I’ve never done well in thrift stores. Medium sweaters mix with size fours. The DVDs aren’t organized by genre. The bare feet of a total stranger were in those shoes at one point? The clutter and charming chaos that make so many people giddy these days still give my Gap-covered hide hives.
Today, in 2013, my inability to breeze out of a vintage shop with a monocle I can turn into a brooch or an oversized gingham shirt for fashioning into a fetching fall dress feels like my biggest style handicap. If Sex and the City is to be believed, 15 years ago women my age coveted Manolo Blahniks; now, the youthful fashion ideal is far more ambiguous, and style success is measured by the elevation given to odd found items, not the designer labels stacked in your closet. To the extent that I get jealous of other people’s stuff, I’m less envious of what my friends have than of their seemingly effortless ability to make it.
It only takes a scroll through Instagram to see how DIY fervor has gripped our generation—backyard-grown peppers being sautéed, knitting projects, a hand-painted bar stool. Urban Outfitters has built an entire brand on mannequins that look like they’ve been dragged through thrift-shop basements. I’ve always chalked this up to people my age being broke, but that explanation doesn’t cover it—even the yuppiest among us pickle our own okra these days.
Besides, when it comes to the traditional assets of adulthood, millennial desires don’t feel all that different from those of our parents. In spite of our couch-surfing personae, most of us still want houses, cars, even TVs. A Center City realtor recently told me that this past year, the majority of his sales were to first-time home buyers between the ages of 25 and 32, many of whom were single. Investments still matter to us. Something else is in the ether.
As a generation, we take pride in our revulsion toward megaliths like Walmart and McDonald’s, and our refusal to be impressed by the House of Chanel. Those brands are false idols, worshiped by our less-discerning predecessors. And yet there are still so many ways in which our consumerism is ruled by just a few distant empires: Apple. Amazon. IKEA. We’re as bound to the globalized economy as ever. Maybe the further our dollars go, the more important it seems to have some of them stay close to home.
This isn’t a generation that drools over Society Hill condos—we want the Pennsport rowhouse whose window boxes and concrete decks we can spruce into House Beautiful-worthy snapshots. A Prada bag would be practically vulgar—much better to sift through trunks of vintage totes at Circle Thrift, tie a grosgrain bow on one, and lap up the compliments. This is a group of spenders who, to the extent we can, want to see the effect of our money.
That means that everything this city offers is being viewed in a whole new light by a demographic on the precipice of its peak spending years. Most of us want to call this place home: the ramshackle bodegas, the potholed side streets and the peeling house facades. We’re eyeing it all and thinking: We can make this work. In fact, it’ll be great.