Identity in threads of the past: student thrifts to grieve and grow

By Sammy Ferris

Like ravenous ants attracted to the pheromones left by those who came before, estate sale buyers file into houses of the deceased, one-by-one, sniffing out their harvest for the day. Buzzing and hunting, each one is attracted to a different aroma.

Caroline Le, 21, scurries to the women’s wardrobe, hungry to find a decadent collection of lingerie to bring back to her nest. Amid the flowers of 80s wallpaper and the sheen of gold metal bedposts, she sifts through a stranger’s closet. Under a heap of clothing, she spots her feast: a chili red corset. She snatches it, imagining what it will look like in her next photo shoot.

Coping with clothing

In May of 2020, Le founded Vintage by Caro. Branded with her nickname, it is a clothing brand that sells vintage and secondhand clothing. The mission hinges on honoring those who wore the pieces first and appreciating clothing for the story it tells through its details.

The business was an idea forged in a mind hot with grief and stoked by the fires of family tradition. Le decided to meld her passions into one creation.

A few months before Le started Vintage by Caro, she lost her best friend Raj to suicide.

She met Raj when she was 10 years old, in Monterey, California. They were two kids bouncing through the transition into adulthood on the trampoline in his backyard. Friendship that started because they bonded over being short, they found comfort in their similar stature and shared living experiences in Asian-American culture. When the time came for them to go to college, they stayed close. He attended Duke University, and she went to UNC-Chapel Hill.

Le describes hearing the news as a full-body visceral reaction. It shifted her towards a mindset that she did not have prior to his death.

“It showed me that if I want to pursue something, there is no better time than now. And if I don’t appreciate the small things and the beauty in life then it’s just going to pass me by,” she said.

Vintage clothing is unlike fast fashion. It was curated with longevity and craftsmanship in mind. Back then, designers doted on the bustiers and lace teddies that Le loves with the attention to detail like helicopter parents of an only child. Adorned and cradled, these clothing items possess a sense of purpose.

Exactly the kind of care and intentional design that Le decided to live with in honor of Raj.

Threads of tradition

Le first started vintage shopping for leisure with her mother, Colette Le. For their family, thrifting is multigenerational, and it connects Le to her Vietnamese identity.

“My mom and I have gone secondhand shopping, specifically vintage shopping, since I was little because it was ingrained in her from her mom. They came over to this country from Vietnam with little financial means. My grandma would always say ‘there is treasure in someone’s past. You just have to dig to find it,’” Le said.

This tradition has a deep meaning for Le. It ties her to her family’s history and the future she hopes to see. She is passionate about healthcare, particularly for older Americans. Vintage by Caro represents an effort to bridge the generational gap. Le hopes that by providing millennials and Gen Z with clothing from older generations, she can cultivate a sense of awareness about caring for those who wore the pieces first.

Vintage by Caro has become a thread in her tightly knit identity. During her first few years at UNC-Chapel Hill, Le was designing a persona from the scraps of others. Returning home during the COVID-19 pandemic and grieving Raj offered her the opportunity to reevaluate who she is and who she wants to be.

She began thrifting with her mom again and relit her connection to her heritage. Combining her newfound philosophy with identity, Vintage by Caro moved her forward through remembering Raj’s life and her family’s past.

Her best friend and roommate, Maria Rita Furtado, said that when they reunited in 2021 after a year of separation and of Vintage by Caro, she could see a palpable difference in Le.

“I can see that you know who you are,” Furtado said.

“For a while, I wanted to be a little bit of everyone else, and that’s what I was building myself on. With Vintage by Caro, it is all my interest, my own, and through it, I feel like I am me,” replied Le.

“When you go to a school like UNC – with a lot of cliques and white privilege and especially when you’re a child of immigrants – a lot of your life is assimilating. It is trying to look like everyone else, trying to be like everyone else. But you have really stepped into your own,” said Furtado.

A lasting impact

Le strives to bring the her self-growth to Vintage by Caro’s community. Her Instagram serves as a digital coffee shop: a space on social media to meet people in an ambiance of comfort and warmth. Each post is offered like a free cup to her following. She calls friends to come on in and try something new. Only, what’s new is actually vintage, and coffee cups are blouses and bodices.

Her reach extends beyond North Carolina. Recently, she received a direct message from a college student named Izzy who lives in Chicago.

“I love this business, I love this mission, and I am here to support it,” Izzy wrote.

Since that first message, Izzy has been one of Le’s most frequent customers. She represents the ripple effect on which the business has built. Friends of friends spreading Le’s message about appreciating craftsmanship and each other.

She describes her following as loyal and diverse, and she is steadfast about her mission to cultivate community.

Photographer for Vintage by Caro Rainey Scarborough said that being part of this movement makes collaborating a more gratifying experience.

“When I take a photo for her, I think how someone’s going to buy this, wear it, and it’s going to be part of this larger chain of events. I like participating in something that inspires people. It creates community and helps give back,” she said.

In less than a year, Le graduates from college and enters the next phase of her life. As a public health major, she hopes to keep bridging the generational gap by helping older Americans with their healthcare. She does not know exactly what that will mean for Vintage by Caro, but she now has the trust in herself to not fear that uncertainty.

She says she is not sure that if Raj was alive Vintage Caro would exist. Her business is a lining in her life made from threads of his memory.

Vintage by Caro is a handwritten invitation to join the party. One where the attendees are wearing brightly colored dresses, and the ice is served in a crystal container. Le will greet you at the door with her past, present, and future stitched on her sleeve. Her patches of honor.

Edited by Em Welsh