Reader AK e-mailed me this tough question:
I get a lot of compliments on my outfits at work, and I love my style. So what’s my problem? I get asked almost daily, “where did you get that [scarf, necklace, boots, sweater, bracelet, watch, purse]?” The questions are coming from my female colleagues, who are also friends. I have a really hard time answering this question depending on who’s asking. There are some people who ask simply as a conversation starter, and I don’t think they really intend to go out and copy me. There are others who immediately hop online to try to find the item, some going so far as to buy it. This bothers me because I spend a lot of time finding the perfect pair of black heeled wide-calf tall boots –I don’t want to see them on three other people in my office. Sometimes I lie and say “Marshalls!” knowing they won’t brave that store (which I love).
I know this goes back to my junior high years. I moved to MN from San Diego (!) and felt like a martian when I arrived. It was the early 80s and I was wearing off-the-shoulder shirts, studded double belts, parachute pants, etc. while everyone else was wearing “mom” jeans and appliqued sweatshirts. I was the only kid who traveled to Minneapolis (instead of St. Cloud or Duluth) to buy clothes, so my clothing was unique at my school. If someone asked where I got X, I would tell them, then face several other people wearing X the next week. I started lying or saying I bought the last X to avoid further copying. I also started shopping only in CA when I would go back to visit.
So, how can I deal with the “where did you get that” question? I don’t want to upset people, but I also don’t want to always say where I got something!
Oh, this hurts my heart, friends. Anytime someone compliments me on what I’m wearing, I offer up where it was purchased without prompting and usually encourage my complimentor to run out and get one for herself IMMEDIATELY. Because I really, truly love spreading the sartorial joy. But although I haven’t worked in an office environment for a couple of years now, even when I did, I never encountered outright copycatting among my peers. I mean, never. I never encountered it in college or high school either, and back in middle school we all wanted to dress like clones so it wasn’t an issue. In AK’s case, she is a person who takes great pride in her style and researches her purchases meticulously, only to have those purchases show up on her female colleagues. I think we can all agree that this is a cruddy situation. Because “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” is a lovely sentiment, but seeing your coworkers copy your very specific style choices will chafe.
I generally believe that honesty is the best policy, but in this case I’d probably lie. It’s one thing to have one friend or coworker occasionally ask for a source and then run out and buy an identical item. And it’s certainly a different matter if the person asks if you’d mind if she bought one for herself – at least then you have some warning, and the (albeit awkward) option to say, “No.” But in a case where multiple people with whom you work on a daily basis are blatantly copying your style and purchases, I feel like you can opt to protect your sources.
Unfortunately, this means outright lying. “I don’t remember” won’t fly if the item is obviously new, and “I’m not comfortable saying” will raise hackles. Citing places like Marshalls and TJ Maxx or even thrift or vintage stores can work, as can saying, “It was a gift” or “I snapped up the last one.” Share your sources when it feels right to do so, of course, and be honest whenever you can. But remember that sharing your shopping resources is a courtesy, and you aren’t required to do it. Especially if others are using you as a free personal shopping resource.
The grown-up option? Confrontation. If there’s one particular person who has purchased nearly every item you’ve sourced, it might be worth a sit-down talk. Say, “I’m really flattered that you like my style, but I spend a lot of time and energy researching my purchases and it makes me feel awkward to see loads of other people wearing identical items around the office.” I can’t imagine this being a fun or easy conversation, so it would be best to have some resources at hand. Point this person to websites you love and think would suit her, local shops she might not have heard of, and stores that offer personal shopper services. Always best to follow “Please stop doing this” with “try this instead.”
There is also the “suck it up” route. Each woman will style that pair of black, heeled, wide-calf boots differently, and in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter if four people in one office wear the same pair. Most observers won’t even notice. But for someone like AK who does research and takes pride in her unique style, it may feel like she’s being used. She pores over the options, compares products, tries out different garments, and makes decisions. Then folks swoop in behind her and basically use her as a free personal shopping service. There are far worse crimes to be sure, but watching someone else steal your ideas and utilize your hard work without permission only to take credit for tracking down an item that you used your own time and taste to locate? Definitely frustrating. Especially if it happens on the regular.
And that’s about all I’ve got, folks. It really does pain me to condone lying under any circumstances, but I know that if I were AK I’d be very reluctant to share my shopping resources with a pool of people who have proven that they’ll steal my style quickly, remorselessly, and without acknowledging that they’ve done so. What about you? Do you have any more honest solutions? Would you confront? Suck it up? Anyone else dealing with a similar situation?
Image courtesy ben dalton