Shopping for designer goods is about more than beauty, workmanship and cost. It’s an emotional experience that often comes with a personal story. In this series, women recall a singular piece and a moment in their journey into luxury.
Tia Williams, 48, a bestselling writer based in New York, whose new novel, A Love Song for Ricki Wilde, is out this month, recalls a formative experience working at a fashion magazine.
From the youngest age, I was obsessed with fashion magazines. That was going to be my job. I knew it was. I had two dreams: to be an editor at a fashion magazine and to be a novelist. That was it from the very beginning. I had all of the subscriptions — Vogue, Bazaar, Mademoiselle, Seventeen, Cosmo, Elle — and I would rip the pages out and have them all over my room. I understood who all the designers were, I understood who the people behind them were. I knew the photographers, the makeup artists. I’m 14 on a U.S. Army base in Germany, and I’m looking forward to the September issue of American Vogue to see what was on the runways.
It was this whole wonderland of a world in places like New York, Milan, Paris, and London. And living in Germany and at home [in Northern Virginia], it just wasn’t like that. And so the second I graduated from University of Virginia. I moved to Brooklyn, New York, and I started working in fashion magazines.
I was a beauty assistant at Elle in the late ’90s. You know, it’s funny. Everyone is talking about quiet luxury now and it’s being picked apart — ‘What even is that?’ ‘All it means is boring.’ I grew up middle-class to hardworking parents, we had everything we needed but designer anything was never a priority. Looking nice was in your Casual Corner finery, but nothing designer. My first brush with designer in real life was working at Elle surrounded by rich girls and the kind of wealth that was always there and you’re never worrying about it going anywhere. That kind of comfort it just really didn’t yell. It was just like, ‘Oh, I have this piece and, I don’t know, I guess it came from my grandma.’ But in pop culture, it’s late ’90s so it’s minimalism. It’s Calvin Klein. It’s Prada.
And at the same time you have Lil’ Kim on the cover of Interview magazine with her Louis Vuitton logo-stamped body, which was everything to me. I have friends at Vibe and The Source, and there’s all this loud designer fashion happening which I also loved so much, but I had to get by at work every day. So what I am seeing is a very different, understated luxury and understatement of a statement which is an oxymoron.
I saved all my money to get this suede Gucci hobo bag. It was pretty flat, like, you could barely even get a wallet into it. The bag was under an inch thick, it had the green and red stripe on only one side. It was very delicate; if you wore the bag on the other side you didn’t have to know it was even Gucci.
And when I tell you, it set the world on fire in those offices because it was like you had to squint to understand what it was unless you really knew Gucci inside and out and knew that it was from the fall 1998 collection or whatever. But you didn’t have to know it was Gucci and something about that just made me tingle, like I had the secret. Also, no one needed to know that I was eating popcorn for dinner and living in a one-bedroom apartment with my best friend in Fort Greene (that was where you would live when you were poor in those days).
Ever since then, because of that experience, seeing the red and green stripe anywhere is Pavlovian for me. I immediately start feeling like, ah, look how fancy that is. I like the idea of no one really knowing what designer or label or whatever it is I have on, just that it looks good.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.