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I Quit Shopping After an Apartment Fire Took Everything I Owned

For a while, replacing what I had felt pointless — until I stepped into a familiar chain store in a foreign country.  

A Mango store window.
Photo: Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images

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Last January, I lost almost everything I owned in an apartment fire. While I was away on a trip to upstate New York, a random spark sent flames and shattered glass into my New York City apartment. I returned shocked and cold, and it took quite a while to warm up to the idea of buying new stuff to replace what I had lost. What was the point?

I used to proudly write down “shopping” as a hobby. I did it really well, and my wardrobe felt pretty full. Blame — or credit — my mother, who frequently took me to malls when I was younger. We’d spend hours combing through the racks, then in the dressing room looking at ourselves in the three-panel mirrors. Back at home, we’d play “fashion show” with all the stuff we bought. Other girls had dolls, I had a mom who I shared clothes and handbags with.

Throughout 2016, I barely bought anything new, partly because my friends generously donated gently-used items to me as if I were a grateful Second Time Around consignment store. A few times through my side hustle as a wellness guide I was paid in yoga athleisure, so I was covered there. And instead of replacing the wardrobe I owned for special occasions, I started to borrow clothes from a friend. The few exceptions included a Club Monaco cashmere poncho on sale for $30 in the heat of August while my mom was in town.

For a while, I was content with what I had — including new outfits my mom bought me this past summer and the “old” ten or so pieces I managed to salvage from my apartment. My taste and joy for spending significantly waned; since I lost so much, I wanted to save every bit I had, and saw no need to add anything else. The act of shopping didn’t feel necessary or fulfilling, and I think, on some level, I was afraid that replacing the items that were essentially stolen from me would remind of the incident.

My renewed love for shopping would return slowly: abroad, and at, of all places, a chain store.

When I planned a holiday trip to Portugal, a friend of mine casually mentioned that anything made of leather would be a smart buy overseas. A fake leather jacket purchased years ago in Las Vegas had been recovered from the fire, but was deteriorating from normal, non-fire-related wear and tear. It was time for an upgrade. Based on past life experiences, I knew being proactive and specific would make me feel better overall. So my muted ambition started to settle back into my soul — my renewed determination would lead me to shop for the perfect classic motorcycle jacket.

Before I could check into my hotel in Lisbon, I killed a few hours alone walking past boutiques and started to feel like the old me. One of my first stops I saw was Mango, a chain store that I first discovered in Barcelona during college. (I know — but as I remembered, the Spanish-based company had fair prices and good quality). I was going to wait to shop with my friend, but why not now?

I stepped in and saw racks of holiday dresses hanging under fluorescent lights and stared at all kinds of jackets, coats, and cover-ups. My fingers gravitated toward the leather. I examined a black patent zip-up that closed asymmetrically, with angled lapels and shoulder tabs that sat coolly atop a boxy shape. In the dressing rooms, my hands fit snugly into the silver zipper-lined pockets.

On the way to check out, I got giddy and also picked up a soft gold sweater and a velour pink dress that was on sale. It was as if a small spell was broken.

Over the next few days, as I perused this old city, I thought about the other things I had bought on trips that were now gone. A Dali bracelet from the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida and a mini-scarf from the palace shop at Versailles that disappeared somewhere along the way after college. A green dress I had bought in Rome, and a muumuu skirt from Hawaii. Both were left as collateral damage from the fire.

In Lisbon, I slowly began to open my wallet. I picked up a few tile souvenirs and perused the street markets selling knick-knacks with new enthusiasm. I window-shopped along the streets of higher-end stores, something I had been actively shying away from before this trip.

Recently, I walked through my old neighborhood (apparently my former apartment has now been converted into the expanded kitchen of a trendy restaurant) and remembered feeling like a ghost in donated clothes exactly one year ago. At the time I was in shock, but also in awe of the love from my friends that unfolded with their support and donations. Things take time, and this past holiday season, it felt good to gift my friends. And afterward, myself.