Pensive, I stood just inside the entrance of an Orange County thrift store in late 2010.
There I was, at the edge of a vast sea of clothing. How much clothing? At least a gazillion pounds (scientific estimate).
The store was abuzz with rambunctious children, had zero ambience, and the space between each rack of clothing was enough to induce claustrophobia. The experience of simply standing there was overwhelming.
But I had determination on my side.
The Turning Point
I was almost 32 and completely fed up with my wardrobe. No, not just my wardrobe – my entire image. The clothes were wrong, the hair was wrong, the makeup was wrong.
Wrong, wrong, WRONG.
It would have been easy to blame my frustration on a few extra pounds I had acquired, but I knew that wasn’t my real problem.
My real problem was that both my image and my life just weren’t measuring up to what I had envisioned for myself. Although that vision was still very abstract, from at least age nine, I assured myself that being stylish as an adult was all but inevitable.
But, here I was, definitely an adult – definitely not stylish.
(I may have also been in the throes of a slightly major identity crisis. A recent lay off had made me feel totally rejected by an industry I had worked so hard to get into.)
But, staring into that sea of discarded clothing – that, on the surface, seemed so very bleak – I knew I would find the identity I was looking for. I just had to be open to the possibility.
Was it possible, I wondered, to build the identity I wanted so badly from thrift store clothing? On my budget, this was the only way.
So I dove in.
My Guerrilla Shopping Experiment
For 6 months, I went on a retail fast – only shopping Orange County thrift stores. My first few visits yielded plenty of safe basics. However, because I was limited to the selection of what people donate, I brought home colors and patterns that I never would have normally chosen for myself.
Oh, and the brands. I should reveal that I live in a place where women have the luxury of donating their gently-worn and recently dry-cleaned mid-market and designer clothing. Lots of J. Crew and Banana Republic, and a splash of Missoni and Escada.
Six months breezed by – I was literally shopping twice a week. And it was during this time that I got to really play with fashion. Finally, shopping was fun because there was no risk. If something didn’t work out, I’d only spent about $6 and I could just re-donate it.
But if something did work out, then I’d scored a valuable piece for my wardrobe for under $10.
This lower risk method of shopping allowed me to be bold with my choices. Boring basics gave way to dresses and patterned pants that really spoke to me. When I put them on, I felt like that stylish lady my 9-year-old self had imagined.
And, slowly, that vision of who I was supposed to be came into focus. But building an entire new-to-me wardrobe was only half of what I accomplished.
The Real Payoff
As I spent time shopping and exploring my personal style, I was also reframing my own view of myself. Being a girl on a budget in mega-rich Orange County, CA is no fun. And, worse, it was just another episode in a life-long series of feeling inadequate.
But what my thrift-store shopping experiment taught me was that I didn’t need to drain my bank account shopping at South Coast Plaza, buying what Big Retail wanted me to buy. I could build an expressive wardrobe on literally any budget – because now I knew what pieces to look for.
And just that little bit of self-taught skill was astonishingly empowering. Suddenly, anything was possible in my world with just a slight reframing.
So when the second lay off of my very brief interior design career came in 2011, I wasn’t crushed – I was pumped.
Just six months before, I had been pitifully unstylish and dreadfully lacking in confidence. But now … now I felt like I was a different person. Finally, the person I was destined to be. And a lay-off was my chance to create a life to go with the look.
Instead of moping around and bingeing on pedicures like I had done the first time I got laid off, I started a new business that brought me to where I am today. And I never, ever would have done that if I hadn’t reinvented myself.
The possibilities for you are literally endless. But you won’t realize them until you commit to be open to possibility.