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In the early 2000s, I couldn’t walk down the halls of my high school without tripping on a colorful paisley tote bag. In the particular suburb north of Atlanta where I lived, the brand Vera Bradley — which makes luxury luggage and purses, generally in colorful prints — had exploded. Having a patterned Vera Bradley tote bag became shorthand for fitting in, looking hot, and for having enough money to buy a brand-name purse.
These bags got my attention right away. (It wasn’t hard to do, since most of them are in a variety of bright colors in psychedelic patterns. They are impossible to miss.) I saw a few around school, and then I saw more and more, until finally I asked my friend who had one what they were. She told me they were Vera Bradley, and I was hooked ever since.
To this day, I genuinely love everything about Vera Bradley bags. I love that because they don’t go with anything, they go with everything. I love their high quality and how functional a large, cotton tote bag can be. I love their bright colors and patterns.
Unfortunately for me when I was 16, so did everybody else. When I was trying to figure out who I was and what I liked, it seemed outrageous that so many other people could come to the same conclusion.
Like many other teens, I felt like I didn’t fit in. I did gymnastics through most of high school — which meant I didn’t go to the football games on Fridays because I had practice instead. Left out of my school’s main social events, I was a quiet kid who did my homework early and carried an extra book in my purse so I wouldn’t feel lonely if I found myself alone. Finding a date to prom was literally a nightmare scenario, but I reveled at the chance to pick out a dress. Figuring out fashion became a way for me to gain confidence and experiment with who I was.
And I wasn’t sure I was someone who could carry Vera Bradley on their arm. I lived in an affluent upper-middle class suburb where teens drove brand-new Hummers to school. My family was also well off, but my mom preferred bargain shopping to brand names. Before Vera Bradley came into my life, I don’t remember even wanting a purse that wasn’t from Target or Kohl’s, and preferably on sale. Vera Bradley may be cheap for a luxury brand, but it’s still expensive by many reasonable standards.
Plus, Vera Bradley bags felt like the preppiest possible purse, and I did not feel like a preppy person. Sorority sisters had matching Vera Bradley totes. Homecoming queens had multiple Vera Bradleys. They were the equivalent of popping the collar of your pastel polo shirt. (When my parents helped me move into the dorm my freshman year, we saw a group of women rushing for sororities, all dressed beautifully, lined up on the lawn. My dad slowly said “I don’t think you have the temperament for that” as we drove by.)
So when those girls who, in my mind, had everything — the boyfriends, the looks, the social skills — seemed like the anointed users of the Vera Bradley brand, it felt unbelievably unfair. I envied that on top of the popularity my shy heart secretly desired, they had the purse I wanted, too. I felt like they were all just following a trend, whereas I wanted a Vera Bradley bag not because it was cool, but because I really loved it.
Of course, that was nonsense. Eventually I realized that to deny myself the pleasure of paisley because I resented the crowd that sprung up around it wasn’t fair to me or to the people I had judged for buying Vera Bradley. Turns out, people liking something I also liked was not a conspiracy to make me feel self-conscious. So I gave in, all the way. That same friend who first told me what Vera Bradley was bought me my first Vera Bradley tote bag as a gift. (She knew how much I loved them, she said.) Mine was apple green; hers was classic yellow and blue.
One tote bag turned into a tiny Vera Bradley collection in my very own closet. Vera Bradley offers more than just those patterned totes — though the casual Vera Bradley shopper might not know that. I, a true expert, know that Vera Bradley makes beautiful, classic bags of many shapes and materials. I have a gorgeous tweed satchel that I will never get rid of. I have an envelope clutch in a graphic orange-and-blue pattern that is the perfect accessory for any little black dress. I have a small black quilted shoulder bag perfect for happy hour after work.
When I wear one now and people ask me where I got my purse — and someone always does, because they are very good purses — I am happy to share my source so they can participate in the brand I love. I hold up my bag, smile, and say, “It’s Vera Bradley.”