Notes on Cool

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

But outside that narrow style, Leslie can't rely on her muse. Manson would disdain a ruffly Latin dance skirt or a pair of skateboarder shorts, but both could be cool -- just not Manson's kind of cool.

Keeping up with cool, in all its variety, requires eternal vigilance. On weekends, Leslie reads fashion magazines, cruises the Galleria and checks what the stars are wearing in the movies. No one, she says, can declare herself the arbiter of ageless cool, exempt from further study; no one is "the great Dalai Lama of fashion."

9. Cool changes, but it isn't really about innovation. Buffalo caters to early adopters, not to innovators. Real innovators wore disco pantsuits last year when nobody was wearing disco pantsuits; an innovator might carry a stuffed chicken precisely because no one in his right mind would carry a stuffed chicken. Innovators don't care about the styles of the moment, or what other people think of them. Their clothes say, Look at me, but they are badges of separateness, not belonging. They do not say, I am like you, only better; they say, I am from another planet and do not care to understand your customs. It is difficult to distinguish an innovator from a dweeb in a foofy white prom dress. The main difference is that the innovator doesn't care what you think. Cool people care what you think, but they don't want you to know they care.

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.

This is the eternal mystery of style: How do early adopters decide which innovators to follow?

Leslie doesn't ask that question. She doesn't ask what cool people will want in six months or a year. She asks what they want right now.

Taste governs every free -- as opposed to rote -- human response. Nothing is more decisive. There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion -- and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.

-- Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

10. Cool is hierarchical, and as in all hierarchies, the people at the bottom view the people at the top with a mixture of resentment and respect. Leslie went to college in Tucson, home of the first Buffalo Exchange. She viewed that store's staff as "these unapproachable paragons of cool." They scared her.

11. Taste requires rejection, but it also requires acceptance. Since Leslie left college, Buffalo has grown to 24 stores scattered across the Southwest. The company now instructs its staff to be nice to newbies, not to disdain the less enlightened but to act as role models for them. At first this seems like a profit-motivated paradox (since when do the cool fraternize with the uncool? since when are cool people nice?). But in practice, polite role-modeling places the cool people at the top of the style pyramid -- the same place they'd have been if they snarled. Smiling comes to seem like one more fashion trend, the hip lip-move practiced by the cool elite.

"Is this your first time selling to us?" Treasure Hance sweetly asks a blond college-age kid. First-timers usually don't understand Buffalo; they expect the store to buy whatever they hope to sell.

It is his first time, and he doesn't look promising. He's wearing a T-shirt that says, "Kiss Me I'm Irish" -- not a provocative Look at me, look at me now statement, not sexy or retro, not even so super-dorky that it's funny -- and it seems unlikely that the clothing he wants to sell would be any cooler.

Treasure doesn't appear to notice. She brightly explains how the Buffalo system works: "I'll go through your items and see if there's anything I can sell. If there is, I'll pay you 35 percent of what we can sell the item for, or give you 50 percent in trade." She smiles, and the gold stud under her lip catches the light.

She pulls a jacket from his bag, then refolds it and leaves it on the counter. "We're not having much luck with suits," she apologizes. Without comment, she quickly examines a few T-shirts and stacks them on top of the jacket.

Treasure is called away, and Shawn Stevenson takes over Buffalo's side of the transaction. Shawn, the only male on staff, loves vintage Western shirts and seems to have rockabilly written in his genes. His crooked teeth look like the ultimate faux-hick accessory: dental cool.

Shawn accepts only one T-shirt, a yellow one emblazoned "Thrasher."

"That's it?" asks Mr. "Kiss Me I'm Irish."

"That's it," says Shawn. He smiles graciously, as if that single acceptance were a prize, as if Mr. "Kiss Me I'm Irish" had just won an election, passed his exams, joined the club.

12. Among cool people, acceptance trumps rejection and hierarchy. After Leslie split with a boyfriend, she sold to Buffalo a Western belt buckle that he'd given her. (The Buffalo staff frequently buy, sell and trade their own clothes at the store. They consider themselves fashion addicts, like alcoholics working in a bar.)

Shawn bought Leslie's old belt buckle.

Leslie says that because Shawn bought her reject, she's cooler than Shawn. She's joking: It was the boyfriend she was rejecting, not the buckle, not Shawn.

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