suits, Christian Dior shirts and even an Yves Saint Laurent dress, all for the cost of an unbridled spree at Forever 21. Once I could identify what was good, even if it wasn’t a designer I knew or coveted, trend cycles loosened their grip on me. New collections didn’t make me feel like I needed something, just that I had further references to bring into the thrift store.

If you’re patient and see thrifting as a practice, not a pressure-filled search for something specific, it’s easy to slowly amass beautiful pieces in strong fabrics. So I save money by buying 95 percent thrift, and then occasionally investing in something I love from a designer I admire.

I’m not the only one. There are many practical reasons to thrift in post-recession America. It’s no surprise that since 2007, Goodwill Inc. has reported an 84 percent increase in sales. It’s cost-effective, it’s green and, these days, it’s cool. (Thanks, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.)

These days, the thrift store is where I find flow. Maybe it’s the clarity some people feel when they’re running or meditating. I flip through the racks and it gives me the sensation that my entire memory is open. I’m feeling the weight of fabrics, cross-referencing collections, imagining what a piece will look like on.

Because everything is layered together, the sensory pleasure is at its maximum. Even items that I don’t like—say, a Hollister henley from 2005—bring forth recollections of styles past, which I weigh against how I feel about dressing now. Enjoying the memory of what that henley and fabric stood for (hoping a lacrosse player would talk to me in the parking lot of my school, for example) and comparing it to what catches my attention on the rack now is eye-opening. As I go through each row, it feels like I’m simultaneously watching 100 films, plus directing a new one, imagining what I’ll wear next.

In this space, fashion is free of advertising, Instagram endorsement, the editorial eye, a model’s frame. Every construct and confluence associated with the effort to dress oneself is absent. It’s like the art world’s white cube. It’s a blank place to decide what’s appealing to me: flip, flip, flip, silk Halston slip, you’re mine, flip, flip, I kind of want another boat shirt, flip, am I sick of navy blue?, flip, flip, my friend Rachel would love this print, on and on.

You can’t divorce clothes from their status as a commodity, but if you go into a place where every piece is priced just based on what physical article it is—a shirt, pants, shoes, etc.—you’re as close as it comes to an opportunity for free expression.

Thrifting gives everyone access to the fashion conversation, and I’m excited to engage. Do I get a small thrill when a powerful editor asks if my coat is Margiela when really it’s “nothing”? Of course. But mostly I love thrifting because it feels like my wardrobe is my choice. If I love something in that vast warehouse, I can usually afford it and I don’t have to compromise. My look is for less—and the impact is greater than the sum of its parts.

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