My Life In Fashion
by Alexandra Molotkow
My life in fashion began in grade 10, when Toni got me a job at the Catholic school uniform store whose owners lived next to her parents. Toni owned a pair of silver pants and was the most interesting person I’d ever met. The following year she’d get a record deal and leave our school, but for now she worked at the Catholic school uniform store where I had an interview lined up the next day.
The manager was a compact, stubble-headed man of about 30 who muttered his way through the questionnaire. What are your biggest flaws.
I licked my teeth; my braces had just been removed. “I’ve been told I’m a workaholic.”
I started the next day, in my standard-issue khakis and blue golf shirt; the white golf shirts were reserved for senior clerks who had worked their way up to register duties. My job was to talk to parents, tick their kids’ uniform needs on a form and retrieve each item from the shelves or the sprawling warehouse upstairs. I never got bored, although I did get tired, so tired I once tried to buy a chocolate bar at the corner gas station by showing the attendant my Metrocard. Toni, standing behind me, air-toked at the attendant, who laughed. She laughed, then I laughed, then the toddler who’d been standing beside me laughed, and we all laughed harder until the kid yanked a Crunchie off the shelf and started thrusting it inexplicably at her hips. We stopped laughing.
The manager played in a shoegaze band. At work he was noiselessly efficient, and could not have cared less about us. He shot through the day without seeming to breathe between words, and let me play whatever I wanted in the store. Everyone’s face had a strange but attractive distortion, wide-set eyes or buckteeth, and nobody cared what anyone said or did as long as they carried their weight. I liked being part of a well-oiled machine, I liked having a uniform and a punch card and a break room, and I liked Serge, a handsome “jock” who listened to Belle and Sebastian and played football but knew the music over the PA was Cibo Matto. “Going to Montreal for New Years,” he said in his slow, placid patter. “Gonna find some girls, whether I gotta pay ’em or not.”
During inventory week I counted oxford shirts with Toni, who confided in me as she never would have had we not been sharing the same monotonous task. I got to love the texture of pique cotton and admire the soft blue-on-blue kilts branded for an exclusive girl’s school, as well as the shiny black tunics which barely came to our thighs and looked, as Toni noted, like cocktail dresses. I was getting a cold, and the dust aggravated my asthma; I missed two days of work from the hospital. Soon afterward, the manager laid us off.
Toni suggested we steal tunics on our way out. We slipped them on in the change room, and pulled on our street clothes just as the manager rushed by muttering, Girls whatever you just stole put it back on the table before you leave.
I dressed like a laundry pile, throwing what I liked onto my body until it “worked” by my own visual logic, which was garbage. But I was one of only two part-time female employees at a record store, and looking “funky” was sufficient. The woman who managed the nearby furniture store had a friend who ran a vintage picking operation and was opening a pop-up shop down the strip. She sold me a beautiful raw silk dress by Liz Claiborne that I gave up only recently despite having outswelled it several years ago, and hired me as her sole employee.
All day I stood and paced and prayed for a shirt to fall off its hanger so I’d have something to do. I remember every customer distinctly. There was a woman with strawberry blonde ringlets and a set of plump, rambunctious little dogs, trailed sometimes by a boy with a faint mustache who was either her brother or her son. Her name was a color. She worked in film, is all she would say, and wore sunglasses indoors; I never got to see her eyes. An elderly woman chatted uninterruptedly with herself while slipping on thin cotton dresses. A young actress tried on several dresses and nearly made me cry when she insisted on putting them back. Every day I sold just enough to pay my minimum wages.
To think of how bored I was makes me doubt I had much of an inner life. All I had to pass the time were obsessions. That summer I was obsessed with a cartoonishly handsome guy I’d picked up at the record store. He talked like Beaver Cleaver and I fantasized he would ruin my life. He didn’t. The store closed after a month.
I was moving into a new apartment, a huge but mice-ridden three-bedroom for $1200 a month — unheard of even then — but I still needed more money than I was making. I scoured Craigslist and found a listing for an unnamed clothing store I identified immediately from the description: a gaudy landmark of the strip to the immediate east of the record store. I went in for an interview with a powder-white manager zipped in black, who offered me the gig right away. Minimum wage with commission, if I could manage to sell anything.
We sold formal gowns, mostly. I could run my hand against a rolling rack from my high school’s drama closet and touch tens of thousands of dollars. Prom dresses. It was deep February. The day I was scheduled to start was the coldest day of the year. Early in the morning a fire broke out three blocks away, scorching the strip between the clothing shop and the record store, and for a split second I hoped it would migrate farther east so that I wouldn’t have to go in.
I worked with the hiring manager, who felt like a peer soon enough, because we had nothing to do but talk to each other. We took turns smoking, then spraying ourselves down with a bottle of the perfume sold near the counter. “You have to find your own scent,” he advised, as Janet Jackson’s “Feedback” looped from opening to close.
The store was divided in two levels. Whenever a customer — there were about seven in total — came in to browse upstairs, I was instructed to head up behind them and “make myself available.” I had no instinct for this. A woman I knew vaguely from music circles came in and rifled through taffeta; I asked her several times if she needed help, and she left after several minutes. At the end of the day I swept the floors and walked several blocks in minus-40 windchill to my empty new apartment, where I ate a slice of pizza in the dark.
The next morning, I called in to quit. The manager had no one else staffed for the day, and told me if I came in for one more shift he’d cut me a check for two day’s work. So I did, and he did, although he tried to sell me an extravagant candle at an unenticing discount. We kept in touch on MSN.
An hour before closing, a woman and her teenage daughter entered the store and began trying on dresses. When they asked my advice, I answered honestly and thought my tone sounded mildly bitchy, but they responded as though I knew what I was doing, and suddenly everything made sense. I made my first sale and I never came back.