The summer before I turned 14, I bought a bright blue He-Man lunchbox at a flea market off a highway in San Antonio, Texas. It wasn’t the shitty plastic kind; it was metal. This was a crucial detail if you wanted to be taken seriously while carrying it as a purse like Janeane Garofalo’s character Vickie Miner in Reality Bites. I copped it for eight bucks haggled down from ten since the red spout on the matching Thermos was busted. My mom thought it hysterically low-rent but far more agreeable than the canvas tote from Body Shop that read "AGAINST ANIMAL TESTING" in all caps that I carried as a book bag at my old high school.
I thought the lunchbox was genius. And even though it wasn’t Charlie’s Angels like the one Vickie had, I figured I’d score some points as an incoming sophomore for flipping and reversing a boy’s lunchbox for such girlie sundries as a Clinique compact, Black Honey lipstick, and tampons. That July, we’d moved to Texas from Hong Kong and though I was inconsolable at leaving my friends, I thought I was The Tits when it came to personal style. I’d run with the best-dressed girls in my class and figured I’d breeze through the Podunk, Texas, town that literally didn’t even have a Prada flagship.
To give you a gauge of where I was coming from in the early-to-mid-’90s, here’s what I was obsessed with at 13:
Goodwill became a kind of fashion library where I could check out research materials.
I wanted cardigans from Sisley, microfloral culottes from Esprit, belted cashmere wrap coats with shawl collars from Max Mara, balconette eyelet bras from Marks & Spencer, a handbag, eventually, from Chanel or else Louis Vuitton but not the classic monogram since it always looks fugazi (especially in Asia) or anything from Gucci with the interlocking G’s and a bamboo handle (Tom Ford had only just gotten there; Lagerfeld wouldn’t Fendi Baguette until ’97 and even then it was another two years before Galliano eurolouchesploded like the proto-Audigier he was with the Dior saddlebag).
I borrowed double-breasted Armani and Escada (lol, it was Asia!) blazers from my mom, rolled up the sleeves and banged around in bathroom stalls while I tried my best to fiddle with the snappy crotch buttons of bodysuits with thick seams at the panty lines. But it wasn’t just labels I was keen on. Long before Forever 21 or Hennes or Zara, Hong Kong was lousy with fast-fashion options from Island Shopping Center, Stanley Market, or Jardine’s Bazaar. We were pros when it came to ditching private school uniforms and fashioning entire outfits for sub-ten bucks with sweaters, silk twin sets, and flammable little terry-cloth dresses eyeballed for size and paired with Dr. Martens steel-toe shoes.
But at my Converse, Texas, high school with two campuses and 4,000 kids, I couldn’t locate my bearings, sartorially speaking. On that first day I wore maroon velvet bell-bottoms from a high street store in Causeway Bay called Colour 18, a raw silk blouse with gathered cuffs, and platform clogs. Most everyone else wore oversized crewneck tees or else pique Tommy polos, with all-white K-Swiss "tennies" and Girbaud jeans with those deeply confusing, hideous zipper-placket-yoke things in the front that gave any wearer "denim dick" regardless of gender—even while standing. The only things I got right were the mandatory mesh backpack that discouraged concealed weapons and that lunchbox. The burnouts got the reference right away and I was grateful.
More importantly, my friends in Hong Kong (once everyone watched Reality Bites and Dazed and Confused so they could attempt to understand my new life) realized that even though I was missing the formals, the boat trips, the country clubs, and the nightclubs (where the bouncers always looked the other way), I suddenly had access to something they didn’t: thrift stores. It was revelatory.
I learned how to shop from those afternoons by myself at thrift stores in seedy strip malls.
EBay wouldn’t be founded for another year and even if you could buy a knockoff Prada (or Prado, or even Panda if the factory got really lazy) t-shirt for less than a juice box, you couldn’t ever find used clothes to purchase. Sure, you could have something special were it prohibitively priced, but more often than not we all wound up with the same stuff. Nobody had anything that was rendered one of one from decades of being jumbled around in the world, and for me the timing couldn’t have been better. The ’70s were everything that year and though I had zero friends, I could spend hours buying polyester minidresses with enormous, stiff collars, shrunken ring tees, and collared, V-neck sweaters in bulk. I’d divorce men’s flared trousers from their massive suit jackets at Thrift Town and pair them with heathered baby baseball tees with three-quarter-length sleeves that advertised local real estate companies and diners.
Goodwill became a kind of fashion library where I could check out research materials like fine-wale corduroy toggle coats, mock-turtleneck organdy smocks, and metallic stiletto pumps to see if they worked for me, and if they didn’t I just donated them right back. I began telemarketing to support my habit and discovered that if you devoted enough time you could find a Kenzo blouse or a Lanvin skirt for two bucks, even if the lady at the counter squinting at the colored tag never got excited at what a motherfucking coup it was.
I learned how to shop from those afternoons by myself at thrift stores in seedy strip malls. I learned how to dress without the approval of my girlfriends and figured out what I wanted to look like when I wasn’t part of a pack. I also learned how to sew. For the first few years of my teen life in Texas, thrifting made for fantastic company. Plus, the experience taught me that fashion was a very different thing from style.
And while I want to say that this cured me of ever wanting anything hypertrendy, or that I was never again swayed by the tastes of others or wooed by capriciously priced baubles, I can’t. When I returned to Hong Kong for the New Year’s Eve right before Y2K, my resolve buckled. In a dingy back room in Luohu Commercial City, a sprawling shopping mall in Shenzhen, China, with three of my friends, I had to (had to!) cop the knockoff denim Dior saddlebag with the swinging gold hardware. As well as the pastel-pink, pearlescent, embossed, puffy monogram wallet to go with it. I’ve long since quietly jettisoned both, but I do still have that He-Man lunchbox. It’s perfect for storing cassette tapes.