Life Jacket

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For fashion designer and vintage maven Emily Bargeron, choosing a favorite piece of clothing is surprisingly easy

Photography by Katie McGee

WHEN MY FIRST collection debuted during Charleston Fashion Week in 2009, I was fresh out of college with no job or cash flow. I designed a 15-piece, one-of-a-kind collection from vintage fabrics that took me three months to construct. Cash offers streamed in after the show, and with just $20 to my name, I summarily declined each one. My attachment to each garment ran deep, and my love for each hand-sewn button and tiny trim outweighed any financial gain.

Three months later, sitting in my apartment cluttered with the sample-size collection, and living off of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, I realized that if I wanted to be successful in the fashion industry, I couldn’t have an emotional connection to the garments I created. My landlord, after all, wasn’t going to accept an exceptionally sewn tunic in exchange for room and board. That day I vowed to share great clothing with others and to collect memories rather than things.

Post-epiphany, my closet has been a revolving door of beautifully stitched vintage that I purchase from estate sales and thrift stores or score from family and friends. Stacks of vintage bed sheets and 1970s psychedelic-print curtains sit high on the shelves, awaiting their destiny of being sewn into a dress or skirt. I create each piece with the same love as before, but with the express intention of sharing it with oth­ers. As for dressing myself? I simply reach for my classic, patch-covered Levi’s denim jacket, which has carried me through mile­stones, moves and just about any occasion.

Personalized jeans became a form of self-expression during the 1960s, when young Americans enthusiastically decorated otherwise-ordinary denim. My jacket is no different: every square inch tells a story, inviting questions and conversation. The tattered denim is covered in bleach spots from tie-dye projects gone wrong and count­less, yet meaningful, embroidered patches. A Sedona, Arizona, patch neatly covers a rip in the denim, reminding me of the time I tried (and failed) to jump a fence and sneak into a VIP party. A Zion National Park patch reminds me of a week-long trek across the desert. The hem is covered in pins from a late-night design session or clamps from a Mamie Ruth photoshoot. It’s the kind of garment that makes finding spare cash in the pocket feel like a gift from an old friend. It’s also designed to last a lifetime.

Although my love for vintage began as an admiration for bright colors and prints, it quickly shifted into a desire to try to change the fast-fashion epidemic. During a vintage buying trip in California, I met with an incredibly knowledgeable collector who took me to a vast and dreary warehouse, where bales of discarded clothes were vacuum-sealed and stacked to the ceiling. What’s more, it was a microcosm of a larger problem: the Environmental Protection Agency estimates Americans throw away nearly 17 million tons of clothes each year. This eye-opening experience made me want to try to change the way people shop — and ultimately led to me opening East and Up, where my team and I educate shoppers on the history of clothing, explain the value of buying vintage and breathe new life back into old garments. We rescue used pieces, taking the time to mend holes, dry clean stains, steam the clothes and hang them pridefully among other resurrected beauties. Every so often, we keep an item for our­selves, infusing its rich history with our own unique style.

As a designer and store owner, I’m knee-deep in clothes, vintage and otherwise, but I still stick to my rule of collecting mem­ories rather than things. My scrapbook is made of Levi’s denim, and the memories are woven deep into the threads.

Although my love for vintage began as an admiration for bright colors and prints, it quickly shifted into a desire to try to change the fast-fashion epidemic

Bargeron is the owner of the locally made clothing brand Mamie Ruth, vintage shop East and Up, and eclectic boutique Starland Strange and Bazaar