I’ve been thinking about this particular essay from the moment I decided to launch Skirt the Issue. I can’t have a fashion focused web mag without ModCloth; the online fashion retailer was my path to style. When I received an email a few weeks ago advertising their “Stylish Surprise,” a grab bag item from their trove collection for sub-H&M prices, I thought “this is perfect! I can talk about the excitement about my ModCloth Mystery Item along with my love of my very favorite business.”
Today I received two notifications: my Stylish Surprise was delivered to my doorstep, and ModCloth was sold to a Walmart subsidiary.
Now I’m not trying to equate this bad news with all of the other news alerts that have made the first not-even-three months of 2017 feel like two centuries. There are giant existential crises, and there is unwelcome news. The revelation that my beloved source for Ms. Frizzle dresses, embellished heels and holiday-themed skirts was being sold to a company I refuse to acknowledge as a shopping option, a corporation that stands socially and politically and philosophically against everything I have ever been or desired to become, was most unwelcome.
I can’t clearly remember my ModCloth origin story, but I discovered the website around 2011. This was a pivot point in my life, a moment when I was articulating the direction of the rest of my life. I was 25 and at the halfway point in my creative writing MFA program. I was recovering from a severe bout of depression brought on in 2008, when I was unemployed for nearly a year during the Great Recession. I gained 40 pounds and lost my self-esteem. My smile faded. My shoulders slumped. My voice became clipped, stuttering and anxious. I felt like the vibrant, expressive version myself was never coming back. Maybe she’d always been a lie.
By 2011 I’d gotten another job and I was on the verge of moving on to a much better one. I was chasing my writing, which had always been a dream, with full-tilt ferocity. I was eating better and exercising. I found a wonderful hairdresser. And when ModCloth banner ads started to appear on my screen, I thought, I want that stuff. More importantly, I felt worthy of that stuff.
I started Favoriting dresses and shoes I loved, adorned with gnomes and cats. When Christmas came around that year, I emailed a solid block of link ideas to my parents. “Anything off this list I’ll love,” I promised.
I ended up with this cranberry dress with a scalloped schoolgirl collar, last worn this Thanksgiving. I packed it with my to my first writer’s conference, AWP, along with ModCloth pencil flats. Scouring their Sale section for deals on clothes cuter than anything I’d find at the mall became my nighttime unwinding ritual. Piece by piece, ModCloth overtook the Ann Taylor Loft domination that my early professional held in my wardrobe.
Receiving a package from ModCloth didn’t feel like a box arriving. It was like a gift. The twee mushroom-patterned purple boxes, the shirts and skirts lovingly wrapped in tissue paper, emblemized with a deer or squirrel sticker. Sometimes they’d throw a little headband or barrette in the box like a fun “hi there! This was packed by a real human” reminder.
When the coats, dresses and pineapple purses garnered compliments, I evangelized. “ModCloth!” I hollered from Portland’s highest hills, joking that I needed old-fashioned calling cards stamped with my perennial referral.
Last summer, on a sleepy workday, a local news headline gave me a fresh new pulse: “Online Retailer ModCloth Opening Pop-Up Store in Portland’s Pioneer Square.” I jumped right away at the chance for a personal stylist appointment, with a calendar almost booked by the time I clicked over.
I was assigned an adorable associate who took my measurements, then disappeared to pull my exact size of any and everything I pointed out in the store. “We have all sizes in everything you see,” she said, and as a size 14/16 my entire life, these are not familiar words. This is goddamn unheard of. I have lived a life of lust over the Anthropologie or Betsey Johnson dress, only to find them topping out at a maybe-12. “We have expanded sizes online,” I’ve heard from Nordstrom and Macy’s in recent years. As if I am an albatross that cannot possibly be stocked outside a cavernous warehouse.
I expected her to come back into the dressing room with one, maybe two of the airy summer items. Not a rolling rack heaving with all my requests, plus creative outfits she’d picked and pieced together on her own based on a quick scroll through my Pinterest and Instagram. I spent probably two hours in that dressing room, trying on practically every piece in their stock. We laughed. We took pictures. I got the name of the place that made the dress she was wearing (not carried by ModCloth but a Portland boutique I’d yet to discover), and tracked down the same one.
On the drive back to our house, a couple hundred dollars sunk into the company, I was close to tears. Never had a store made me feel so normal. So wanted. How many times had I gone out shopping, ready to drop some cash, and found that the entire mall only had one or two choices in my obscene size to choose from? Hundreds. My entire life.
It’s an experience like this that makes me say, I am with you forever. You aren’t my company. You are my friend.
It’s this kind of thinking that will break your heart.
Because a company isn’t a person, despite what our Supreme Court may declare. The company may be made up of dozens of awesome, authentic people who embody what you love and connect with about the brand. But they are run by a set of people who need to make as much money as possible, and appease interests whose bottom line is a bottom line. The relationship they have with their customers and even their employees is not a friendship, as hard as they work to make it feel that way (as long as friendship is On Brand).
However, it’s impossible to have a style without tucking your heart into the folds of a favorite brand, store, or company. Our style, no matter how funky or obscure, is a personal collage of what is available in our place, our time, our means. Our image is what we choose from the palette we can afford and obtain. Whether you’re expressing yourself with a Prada gown or a black tagless trenchcoat from the Salvation Army, someone designed that clothing and put in a PO for its materials, and spec’d out the manufacturing process. It came from a company, whether that company was a teensy Etsy shop or Hanes.
We buy. We wear. And inevitably, sometimes, we fall in love.
So let’s flash forward to today, when I read the news that ModCloth was being swallowed up by Walmart. I read Jezebel’s description of dismayed employees and the company president’s shitty alignment with Walmart’s “values” and “resources.” Bullshit, I thought. More spin in a post-fact world. Like everything else I seem to love and hold as a concrete truth, ModCloth vanished through my fingers in the expanse of an article.
I waited at least half an hour to work up the emotional energy necessary to tell my ModCloth converted coworker and text my husband Matt, who always put in a big ModCloth Christmas present order for me on Black Friday. “Guess I’ve ordered my last ModCloth package,” I said when a Delivery notification popped up on my phone.
The Stylish Surprise is a quarterly promotion ModCloth runs, likely to clear out inventory but also generate bloggy buzz. Prompted by a “hurry!” email, shoppers can choose from several categories (Apparel for $15, Dresses for $20, Shoes for $10, Accessories for $5, Apartment/Housewares for $10) and select the desired size. A blind item shows up at their door. This was my first time noticing the email, but apparently the surprises are coveted and quickly sell out.
I selected apparel in my usual size (XL), and came home to a suspiciously large box. There were no purple mushrooms, only brown cardboard that could have been from Home Depot or Refrigerator Filters R Us or any other online order warehouse around the world. The size, however, was what gave me pause. It was so large, my mailman had to deliver it on my doorstep. It had a teensy bit of heft to it.
It couldn’t be, I thought.
Since placing the order, I’d been running the playful item listing copy through my head. ModCloth is all about the punny, irreverent item listing copy. I’ve long dreamed of running off to Philadelphia and writing descriptions for It’s You or Knee Now leggings. Who knows what you’ll get! they teased. A blouse? A sweater? Maybe a coat!
The word “coat” was what sealed my pressing of the Purchase button. A lottery for new coat? I am a coat fetishist in the midst of the worst Oregon winter in collective memory. All of my current coats, save for my REI practical rain jacket, are ModCloth coats.
I figured it wasn’t going to happen. Practically every review I found of the Stylish Surprise lamented the common t-shirts that showed up, just barely worth the $15 forked over for their arrival. Still, the dream was enough.
I cut the two-foot shipping box open and peered at a plastic-wrapped bundle of thick turquoise fabric cozily waiting inside.
“NO,” I said aloud, tearing open the wrap to unfurl a full-length coat in one of my favorite, but yet unowned, colors. Bow embellishments. My favorite embellishments.
I had won the Stylish Surprise lottery.
I snapped. I squealed. I cursed the skies. WHYYYYY MODCLOTH?? WHYYYYYY???!
I felt the company reaching magically through the mail, like a phone call from an estranged friend. Don’t go. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to align with a corporation that embodies everything cruel and short-sighted about our society. Look, I made you a coat. It’s YOUR coat, girl.
Complacency is so very, very tempting.
I will wear this coat. I will wear the stuffing out of it. I’ll wear my ModCloth vegetable dress, and my pineapple purse, and my cat shoes. But I don’t think I can, in good conscience, place another order. Not without compromising my principles. Which is what separates an individual with a style from that company that claims to embody the same aesthetic. I have the latitude to care. I have the luxury to choose. I can be beautiful and still have a soul that’s not for sale.