I have been working in fashion since I scored my first internship at 18 years old. On my first day, at my first magazine, the favorite intern, a part-time model and singer who stood at a casual 5’11, was having a conversation with the fashion director right next to my little desk. They were discussing the new Kate Moss for Topshop collection, which had dropped the previous Saturday, and whether it would be worth checking out. The editor said, “I don’t know, it was all really feminine and short floral dresses. It really isn’t us.”
That final “us” hung in the air as I looked down at my assiduously selected Marc by Marc Jacobs short dress in a pastel floral print. It was pointed. It was not coincidental. She did, in fact, “mean it like that.” Her comment was intended to let me know that I had chosen the wrong thing, that I was not “us.” I was devastated. In that moment, I realized I had to learn about, well, everything, and quickly, and that in order to “make it,” I’d have to look the part. It became an obsession.
I did what any self-respecting 18-year-old who grew up on 90’s rom-com movies would do: I gave myself a makeover. I scoured vintage stores and Urban Outfitters until I got the grungy, MySpace girl look that the magazine I worked for promoted. The result? Nothing fit me properly and nothing flattered my body type, but I was determined. Was it me? Definitely not. But none of that mattered anymore because I was in NYC now and I had to “fake it” until I made it. You are your brand, right? Working at a magazine is sort of like working at a store. You need to embody what’s being sold.
By the end of that summer I had it nailed. I was going to all the “cool spots” and became super skilled at pretending to love life. I had a fake ID and pricey designer platform boots (two pairs of them!) that I wore with destroyed denim shorts, t-shirts with holes in them and a lot of eyeliner. I looked the part. I felt terrible.
Let me back up by saying that this was not my first foray into manipulating my own image for personal gain. I have almost always used fashion as a social tool. I wore a uniform for most my life and, even though I already stood out for being one of three black girls in my class of 50, I hated the idea of having to wear the same thing as everyone else. I differentiated myself by proving that I had style (and as a result, was constantly in violation of the dress code). I was competitive about it, and wanted to win whatever imaginary contest I had invented.
In high school, I used my clothes to solidify my position at the top of the pecking order, then all throughout college, then to get hired at my first job. I was once interviewed by a fashion director who didn’t look at my resume a single time during our meeting. Instead she said, “So, what we are missing here is ‘a downtown East Village girl,’ bohemian with an edge.” That wasn’t me at all, but still, I wanted the job. I had to have it, so I nodded enthusiastically, name dropped a few stores that I only sometimes shopped at and was hired the next day.
With each new career transition came a new set of style guidelines, a new persona to fulfill — and I played each part to type-A perfection. Fashion had made me chameleonic. It was an expensive, self-compromising habit that I told myself was an investment in my future. It eventually consumed me, but I didn’t even realize it was happening. All I wanted was to impress my bosses with what I wore, and I did. I was finally “us.” My friends thought I was killing it. Everyone thought I loved my life and the accompanying wardrobe. And I think, at that point, I did. I think. Mostly I was getting so good at the “fake it” part that I had fooled myself.
My overstuffed closet told the truth: it was a groaning, hodge-podge roadmap of chaos, all flash, no substance. But the more entrenched you become in the industry, the more brands offer to loan you clothing for fashion events. To keep up, I spent money on more designer clothes, for fear of someone seeing me outside of fashion week and labeling me a fraud. The paranoia overwhelmed me; I padded my closet with more and more ridiculous possessions.
On top of that, I’ve never had an easy body for fashion, but I dressed to emulate the impossibly tall and thin women for whom I worked. My waist-to-hip ratio didn’t bode well for the silhouettes I bought at the time. It was a comical performance of uncomfortable clothing and regrets — but you don’t realize these things, or you don’t think about them, when you’re living out your so-called dream, when you have the job you always imagined.
And then one day, I snapped.
I went through a tremendous heartbreak at the beginning of 2016. A former friend betrayed me in the process. Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse: I took a risk on a start-up for the sake of a change (one I hoped would cure me of my post-breakup depression) and was fired within a few months. Nothing comforted me, especially not my clothes. My personal life was a disaster and I realized just how little it mattered that I had a runway Ferragamo gown in my closet “just because.”
On top of all of that, I had to move. For the first time in six years, I was forced to take a critical look at all the stuff in my life — and then purge that which didn’t serve me. I made several attempts to clean my closet, but the process was slow. It’s hard to part with pieces that used to represent self-worth. It’s harder to part with very expensive things. It’s the hardest to break a lifelong habit of using fashion to cover up your insecurities. Little dents were made though, bit by bit.
At my new, current job, fashion is tangential; it’s a part of the description — not the whole thing. I’m able to diversify my interests with other subjects like beauty, fitness and wellness. It’s been a relief. Still, out of habit more than anything, I fell back into playing the game during this most recent fashion week in New York. I bought a few new shiny things, borrowed samples, dressed myself in “looks.” When the last garment bag of loaned runway items was zipped and returned to its press office after the fact, I decided enough was officially enough. I was done pretending, and so I finally went through my closet with a steadier, heavier hand. There were 27 bags to sell and donate in total. I’m still not really finished.
My wardrobe as it currently stands is what I call “fashion basic.” White tees are at the forefront. After years of stiletto pumps that threatened my weak, wobbly ankles and pencil skirts so tight I could barely sit down, I’m ready to feel comfortable. I want to wear shoes I can walk in, jeans that fit my butt without tailoring. This, too, might be a phase. For all I know, I could be lured back in any moment by some designer’s new collection, but I am tired of being broke, tired of trying to look a way that makes me feel like I am sprinting on a hamster wheel in a cage I can’t escape. More than anything, I want to feel like myself — and learn what that even feels like. Maybe this is the beginning.
Interior photos by Edith Young.