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For many of my high school years I was oblivious to real style and just ended up buying whatever I saw in Abercrombie and Fitch stores. I was blinded by what the mass-market retail world had told me what real style is about, and I had fallen into something I like to call “The A&F Trap”.

Sure, I thought I looked cute and fashionable then (and got some compliments in the process), but now I realize how constrained and totally boring my style really was!

Of course it’s fun to feel like you fit in, as if that moose-embroidered Henley you’re wearing makes you a tiny bit cooler somehow. At the same time, it’s much more rewarding to find your own sense of style, mixing and matching different labels, styles, trends, and ideas to create something that’s uniquely you.

Real style is better

As nice as it is to be complimented on your straight-off-the-mannequin outfit, it’s so much better when someone compliments you on a look that you worked to put together yourself with pieces from all over the place. That way, you know they’re complimenting your unique style and eye for fashion, not the “fashion” know-how of some merchandiser in an A&F store.

It’s not just A&F

Not that there’s anything really wrong with good old A&F; they do have some cute stuff at times! In fact, I swear by their basic tanks because they’re long and stretchy. But it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of fashion and style. If 90% of your wardrobe bears only one label, you are in need of a style re-evaluation.

It’s not “a look” to wear nothing but one brand from head to toe. If you walk around campus and see multiple girls wearing the same outfit as you in different colours, it’s time to really think about things, and start expressing yourself through your clothes, not somebody else’s ideas.

How to get out of the trap

Take a 30-day A&F break. The next time you go to the mall, resist the urge to stop in that store (it doesn’t have to be A&F, apply it to whatever store the majority of your clothes come from). Try out another shop that you don’t go to as often and see if anything appeals to you. Better yet, check out cute accessories instead of buying more plain tops and jeans you don’t really need. Even better, skip the mall altogether and move on to step two.

Branch out.

Visit your local vintage store, that unique little boutique downtown, or just raid your most fashion-savvy friend’s closet. Look at textures, colours, and patterns, and take note of what really speaks to you. Make an effort to buy or borrow something that you really love—bonus points if it’s something that you wouldn’t normally wear!

Study up on style. I don’t mean memorize the latest trends or even necessarily try to emulate high-fashion looks, but instead try to learn about real style. Look to fashion icons of the past; find photos and videos and examine what they wore and what elements of that style you find appealling. Flip through Vogue and browse the runway photos on Rip out or print whatever you really like, and learn about proportions.

Make mistakes! 

Fashion is all about experimentation. Don’t be afraid to wear something crazy if you’re in love with it! In fact, it’s almost better if everyone thinks you’re crazy because that’s how you know you’re original. Even if you really regret wearing something later, remember that all the most famous style icons make fashion mistakes at some point. (If you don’t believe me, check out some old pictures of Nicole Richie! She wasn’t born the fashion trendsetter that she is today!) Making mistakes is part of learning about what works and what doesn’t. Everyone has to go through it, and it will only make you more stylish in the long run.

Build a wardrobe. 

Think long-term. Will you still love your A&F tops and ripped up jeans when you’re in the “real world”? The next time you go shopping, really think about classics. Invest in good-quality clothes that you’ll have for the future, and take good care of them to make sure they last.

Follow and skip trends as you please. 

There are so many trends out there, but that doesn’t mean you should follow them blindly! When you think about trends, don’t forget to consider what works for you, your style, and your body. For example, I think the wide-leg jeans trend looks super-cute on lots of girls, but I don’t like how they look on me, so I stick to my skinny jeans. It’s always better to skip a trend than wear something that doesn’t suit you at all. If, on the other hand, you love one of the latest spring trends for example, then just go for it!

Look at fabrics, cuts, and styles—not brand names. You want to look for quality, not a logo you recognize. Nine times out of 10 the label on your clothing says absolutely nothing about its stylishness anyway. Don’t be label-obsessed, be style-obsessed! If it’s fabulous, wear it. If it’s not, then pass on it.

Learn about fashion. 

Getting your style outside the world of mass-market is so much easier once you learn about the fashion industry. Check out fashion show pictures, learn about how seasons work, get to know individual designer’s work (and how to pronounce their names!). The more you familiarize yourself with fashion, the more you’ll understand how it affects you. It’s really interesting to watch runway shows and then check out stores six months later and see different incarnations of the looks. It’s also incredible how everything repeats itself: just watch and you’ll see!

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Never stop developing your style.

Throughout your life, your style is going to grow and change. And that’s a good thing! Whatever you do, don’t let yourself get complacent and bored, wearing the same looks over and over. Have fun with your look and don’t be afraid to shake things up whenever you feel the urge!

At the end of the day, developing a unique style is something that everyone who cares about fashion should do. It might be more work to find unique pieces and work them in your own way rather than just buying the newest clothes at the mall, but it’s so incredibly worth it. Don’t let a retail store define you: define yourself and show your personality off through what you wear! That’s what real
fashion is all about.

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