As a teenager, I lived in Rotterdam, Netherlands, a city whose skyline of modern architecture barely masked how provincial it really was. There was a single retailer in Rotterdam that stocked Rick Owens, its industrial storefront populated by black-clad salespeople, and Yoox was one of the few online stores that delivered designer fashion to my parents’s house. I also obsessed over runway images on Style.com (yes, it was that era), even though I knew that I wouldn’t be able to see most of those pieces in real life, let alone afford them. And even if I could: There was no same-day delivery back then, no pre-selected delivery window, no hassle-free returns. Instead, I had to sit at the door and rescue the discounted, two-seasons-ago Jeremy Scott T-shirt I found in a dark corner of the web from the mailman’s clutches before my mother intercepted it and lectured me on credit card fraud.
Now I live in New York, the city of lights, speed and two-hour delivery. But like a true product of my environment, I’m not so sure I like this instant gratification. While most of New York’s services are geared toward convenience, I relish in slow decisions and slower fashion because it simply makes me love my purchases more.
I buy the majority of my clothes from China-based online stores whose goods, if I’m lucky, will arrive narrowly within one menstrual cycle. I was introduced to Taobao, for example, in China, where my family uses it to buy everything from lipsticks to light bulbs, but I only experienced its full magic after I returned to the U.S. Taobao forces me to research sizing and material like the amateur fashion sleuth I was many years ago, often pondering a cryptic line in a review with the same fervor some apply to analyzing texts from love interests. (What does “mixed” mean in “mixed materials?” When they say it’s perfect for “summer,” do they mean summer in northern or southern climates?) Taobao’s low prices are certainly attractive enough by themselves, but I’ve realized that it’s the months of searching, wishing and hoping (and the moment a silk qipao fits precisely around my wide shoulders thanks to my own due diligence!) that makes a piece feel like a million dollars.
Don’t get me wrong: Speedy delivery is certainly convenient if you’ve run out of cat litter and there’s no way you can carry a 20-pound bag back from the pet store 15 blocks away (this example is from real life). And knowing that UPS will appear at my door to pick up the items I want to return (which, truthfully, is 70 percent of what I order) allows me to try on things before committing to them. But there are many structural issues with our thirst for instant gratification: Our fast fashion puts a strain on designers, it’s become one of the most polluting industries in the world, and there’s a significant human cost for the workers who produce our clothes in poor conditions for minimum wage.
With that in mind, buying any new clothes from mass retailers feels flawed, whether I’m ordering from Taobao or buying an organic cotton T-shirt that nonetheless stems from a desire for newer and better things. But the fact that I have to put effort into acquiring something from this site means that I only purchase items I literally can not stop thinking about. And making more thoughtful purchases that I know I’ll cherish, I like to think, will eventually lead to me contributing less fashion-related waste. It feels like a personal — and immediately achievable — way to escape the fast fashion trap.
In Rotterdam, when I had neither budget nor access, I browsed the web for discounted Alexandre Herchcovitch items the same way I perused Myspace for indie bands. I spent weeks locating them in my vicinity, then figuring out how to get them at a discount. And it was wonderful. I think this is also why I was so mesmerized by those style.com runway photos: I watched the models strut down catwalks like pop stars at a concert, and the distance between me and the stage only intensified my desire. I had to wait, together with the rest of the world, for another season before those beautiful styles would arrive in stores. And then I’d have to wait some more before they arrived in my corner of the world. (That’s on top of waiting for the images to load with our temperamental internet connection — I guess there are things about web 1.0 I’d rather forget.)
While I wouldn’t recommend everyone have all their goods shipped over from across the ocean (although most of our goods already are, anyway), there are other ways to awaken a newfound sense of shopping dedication without using Google Translate. For example, I’ve stopped paying those few dollars extra for speedy shipping from American stores. Sometimes I pretend I can’t return an item as a way of asking myself how certain I am of a purchase. And I might even consider searching for a desired item in a physical store, too. Why? Because when I walked past a long line of teenagers waiting hours outside the Supreme store in Manhattan last week, I realized again that fashion is at its most magical when there’s excruciating distance and anticipation involved.
Mary Wang is a Chinese-Dutch writer who shares her New York apartment with her partner, four cats, and a chubby rabbit.
Collage by Edith Young; Photos by DeAgostini via Getty Images.