Streams of people walked along the sidewalk as the summer heat rose in waves, the air conditioning barely reaching the back seat of the car where I sat. We drove into the small parking lot in front of a warehouse store, the kind that bought surplus clothing from major brands and sold them at a discount.
We would go shopping twice a year, my Mom, sister, and me — once at Christmas and once over the summer to buy school clothes.
Marshalls, TJ Maxx, Rugged Warehouse, Value City, and thrift stores were our destinations, always on the hunt for popular brands that helped us fit in with the other kids.
“Look what we found!” we’d exclaim to each other, holding up a pair of Nike shorts for $6.99, or Puma socks for $2. It didn’t matter to us that they had small holes or a stain. “I can get that out,” my Mom would say, rubbing the fabric between her fingers.
It was the summer before my junior year in high school, and everyone wanted to wear American Eagle, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Hollister.
I went to school in a wealthy suburb, so many of my classmates came from wealthy families. They had their own cars, played on multiple sports teams, and wore expensive, preppy clothes my family couldn’t afford at the mall.
That year, I wanted to be the kind of person those brands embodied — sexy, cool. I imagined myself strutting down the hallways at school, hair flowing behind me, every bit as gorgeous as the models on the giant posters and paper bags I saw hanging in the stores. In reality, I was none of these things. I had a pixie cut that I never bothered to style, and I spent more time in the art room than any other space. This time, I was going to start the school year off right.
“Hey Katie, look!” I called excitedly to my sister.
In the middle of the junior’s section was a large, cardboard container — the kind watermelons are shipped in at the grocery store — filled with Abercrombie & Fitch shirts.
My sister and I dug through the shirts, exclaiming as we pulled out one after another. Some shirts had holes in them, others were streaked with deodorant or odd discolorations. A few were arguably ruined with unusual rips.
After we had collected a pile of the coveted shirts, we lined them up along the top of the cart, counting up the cost of each item; $12.99 plus $6.99 plus $4.99, we chanted. We never bought more than a few things at a time — $40 of clothes was expensive. We deliberated over the pile, debated haggling with the cashier over the price of the stained or ruined pieces, and contemplated the time and effort it would take to fix them. One of the shirts I found, a dark blue v-neck with an embroidered moose at the top and a large Abercrombie & Fitch patch on the bottom, had a hole in one of the seams — but I decided to wave off the imperfection as unimportant. I had already reached my monetary limit for clothes, but the large label on the shirt had given me an idea.
If I could remove the patch and put it on another shirt, I could create two Abercrombie & Fitch shirts from one.
The seam ripper sang as I cut through every tiny thread that held the Abercrombie patch on my new T-shirt. I pulled the patch off and held up my prize to several other off-brand T-shirts sitting on my bedroom floor.
They’re the exact same, really, I thought to myself. Without the Abercrombie label, they were all the same T-shirt, the same fabric and cut. I remembered something a friend had complained about the previous year. She was wearing a beautiful A&F sweater — the thick, cabled kind that came out only during the fall and cost the price of the earth.
I spent the rest of the afternoon sewing the patch on a regular T-shirt, trying to make every stitch as small and even as possible. After seeing my progress, I became bolder. Why not use the inside label as well? Who would know? I removed the inside label of the shirt, carefully cutting away the size tag with tiny scissors so only the “Abercrombie & Fitch” was visible.
This label was small, the size of two postage stamps, and I dug around in my closet trying to find a small enough item to attach it to. A wallet? Jeans? I came across an old grey shirt. In a moment of inspiration, I started cutting the shirt into strips. “I’ll make a scarf!” I thought excitedly to myself. It was almost fall — the label would be right at my neck, for everyone to see. I spent the rest of the night using my mom’s sewing machine, racing across the old t-shirt material to create something new. I became sloppy in my boldness — I didn’t even sew the edges of the material for my new scarf.
Had I been a little less excited, a little less confident in my counterfeiting abilities, I might have noticed my scarf looked exactly like I had cut up a t-shirt and wrapped it around my neck — the hand-sewn A&F label flapping just below my face, the stitches loose and crooked as the excitement of what I was doing overtook my craftsmanship.
At the school, the bell rang shrilly in the hallway, and students scurried into rooms with armfuls of books. I strolled into the chemistry classroom, my jaunty gray scarf wrapped around my neck, the label facing outward as I had carefully placed it only minutes before in the bathroom.
I sat next to one of my friends, Kat, who was on the lacrosse team and was one of the wealthier students at school. She had highlights in her hair, and she had her own car, in which she and her other friends drove off to dinners and shopping trips I couldn’t afford.
I never wore the scarf again — it hung from a hanger in my closet until I moved away to college, a small, gray reminder of how brands on their own cannot make us sexy, or cool — we have to do that ourselves.
I should have been embarrassed by what happened, but I wasn’t.
I was, perhaps unreasonably, proud of myself for what I’d created — first finding the shirts, then taking them apart to build something new. In the end, fitting in mattered far less than what I had created — a sad little scarf, and resilience. That spring, I made a pair of Nike shorts from a family hand-me-down. I wore them in gym class every day, and no one noticed a thing.