Notes on Cool

Elusive and ineffable, style itself cannot be sold, except perhaps at Buffalo Exchange

1. A sensibility, as distinct from an idea, is one of the hardest things to talk about.

-- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

Buffalo Exchange buys, sells and trades used clothing, but even the most fashion-impaired can see immediately that Buffalo is not a thrift store. Buffalo's prices run higher, and its clothes tend to be mint-condition, but the main difference between Buffalo Exchange and the Salvation Army is one of sensibility. The Salvation Army doesn't filter its offerings for style. It exercises no fashion judgment. It acts as a transparent medium, or a common carrier, simply connecting shoppers to castoffs.

Arbiters of cool: Melissa Cantu (seated on floor) and (from left) Treasure Hance, Shawn Stevenson, Leslie LeCroy and Rain Ferguson.
Deron Neblett
Arbiters of cool: Melissa Cantu (seated on floor) and (from left) Treasure Hance, Shawn Stevenson, Leslie LeCroy and Rain Ferguson.
Today's fashion: Shawn and Leslie don't worry about what hip people will want six months from now.
Deron Neblett
Today's fashion: Shawn and Leslie don't worry about what hip people will want six months from now.

Buffalo filters and exercises judgment. Buffalo sells only clothes that are cool.

2. Very generally: Cool is a sensibility, a style, a matter of taste. It serves as an ID badge, an in-joke, a pledge of allegiance to the present moment and the people who fling themselves into it. As a fashion statement, it says, Look at me. Look at me now. Sometimes it says, I can laugh at myself or I am sexy or I am sophisticated or I am not an accountant.Usually it says, I am young.

3. Leslie LeCroy, Buffalo's 29-year-old manager, could serve as cool's spokesmodel. In fact, she does that sometimes. You can see photos of her on the company's Web site. In one, a rhinestone necklace sparkles at her neck, and a sleek black cocktail dress sets off the cowgirl tattooed on her bicep. She looks glamorous, like the Shirley MacLaine of an updated Rat Pack.

You can see a very different Leslie at the start of Buffalo's MTV ad. She flashes on the screen wearing a satiny pink cowgirl shirt. Little-girl pigtails sprout from her head, and she's snuggling a stuffed chicken -- perhaps the ultimate test of cool. The chicken doesn't make Leslie look stupid. Leslie makes the chicken look fun, like a trend waiting to happen. In six months, you think, it'll be over. Everybody will be cuddling barnyard fowl, and the hip kids will have moved on to something new.

A sensibility is almost, but not quite, ineffable. Any sensibility which can be crammed into the mold of a system, or handled with the rough tools of proof, is no longer a sensibility at all. It has hardened into an idea.

--Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

4. Buffalo Exchange's location alone is almost enough to describe its aesthetic: On Westheimer, the store lies between the drag-queens-and-tattoo-shop funk of Montrose and the gentrified chic of the Randalls Flagship on Shepherd.

5. Random examples of items recently offered for sale at Buffalo Exchange:

A vintage Superfly jacket, brown suede with fat furry cuffs

Baby T's embossed with Hindu deities

Packs of bubble gum (new) with henna tattoos

A hot-pink lace blouse (new) by a young Houston designer

A mod Young Edwardian-label dress from the '60s

A workman's shirt with the name "Brad" embroidered on the right breast, "Professional Hit Man" on the other

Levi's 501s

A spaghetti-strap sundress by Merona, a Target brand

A spaghetti-strap sundress by Tommy Hilfiger

A woman's T-shirt depicting '50s porn icon Betty Page

Pink vinyl pants

A shiny purple minidress covered in black lace and trimmed with orange marabou

'60s and '70s geek-chic eyeglass frames

Pointy-toed black cowboy boots

Sky-high platform thong sandals

Office-worthy blouses by Ann Taylor, Calvin Klein and DKNY

Pink feather boas

6. Taste always involves rejection. This is true of any kind of taste -- taste in paintings, taste in ideas, taste in people -- because to embrace anything (fiction, Garbage, Dacron), you must prefer it over something else (truth, Shania Twain, natural fibers).

At Buffalo Exchange, the rejection takes place at the front counter, next to the entrance, in full view of the store's customers. A Buffalo employee examines a would-be seller's offerings. Sometimes the buyer accepts everything; sometimes she accepts nothing. Usually -- as in most of life -- the reception is mixed.

7. Cool comes and goes; the Great Wheel of Fashion turns. Nobody wants last year's sundresses, but the '70s disco pantsuits that languished on the sale racks last year now fly out of the store. Intense pastels rank high; brown is over. "Brown used to be the new black," Leslie explains, "but then gray was the new black. And it's still the new black, but now black is black, too."

People, too, fluctuate in coolness. Leslie, now the spokesmodel for cool, was not cool in high school. For her senior prom, she picked a white dress so foofy that her mom later resold it to a quinceañera girl. Foofy was not cool then, and it is not cool now. But someday, it might be cool.

8. There are different species of cool -- urban bohemian, designer, western, '70s retro, '40s retro, and on and on -- each with its own nuances, its own trends. It's easy for a cool person to understand her own variety. Leslie is quick to name her muse of the moment: Shirley Manson, the tough but glamorous lead singer of Garbage. When considering a piece of Manson-style clothing, Leslie can ask herself, "What would Shirley do? Is this cool, or only almost-cool?"

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