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Do you feel like you ever want
To try my love and see how well it fits?
Baby can’t you see, when you look at me
I can’t kick this feelin’ when it hits.

I Want Your Love, 1978

In his thoroughly captivating memoir Le Freak, Nile Rodgers goes into detail about how important the role of dress played in the building of the Chic brand. He cites Kiss and Roxy Music as being major influences because they were in essence ‘faceless’ and recognized how vital the band’s image was in creating a mystique. Rodgers and bass man Bernard Edwards didn’t come from money, but everything about the Chic allure suggested affluence and restrained luxury. Rodgers notes in his book that the R+B groups of the 70s wore ‘flamboyant’ costumes, but his band opted for a ‘believable’ image of bespoke business suits and refined ready-to-wear that coincided with their philosophy of aspiration. As trite as it sounds, when I hear a Chic tune I stand taller, fix my collar and the like. One can’t utter ‘Yowsah! Yowsah! Yowsah!’ with poor posture. 

via Ebay

In grade six I started attending a private day school. Since navy jumpers were the dress code for the lower school, accessories played a more pronounced role in our restricted wardrobes. For footwear, saddle oxfords were required, but as long as they were black and white, there was a bit of room for interpretation. Most of the girls had shoes from Capezio, Kinney or Buster Brown. I remember one particularly tall and athletic fifth-grader managed to score some Nike versions.

During my first semester my mom and I decided on a pair of the Capezios. There were two options for the black section of the oxford, either plain leather or simulated snake skin. I went with the former, but soon regretted getting the Capezios in the first place. When I started school, I realized that most of the girls bought their shoes from Kinney. They were sharper and cuter. Despite being my size, the Capezio versions looked like I was wearing a pair of yachts on my feet. By the spring semester, I made my way over to Kinney after convincing my mother that the Capezios weren’t working out size-wise.

By this time I was also fully aware of how girls throughout the school placed a special emphasis on bags, shoes, scrunchies, jewelry and colored rubber bands for braces as the sole means of identity construction. Since I’d received some birthday money I decided to use it towards my next accessory purchase: a Liz Claiborne bag with the multiple triangles. Since the brand was a formidable component for the working woman from the 70s through the early 90s, the accessories inevitable trickled down to her daughter.

Fortunately, I had a cousin who worked at the Jordan Marsh in the Palm Beach Mall and he was able to get the bag down to $65 with his discount. The next day I wore my purse so proudly, with its long strap, pink canvas and ecru triangles, my head nearly popped off my neck from an enlarged ego. But I needed to drive home the point further. The bag needed to be distinguished from the others. I’d conspicuously left the hang tags on the bag to showcase its newness. Before I even made it to homeroom, a classmate advised me to remove them because they looked ridiculous.

Although embarrassed, this minor infraction didn’t keep me down for too long. In fact, before class even started I designated myself the counterfeit police. At the time there were several knockoff versions of the ubiquitous bags. Instead of the triangles, the step and repeat pattern was an angled square that looked like a modified diamond. I proceeded to tell my classmates who owned this bag (which was just as popular as the Liz Claiborne version at a quarter of the price) that they were wearing fakes. My BFF Mary dismissively said she didn’t care. I had conveniently forgotten that my official purse for the third grade was a child-size Gucci knockoff littered with the letter “S” as opposed to the letter “G.

In The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel writes that  “often the identities we express with our aesthetic choices are not those we have but those we desire.” In my quest to acclimate, I was gauche (hang tags), rude (sorry Mary!), and hypocritical (Succi anyone?). By the start of grade seven, my pink had succumbed to wear and tear and was looking rather ratchet. I eventually moved on to an Esprit bucket bag the size of John Goodman, then a canvas Esprit tote, then a multi-color pleather backpack, and finally ending my secondary school career with a non-descript black JanSport knapsack that I bought from a street vendor in Washington Heights while visiting family during the summer. In retrospect, I unknowingly purchased a knockoff. Bag karma.

via Google Creative Commons

During my final year of undergraduate school I decided I wanted to pursue public relations, specifically fashion public relations. I did an Alta Vista search (this was 2000) and figured out which firm did the PR for my favorite designers and brands. I then obtained the contact information information of the owners or hiring managers of each agency. Most queries went unanswered, despite my willingness to work for free in order to get a foot in the door.

One owner did write back, however, inviting me for an interview. I was thrilled when she complimented me on my resume and expressed a need for help at her small but growing shop. In our brief exchange I was under the impression that the position was basically mine, she just wanted to meet two associates on her modestly sized team.

My excitement led me to buy a new suit on my first credit card, sparing what I thought was no expense. I took the Long Island Rail Road into the city after my morning classes, feeling confident that the job was mine. I worked out in my head that I would have to find a retail job somewhere and work weekends while living at my mom’s old lady friend’s apartment in East Flatbush. I was happy to make a sacrifice if it meant breaking into the fashion industry.

It took me a while to figure out where the office building was, but I remember being in the Flower District because I had to walk through  rows of potted plants on the sidewalk in order to make my interview on time. Once I entered the building I realized it wasn’t the type of office I’d seen in Sex and the City or in my previous internships in SoHo or the West Village over the past two semesters. But that didn’t deter me. Those jobs were video archiving and publishing respectively, and this was fashion.

My puffed up demeanor brimming with presumption and poise was soon deflated when I was told by the seemingly shocked associates that the internship no longer existed. The owner, who I’d had the correspondence with, was out of town and had left the interviewing to this duo who clearly uncomfortable with my presence. Each woman mumbled something about there not being a need to bring someone on. I remember imploring the blonde one that I intended to work for free and was eager to learn. The brunette chimed in that they really wish they could offer me something, but I was overqualified and should consider looking somewhere else. They did a halfway decent job of appearing friendly and concerned. And while I didn’t want to play the race card, I couldn’t help that’s why their mouths were agape for the first five minutes I was in the office.

By the time I left the quickest interview of my life, I was defeated and devastated. My self-worth had gone from an apex to a gutter. I didn’t drown my sorrows in food, drug or drink. I chose dress instead. I wanted something that made me feel validated within a fashion context. My funds were limited from my on campus work-study job, but I did have my first credit card. I marched into the Louis Vuitton section of Macy’s Herald Square. While I wasn’t prepared to buy a Speedy, I did buy the one bag I could somewhat afford—the pochette, originally designed as a makeup case but increasingly become used as a purse by models and celebrities. At $135 in 2000 dollars, it was roughly the same as I’d been making bi-weekly in my work-study job.

While the purse represented a mere sliver of the industry I desperately wanted to penetrate, it suited my needs at the time. I cherished the authentic piece of luxury with its dust bag and heavy stock brown bag. Alain de Botton observes that life is a process of replacing one anxiety with another. He also stresses that we’re anxious about the place we occupy in the world. At that moment, when the two women were coming up with suspect excuses for not offering me the non-paying job, I had never felt so unsure about my role.