Growing up in the 2000s, I defined fashion as conformity. My middle school dress code was not as restrictive as the unspoken, school-wide style norms. There probably was not even a need for a dress code, considering nobody would dare show up to school without their skinny jeans, Ugg boots and Abercrombie hoodies. I wish I could say that I did my own thing and refused to follow these trends. I mean, a few people did. Unfortunately, I was not one of these expectation-defying style mavens. My wardrobe was not enviably unique. Rather, I owned Abercrombie hoodies in basically every color and wore my Uggs whenever I could, even during the summer, if it was cool enough. Call it basic, unoriginal or even a characteristically teenage compulsion to follow the crowd: I just could not help but be roped into the fashion trends around me.
Even though I never deviated too far from the fashion norms that governed my early adolescent life, I still attempted to experiment with style through more subtle means. During my first few years of middle school, I was convinced that the only way to escape the manufactured look of big name brands like Abercrombie was by taking things into my own hands and making my own clothes. This might be because I obsessed over fashion design kits as a child and was enamored by the idea of becoming a bona-fide fashion designer. I envisioned myself creating beautiful pieces that could wow strangers and stop crowds. And, with that hope in mind, I began to design. My first-ever creation was a “multi-way wrap dress”: an uncut, unadulterated piece of plain purple cloth that I haphazardly knotted into a toga-like contraption and wore over a white t-shirt. I showed it off as my 6th grade capstone project on fashion design and emphasized its no-sew design and versatility, in that one could drape the cloth however they wanted. The piece was not very well received. Was it because I attempted to pass off a thinner, less modest toga as a novel, revolutionary fashion design? Probably, but I will never really know.
It was then that I decided, for the time being, that making clothes was not exactly my forté. So I looked for other ways to show off my individuality. I stumbled across a website called Etsy, a place for makers to sell their handmade goods. On online marketplaces like Etsy, vendors come from all kinds of places and backgrounds and craft a plethora of goods. I discovered that I could order anything and everything I could possibly ever want online. When I suddenly decided that I wanted a knit bear hat, I immediately found one and bought it on the site. I could trace back every phase I went through in my teens via the graphic tees I bought online. Etsy provided me with unique, one-of-a-kind pieces that let me show the world who I truly was instead of hiding my personality in the pockets of my Hollister jeans and Abercrombie hoodies, pretending to be like everyone else.
More importantly, Etsy and its community of makers inspired and rekindled my love for creating. Before I stumbled across the site, I assumed that all clothes came from commercial stores in big malls. Such a characterization, I thought, seemed appropriate and unsurprising given that America is the land of Walmarts and vast shopping complexes. I imagined small businesses and individual retailers as plants attempting to grow in a concrete jungle: how could they ever thrive? It turns out that, just as plants break through the cracks in the pavement and take root in cityscapes, small businesses and individual retailers thrive and coexist with big-name, mega-mall stores.
According to the U.S. Small Business Association, the number of small businesses in America has increased by 49 percent since 1982, and 54 percent of U.S. sales happen at small businesses. Even though the Small Business Association’s definition of small businesses encompasses enterprises much larger than most independent online storefronts, these statistics still speak to the successes of small businesses in America despite the seemingly unstoppable ubiquity of big corporations.
The popularity of e-commerce further aids the growth of small businesses; in 2016, business-to-consumer e-commerce sales worldwide hit $1.922 trillion. It is undeniable that the Internet has established itself as a fertile land where small businesses may flourish. For example, the value of merchandise sold on the online marketplace eBay in 2016 amounted to $79.4 billion.
Etsy, while a less established e-commerce platform, still had a merchandise sales volume of $2.84 billion in 2016. While these sales figures would almost be expected of a large-scale retailer like Macy’s or Neiman Marcus, the magic in these numbers is that they are a result of many individual transactions between consumers and individual online storefronts. Between eBay’s 25 million unique sellers worldwide and Etsy’s 1.6 million in 2015, the e-commerce model ensures originality, not ubiquity. Thus, the current unstoppable growth of e-commerce allows makers to thrive and create without limits.
These small online apparel businesses that exist on platforms like eBay and Etsy strike a major contrast to the bastions of the apparel industry like Abercrombie and Forever 21. The shops on Etsy that I relied on for personalized apparel were not affiliated with any major corporations: all of them were small businesses, and many of them consisted of just one person operating out of their own home. Though my previous failures in apparel-making convinced me that I did not possess the skills necessary to create anything worth wearing, Etsy’s success really made me think. If all of these hundreds of thousands of Etsy makers could produce their own unique, personal creations out of generic craft store materials, why couldn’t I?
When I finally returned to making and modifying apparel after my initial failure, I found confidence in the idea that fashion at a small scale was not completely impossible. I eventually discovered that even though I still was not very good at making apparel, my confidence in my ability to create something eventually helped me become better at it. Since the dark age of 6th grade, I have distressed my own jeans, modified countless t-shirts, sewn skirts and bags and made my own jewelry. The quality of my creations is certainly worse than the products I have bought from Etsy crafters, but still a far cry from my humble, purple sheet-wearing origins.
I am embarrassed to say that I am still not confident enough to wear my creations in public. Regardless, creating my own apparel taught me the value of the individuality of style. Everything I make, no matter the quality, holds sentimental value and originates from a personal story or experience. And even though I did not create the pieces I bought on Etsy myself, I now see the value of buying unique, handmade clothing and accessories. Buying, making and wearing handmade pieces is a way to define your style and take it into your own hands. Why go to a store like Urban Outfitters and buy a pre-patched denim jacket with generic patches, when you could repurpose an existing jean jacket and sew on patches that actually mean something to you? These kinds of unique clothing pieces hold deeper meaning than your run-of-the-mill, pseudo-vintage, big-name store find. They truly define personal style. Individuality in fashion is not any different from individuality in any other field or discipline; it is simply a display of all of the various experiences and little things that make up a person.
Therefore, in pursuing a unique look, it is essential to show others what makes you who you are through meaningful style choices. The pieces you choose to wear could hold fairly trivial meanings, such as my handmade bear hat, or they could be mementos from old times or places, gifts from important people or aspirations for the future.
Really, the key to an individual look lies in wearing something that holds personal meaning. Today, with Etsy and other similar services, you do not have to be an expert in crafting or making or even have the slightest clue of how to do so to buy and wear things that actually mean something to you.
Personal style comes with being unafraid of resisting the shield of stylistic conformity defined by ubiquitous brand names and becoming comfortable with unabashedly flaunting who you are. Success in style does not come with epitomizing current fashion trends; rather, it comes with doing your own thing and being yourself.