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Burnt Orange Lounge Suit

On clothing.


I’m not sure how common it is to remember the exact moment you fell in love with clothing. I assume some women can recall trying on a designer dress or buying their first luxury handbag. I’m sure there are plenty of finance types who remember getting their first Brooks Brothers or J. Press suit and feeling the sense of having “made it.”

For me, there was a flashpoint in my childhood that I can say with confidence flipped a switch in my brain and granted me a crude consciousness of taste.

It happened at age fifteen, while I was working part time at a pair of car washes. After getting dropped off for work each day by my father, my first responsibility was dumping trash cans that had been filled to the brim with customers’ used coffee cups and snack food wrappers as they vacuumed out their Buicks and Mazdas. Following garbage duty, I’d typically spend an hour or two hosing down the bays to remove the clods of mud left by F-150s and Dodge Rams. Then, I’d typically take a break and head to the Sheetz next door to spend a third of my wages on a soft pretzel, milkshake, fries, or other fried Pennsylvania delicacies.

The car wash was my first opportunity to make my own money. It put in perspective each dime that I spent on mozzarella sticks and the value of the many, many things I could not afford. One day, as my father dropped me off, we were greeted by the owner of the two car washes. He was in town from Florida, where he’d retired to years ago, just to check up on things. His outfit that day is seared into my brain like the burn from a cattle brand. In hindsight, it was utterly unremarkable—a flat cap, chinos, and an old but well-maintained golf jacket. On his breast, however, I glimpsed a symbol that would haunt, inspire, and at times control me for years to come: a tiny polo player, his mallet raised to swing.

I can’t pretend to remember the exact series of events that followed. I have vague recollections of asking my father about the logo and getting an unsatisfying answer. (Fashion is perhaps the thing my father cares about least in this world.) I began browsing the internet. I found Ralph Lauren golf jackets for sale and gasped at their M.S.R.P. I wouldn’t have been able to buy a brand new one with two of my paychecks combined. Then I began noticing the logo that had previously escaped my attention everywhere. I saw it on the left breast of higher-income classmates. Previously forgettable television advertisements with the iconic polo player on a bottle of cologne now meant something to me, though I couldn’t articulate the feeling.

This struggle to recollect ends at age sixteen, after I had begun making the big bucks by working at the local McDonald’s in addition to the car washes. Here, there is another moment clearly preserved in my memory: me in a graphic T-shirt and blue jeans at a T.J. Maxx, looking to score some Ralph Lauren like a junkie in need of a fix. After scouring the men’s section for something, anything within my budget that could satisfy my cravings, I found it: a Ralph Lauren polo shirt, size medium, blue and white striped, extra long tail for secure tucking, and, of course, the polo player on the breast. Clearance priced. Thirty dollars.

Bringing that shirt home and putting it on in front of my bedroom mirror felt like an admixture of cocaine and ecstasy injected directly into my aorta. The cotton fabric, the well-manufactured collar, the detailed outline of the polo player’s arms, and the finely stitched legs of his steed—I can recall it all with the sentimental nostalgia most save for reminiscing on losing their virginity. I tore through my brother’s closet while he was away at university, looking for Ralph Lauren pieces I could confiscate as hand-me-downs. I browsed eBay religiously. I scoured several different Salvation Army locations on a weekly basis. I even searched the racks of the local flea markets hoping for a diamond amongst the Wildwood, New Jersey, souvenir hoodies and sports tees.

These childhood expeditions for second-hand, affordable luxury in bottom-of-the-barrel locations honed my tastes. They say to become a good writer, you need to write a million words. Well, to develop a unique fashion sense, I recommend you rifle through one million second-hand garments at your local garage sales looking for dress shirts and sweaters. I was no longer just looking for Ralph Lauren. I became acquainted with his many mid-market luxury friends—Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Joseph Abboud, René Lacoste, Alexander Julian, Steve Madden.

These experiences taught me more than a little about class and income. Unlike my other childhood interests, clothing had clear and defined income levels. During one trip with my friends to the mall, I hung back from GameStop and FYE to instead browse the department store men’s section alone. I observed another boy about my age with his girlfriend. As I looked over the folded tennis shirts, forlornly wishing I could afford any of them, the couple pointed at the display mannequin and laughed—he was wearing the same exact Big Pony Polo Ralph Lauren off-black rugby shirt with a white collar. After they left, I scurried over and looked at the price tag on the mannequin. It was more than one hundred dollars. (A decade later, I’d pick up a similar Ralph Lauren piece in mint condition from a Goodwill location for five bucks.)

My family was never particularly poor, but the idea of conspicuous spending on clothing was never a consideration. As I said, my father was never a fashionista. He has always been and continues to be a Mets cap and jeans kind of guy. My mother, raised dirt poor in a two-bedroom house with six siblings, dressed us well on a sensible budget. She showed me how to build a wardrobe. For back-to-school shopping, we started at Old Navy for T-shirts and socks, browsed the Banana Republic outlet store for more thoughtful sweaters and shirts, then dug through Marshalls racks for stand-out pieces. When I got to high school she let me dress myself in the truest sense—mistakes and all; by my senior year I had become one of the most insufferable archetypes of culturally confused American youth—the kid who wears a blazer and necktie to his public high school. (In my defense, it was only on occasion, and, looking back, I didn’t do a bad job: blue blazer, khakis, white shirt, casual tie, loafers—classic, nerdy and bizarre to be sure at a school more accustomed to Mossy Oak camouflage hoodies and Carhartt jackets, but classic.)

My relationship with fashion evolved rapidly while I was attending college, but I never escaped the necessity of second-hand shopping. I worked assiduously during the spring and summer breaks to save up enough to live on during the school year. With a tight budget, exorbitant clothing purchases were a non-starter. Unable to afford the preppy aesthetics that originally drew me into the world of fashion—and freshly exposed to music, movies, art, and subcultures I’d never experienced—my second-hand clothing habit became a series of costumes for me.

I got an undercut and began wearing all-black outfits with strategic silhouettes. I tried normcore for a week. I became addicted to knit sweaters worn with tasteful dress shirts underneath—just their collar showing. An old New York Mets jersey I owned, once only something to wear to a baseball game, became an outfit-defining centerpiece. I purchased a series of increasingly tight pants that became so painted-on that I still fear manhood may be permanently compromised.

In addition to my job waiting tables, I picked up shifts at the same T.J. Maxx where I had bought my first Lauren shirt. I needed the additional income, but more than that I needed the generous employee discount on good clothes. I began browsing the racks in the storage area for hidden gems, then hiding them in the toy section so I could come back later and purchase them after I clocked out. After college, my income increased and I lived abroad in Japan for several years. I picked up brands I’d never heard of from a consignment store in the train station named Mode Off. At six-four and two hundred ten pounds, I found that clothing in my size was rare. But there I bought my first ever Burberry piece—a cream-colored cardigan. This period of my life also opened me up to trying clothing entirely foreign to me. I received several traditional robes from friends. At summer festivals and cultural events I donned yukata, kimono, and jinbei with glee. The same people who gave me the clothes taught me to wear them with precision, and I earned many compliments from strangers in the style of, “Wow, you wear kimono well for a big white guy.” Meeting their low bar for approval steeled my self-confidence.

At twenty-five, I moved to Washington, D.C., and—with a subconscious desire to dress like a mentally ill senator—I began snatching up suits online. I weaponized the Make an Offer function on eBay to send offers so low that the sellers had every right to spit (digitally) in my face. But sometimes they took the cash.

At this point in my life, I don’t have many financial or personal barriers to wearing the things I like. I’ve grabbed beautiful tailcoats for pennies from rental shops that need to make room for new stock. I’ve picked eBay clean of Dior double-breasted jackets, Ralph Lauren Purple Label shirts, and Hudson Bay winter capotes. I’ve worn tailored, pinstripe business suits with suspenders and a power-striped necktie to the office—stockbroker-core. I’ve worn a burnt orange lounge suit with a crisp white pocket square to cocktail hour—no tie, three open buttons, stiff collar. Very modern. Very breezy. I’ve worn a fur Stetson to weddings and I’ve worn a French beret to some of the most up-their-own-ass social clubs in Washington. I don’t rent tuxedos for events because I have several of my own that I need an excuse to pull out. After seeing an evening news segment about the Dukes of Cambridge and Sussex attending royal events in full morning dress, I pieced together my own daytime ensemble via eBay—ascot-cravat and all. I wear it whenever I can, regardless of how insane I may look.

My closet is a wonderland of sartorial schizophrenia. Wrangler denim bomber jackets. French cuff dress shirts. Bass Oxford shoes. Suede loafers. Chippewa boots with the metal American flag flourish on the laces. Versace turtlenecks. Pendleton flannels. Yves Saint Laurent pullovers. Rose-colored sunglasses. BAPE hoodies. Continental ties. Silk ties. Bolo ties. Tie clasps. Tie pins. Suspenders. Waistcoats. Margaritaville Hawaiian shirts. Straw hats. Varsity jackets. Seersucker suits. And, of course, lots of Ralph Lauren. Almost none of it is new.

Given that most of my clothing is second-hand, none of this is a boast about income or refined taste. You, the reader, probably make more than I do. You probably also dress better than I do by any widely accepted standard. But if I were wealthy enough to buy fine clothing on a whim, and self-aware enough to dress respectably, the magic would probably dissipate. Also: I am under no illusion that I am “fashionable” per the judgement of anyone who matters. My tastes can be ostentatious, flamboyant, and bordering on absurd. Like a child with a dress-up set, I get more joy out of putting on the costumes and playing pretend than I do impressing others or sculpting an “image” or “brand” as better-dressed fashionistas do. To put it another way—if I started an Outfit of the Day account on Instagram, my followers would be scarce.

But I don’t care. I sit atop my pile of second-hand grails and bargain basement treasures like a man in nirvana. I’ve made it out of the brand-worshiping ghetto to find a wardrobe that lets me—brace yourself for a saccharine platitude—“express myself” in a meaningful way. Perhaps naïvely, I don’t consider myself a particularly consumerist person. Ralph Lauren and his majestic polo player logo may have brought me into this world, but I hold no rigid allegiance to him, nor to any other designer. I do not wait around for the Fall/Winter collections to drop. I don’t worry about resalability, and I certainly don’t worry about keeping up with the latest hypebeast trend. I’m free. The pursuit of the next piece is never over. Each acquisition means as much to me as the last, whether I bought it for five dollars or saved up for months. It’s all just chasing the high of that blue-and-white polo from the clearance rack at T.J. Maxx.

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Timothy Nerozzi is a reporter for Fox News. He was previously a news editor at the Washington Examiner.