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?"

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.

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.

13. Cool people may sweat, but they do not show it. Cool may involve high levels of artifice -- heavy makeup, hard-to-find clothing, carefully planned hair -- but it's unseemly to be seen pursuing coolness too vigorously. Desperation is never the hip new emotion.

Confidence is always cool -- confidence in your clothes, in yourself, in your taste, in your friends. A few weeks ago, after work, a pack of Buffalo Exchangers went to hear rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson. Shawn wore his favorite H Bar C shirt, a vintage marvel of rhinestones and embroidery, and in a Polaroid taken that night, you can see Leslie snarling at him because he was running late. She looks terrifying -- dressed all in black, hair lacquered back, dark makeup ringing her eyes, a raccoon turned predator -- but it's a play snarl, a winking snarl, a snarl between friends.

In the picture, Shawn is smiling. Everything is cool.

E-mail Lisa Gray at lisagray@alumni.rice.edu.

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