The first designer item I ever owned was a secondhand pair of suede Salvatore Ferragamo flats with elegant pointed toes and modest square heels. From the moment I laid eyes on them at Second Time Around — the now-defunct consignment store where I was working right out of college — I’d take every chance I could between sweeping the floor and dusting the shelves to slip them on and catwalk in front of the mirror.
I had exactly $0 in discretionary income, and student loan payments loomed in the near future, but I told myself that if the shoes were still there by the end of the month, I’d find a way to carve out $60 from my meager bank account to buy them. After all, it would be a sign they were meant to be mine. Unlike the handful of shoes collecting dust in my closet, these felt different — powerful, somehow. Wearing them would transform me into a person who had her life together, a Working Woman of the World draped in designer duds.
At the end of the month, I said goodbye to the consignment shop job and hello to both a new internship in public relations and the Ferragamo flats. I wore them nearly every day for six months — the entirety of my grueling internship, where I racked up 70-hour weeks for minimum wage — until they fell apart. Though I didn’t mind when the blisters that formed to break them in caused blood to trickle down my ankles, I did wonder about their ephemerality. By the time the calluses had calcified, I realized that maybe these luxury shoes weren’t so powerful after all.
One day toward the end of my internship, I returned to my aunt and uncle’s house, where I was temporarily living to save on rent. I flopped on the bed and pulled out a memo pad. I was nearing the end of the six-month grace period on my student loan payments, and I begrudgingly grabbed my calculator and began to tally my forthcoming payments.
I had to stifle sobs when I arrived at the grand total: more than $1,000 a month, nearly all of my take-home pay. I was $100,000 in debt, and I was terrified.
The strangeness of reporting on luxury fashion with $50 in my bank account
By the time I moved to New York a few years later, after landing my first journalism job reporting on luxury fashion, my debt situation had improved only marginally. To afford the move to New York from Chicago, I maxed out a credit card and sold half of my belongings, arriving in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, with just two suitcases. For two months, I slept on an air mattress that deflated every night and would wake up on the cold hardwood floor. I was a living, breathing, “Midwest girl moves to New York City” cliché.
Growing up in middle-class suburban Ohio, my concept of fashion was dominated by PacSun dresses and American Eagle jeans, rather than Gucci loafers or Hermès handbags. These brands existed in a realm of impossibility for me, garments I would admire in the glossy pages of Vogue or stroke admiringly in department stores when no one was looking. The stratosphere of high-end fashion was a foreign area to me, and I figured reporting on it was the closest I’d get to that world, allowing me to at least observe even if participating was out of reach.
My first day on the job, I was assigned to attend a Council of Fashion Designers of America event at the Cadillac House in Soho, a swanky retail incubator inside the luxury car dealer’s New York City headquarters. It was also, coincidentally, my 25th birthday. That morning, I had awoken in a panic realizing I had no idea what a “fashion reporter” wore. I had always attempted to look put-together in my experiences in the professional world, but I was far more Andy Sachs than Emily Charlton.
I tried to remind myself that I wasn’t hired because I was fashionable, but because I could write (and that I didn’t quite have a Meryl Streep-cum-Anna Wintour breathing down my neck). But I couldn’t help but feel entirely out of my element.
Sorting through the haphazard pile of clothing spilling out of the two suitcases still serving as my dresser, I yanked on a sweater dress I purchased for $20 on sale from Urban Outfitters, a faux-leather jacket from the Limited, pilled tights, and a pair of Payless black flats. I completed the look with a many-seasons-old Michael Kors bag I’d scored at Goodwill a few months prior. I looked at the mirror and thought, “Well, this is as good as it’s gonna get.”
Walking into Cadillac House, I had an overwhelming sense that “as good as it’s gonna get” was never quite going to cut it. I was barely halfway through the door when the first person I spotted was Diane von Furstenberg, immaculately coiffed and wearing a dress of her own creation. Everything — from the glass of the champagne flutes and the cuff links on the suit-clad cater waiters to the reflection of the water as the sun began to set over the Hudson — felt like it was shimmering.
And amid it all was me, sweating uncomfortably in my dumpy bag of a dress and bargain shoes, feeling totally out of place. It didn’t help that the colleague I’d arrived with looked like she had stepped from the pages of a magazine. Photographers came to take our picture. My colleague posed with grace, a seasoned expert, and I became stiff and awkward. I looked around anxiously, wondering what these people must think, only to realize the only person who really cared about my appearance was me.
The next day, I would look at that photo of a girl struggling to feel comfortable in her own skin and immediately delete it from my inbox. I had $50 in my bank account.
I got tired of writing about a world predicated on exclusivity
With time, I got more comfortable at these events — or at least learned how to not get swept up in the extravaganza of it all — but I continued to struggle financially. While my journalist’s salary was technically “livable” for someone without debilitating student loan debt, I began to discover that, much like the fashion industry, succeeding in media is prohibitively costly.
Rarely discussed across both professions is that they’re often brimming with individuals living off trust funds in order to afford the requisite unpaid internships and apartments in expensive cities. Furthering the issue is that journalism is “notoriously inconsistent with pay, and women often bear the costs of this disparity,” according to Poynter.
As a result, those of us who aren’t independently wealthy are typically juggling multiple side hustles to pay the bills or else contemplating committing a grave yet common ethical sin of journalism: selling the expensive gifts showered upon us by fashion and beauty brands on eBay for an extra buck. Though I had secured a weekend gig writing short entertainment articles for a website for millennial women to help make ends meet, I started to feel like I was constantly fighting an uphill battle.
I tried to accept that I was never going to have the money or the looks that oozed out of every pore of this industry, and that even if I did, it wouldn’t help me achieve what I’d come to the city to do: become a better reporter.
Still, reporting on a world in which money is no object while living paycheck to paycheck began to wear on me. The paradox of eating beans and rice for dinner one night while attending a lavish fashion soiree the next turned from an enchanting mirage into a tiresome charade. When friends from home told me my life looked glamorous, I felt like a complete fraud. Constantly being surrounded by people who were thin, rich, and beautiful was exacerbating all my deepest insecurities around reporting on an industry predicated on exclusivity.
In New York, you are constantly confronted with staggeringly stark divides: homeless men panhandling for money around $10 million homes; luxury sports cars parked outside dilapidated warehouses. It’s a city where the top and bottom of the income bracket coexist yet hardly ever interact. I had never cared much about wealth or status, but I could never quite shake the idea that the luxury fashion I wrote about wasn’t intended for me, not just because it wasn’t a huge passion of mine but also because I could not afford a single thing I wrote about. It was impostor syndrome of the most severe form, because it was true.
I have since left the world of luxury fashion and now cover other topics as a freelance writer, but I will always be grateful for what it taught me: how to be a better reporter, how not to get seduced by the spectacle of absurd wealth, how to accept that, yes, I could live my best life in a $20 Urban Outfitters dress. While I’m far from paying off my student loans, I’ve learned not to let my debt define me. And, importantly, I’ve learned to save my hard-earned money for shoes that don’t leave me with blisters.
Bethany Biron is a freelance reporter based in Brooklyn. Find her on Twitter @bethanybiron.