As a model I have a dirty little secret to confess. No, it’s not the fact that I found Zoolander hilarious. My secret is about dirty clothes—clothes I buy, wear on modeling shoots, then return to the store for resale to unsuspecting customers. But as you’ll see I have no choice.
When stylists call, they invariably request clothes of a type and hue not found in my closet. I do not stock an assortment of grey pin-striped suits (I don’t manage a savings and loan), bright yellow pants (I neither golf nor fight fires), and heavy winter sweaters (I live in the San Fernando Valley, where the temperature seldom dips below “blast furnace”). Yet these are actual requests from the stylists of my last three print jobs. I have the basics, of course—knit shirts, khakis—but as a professional poser, one is somehow expected to stock the entire spectrum of apparel from Speedos to tuxedos.
“We need you to bring an off-white linen jacket, an ecru ribbed cotton turtleneck sweater, olive flat-front cotton twill pants, taupe Merrell nubucks, and lots of watches,” says the impossibly optimistic art director.
“No problem. I’ve got all that.” At least I will after a thousand dollar spending spree at my local department store.
“Great. And bring lots of options.”
“Fine,” I say as if my closet teems with variations on the aforementioned theme. “Just refresh my memory… what color is ecru?”
You may wonder why I don’t admit to the stylist that my wardrobe lacks variegation (I own just one suit and when I find a shirt I like, I’m apt to buy three exactly like it.). Chock it up to painful experience. When stylists pull clothes for me, the only ones they seem to find are size extra large gargantuan, despite my insistence that anything over medium will hang on me like a painter’s drop cloth. And so, just when I’m supposed to look my photographic best, I end up looking like a ten year-old playing dress up in his father’s clothes.
I’m not a total slob. I try not to sweat in borrowed clothes and if I do manage to stink them up I’ll wash or dry clean them. That requires removing and reattaching price tags, a process simplified by my Red Arrow price tagging gun ($21 on eBay). No model—no person—should be without one.
Why not keep the clothes? In a perfect world, we’d earn so much for every shoot that such clothing acquisition costs would be inconsequential. But back on planet Earth I might get three hundred dollars for a two hour shoot. Clearly, the clothes must go back to the rack.
Many stores have a liberal return policy—I’m looking at you, Nordstrom. But that doesn’t mean the register jockeys don’t try to make you feel guilty for being so fickle and saddling them with armfuls of clothes to credit and restock. I used to dread returning the garments, dodging the clerks’ skeptical glares (“So none of these cashmere sweaters worked for you?”), enduring their pained sighs as they unrang their sales commission on yesterday’s Visa-scorching purchase, a windfall they probably spent last night. Then I discovered a way to make returning the stuff fun.
“Was there something wrong with these shirts?” asks the peeved salesman, as he checks the sales tags and circles the various 27-digit manufacturer codes on the foot-long receipt.
“Yes. They’re haunted,” I reply. That generally motivates them to speed the transaction and be done with me. Other responses I’ve tried include:
“I’m a recovering shopaholic and my therapist says this store took advantage of me yesterday.”
“Oh, I won’t need clothes where I’m going.”
“Shh. I’m a secret shopper. You’re doing very well so far.”
Sales clerk scrutiny is compounded for stylists, who pull clothes for many models and end up returning an entire rack. One stylist I know had her charge card cancelled at a department store after too much buying and returning. They figured out what she does for a living and got tired of being her complimentary wardrobe department. Now she slinks from store to store, buying a little here and a little there, hoping she isn’t recognized, like some casino-hopping, black-listed card-counter dodging pit bosses.
I assuage my guilt by telling myself that the clothes I borrow get free advertising by appearing in other products’ advertisements. In fact, I feel better just getting this skeleton out of my closet. And returning it to Nordstrom for a full refund.
This essay originally appeared in somewhat different form in Today’s Black Woman, Zink, Jazel, and Supermodels Unlimited magazines.