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

Body-positive student artist uses activist art to help strangers

By Cailyn Domecq

At first glance, her electric-blue hair nods to the fact that she might be an artist — the color resembling a brighter version of a paint she uses as a base in some of her paintings. She has the air of a childhood friend regardless of how long you have known her, and a kind-hearted nature that draws people in.

“I don’t know what other path of life I could have taken, honestly. I definitely think it was meant to be,” she said.

At 22 years old, student painter Emma Rose Hoffmann has a thread of evolution in her life. It shows in the form of art among different mediums, growth in self-confidence, developing relationships both personally and with strangers, and working to advance body positivity.


Where it all started

Her urge to paint began around a decade ago from what started out as a series of obligatory visits to an art studio.

When she was 12 years old, Emma began seeing a therapist to help guide her through the emotional stress of her parent’s divorce. The therapist suggested taking art classes at a studio in Charlotte, North Carolina, and this is when she first got introduced to working with oil paintings.

She always had an artistic side and was known for absentmindedly doodling anime characters in her notebook, but she began to take her time with art more seriously once the classes began.

As is characteristic of the typical preteen, she described herself as being insecure and constantly comparing her work to others when she first started painting. Because of this, her love evolved over time.

This is where Kate comes in.


Lessons through art

She still works with the same teacher she had in these beginning years, the one who first taught her to paint. A continuing theme of evolution applies to their relationship as Kate has watched Emma go from a beginning artist to a well-seasoned young adult who expresses their individuality through brush strokes.

Speaking of brushes, her paintbrushes are well-loved.

She still has her very first set of brushes stowed away in her collection, for sentimental purposes more than anything, covered with splotches of oil paint from past projects.

When she’s in the studio, or “art corner” in her apartment, you can find her sitting cross-legged in a chair in front of the canvas, oftentimes with a cat in her lap and paintbrush flipped bristle-end up in the side of her mouth.

During the pandemic, she collaborated with her two live-in artists, Adobe and Mida.

“My cats would get paint on their paws and I would find little paw prints,” she said as she laughed. “I left them for way longer than I should have.”

While painting, a track from psychedelic rock band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, or an episode of a true crime podcast often plays in the background.

Her most recent work-in-progress for school is a collection about body positivity. It’s a necessity for a senior thesis class, but has grown to become much more than that. It’s a passion project.

The student has to choose their focus — she began by painting still life images. It felt more like an assignment than a passion project, and it showed. After a rough critique from one professor with an insolent tone, she knew something had to change.

A short conversation with Kate, the mentor and friend who has been there all along, helped her come to the conclusion this subject was not the one for her.

I had this really terrible critique this morning, like I don’t know what to do about it…


Rethinking things

Portraiture and figure painting have always been her strong suits, so Emma reassessed and came up with a plan that highlighted both.

The idea was to ask potential participants to submit a photo of themselves wearing minimal clothing that features their body insecurity, then write a short statement on what they have done to combat it.

The hashtag, #everybodyisagoodbody, is at the end of each social media post that highlights the project; a simple yet powerful and formative concept for both the artist and their subject.

One day Emma received a Facebook message that changed her perspective on the idea. A participant asked about the progress of her painting, and she sent a photo of the work that elicited an emotional reaction.

“I was painting this image of her that she felt really insecure about and very vulnerable in — she said that helped her see herself in a more beautiful light,” Emma said. “That’s just something that I didn’t think about when I had started the project, but it was very touching to read her message.

Emma has experience with body dysmorphia, which drives her to acknowledge body insecurities and promote body positivity.

Her roommate, Bex, spoke to her strength.

“She’s really fought for these things that she creates and the way she sees herself,” Bex said.

One of Emma’s pieces features a woman holding the middle of her stomach with subtle tones of earthy yellows, greens, and browns with fuchsia undertones. She is working on her sixth painting of the project, and plans to have 10 in total.

“Seeing a difference between the pieces she’s doing now versus what she was doing before when she was clearly unhappy with her concept, it’s so mind-blowing because these pieces are just so phenomenal,” her girlfriend Rowan said.

Emma explained how she struggles with ADHD and often finds motivating herself difficult, but with this project, ideas for painting are always on the brain.

“If anything I’m having trouble motivating myself to do anything else,” Emma said. “I feel like when I’m painting, it’s the one moment where I don’t feel like my brain is at 100 miles per hour.”

Emma will put on a green cap and gown at the end of the year to graduate with a degree in studio art, specifically painting, from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.  She is to begin a full-time position working with children at the art studio where she is currently an instructor and mentor.

Bright in the way that she lights up a room, strong through the way she fights for the things she believes in, and empathetic by the way she cares for others, Emma’s growth is apparent. Promoting comfort in her body and encouraging others to do the same is an art form that will never cease to evolve.

Edited by Eva Hagan and Em Welsh

Craftsperson finds fulfillment in art after leaving job

By Sarah Gray Barr

Butterfly bush, summer lilac and orange eye. All names for the same plant which graces the silver pot on Charlotte Smith’s porch. Smith knows it best as butterfly bush, and the purple and red blossoms dye cut up strips of The New Yorker the palest shade of yellow.

Being a Helping Hand

Smith has not always had time to dedicate to her craft. In 2016, she left her job of nearly three decades. Smith found herself in the same position that people who left or lost their jobs in the pandemic face now: trying to find fulfillment when the previous way of life is gone.

Smith worked at Ipas, a nonprofit headquartered in Chapel Hill, which aims to protect women’s reproductive rights globally. Smith served as a program officer and traveled to more than 60 countries. During her travels, she developed a career-long habit of purchasing materials native to the country in which she was advocating. In Ghana and Nigeria, Smith picked up wax prints and batiks–textiles unique to the region. Materials such as these now find their way into her art.

The work at Ipas was not dull by any means. Smith has hiked through Northern Ethiopia and attended conferences in Kenya. She also recalled being one of the first Americans in Romania after the overthrow of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989. Behind the former Iron Curtain, women’s rights were restricted. During her stay, Smith witnessed the new legalization of abortion.

Smith is a firecracker. At least, that’s how her friends describe her.

Katie Early met Smith in 1987. Early served as the executive director at Ipas and hired new administrators. She remembers first meeting Smith at that hiring interview. There were two candidates: Smith, and someone better qualified on paper for the job. Smith impressed Early with her dry humor and wit. Early recalled the interview fondly.

“We have a joke talent show at our staff retreat every year, do you have any good jokes?” Early asked.

“Oh, I have a joke, but if you want to hear it, you’ll need to hire me first,” Smith said.

Merrill Wolf, a colleague of Smith’s, agrees. Smith brought a spirit of fun to the Carrboro office. Wolf remembers creating the Ipas board game. Wolf and Smith used papier-mâché to build the board and the playable pieces. The game mixed Monopoly and Candyland together and contained a deck of memorable Ipas-related cards.

“‘The project organizer in a country steals three thousand dollars to build a pool, go back two spaces,’ is one card that I can recall,” said Wolf.

The Ipas office is now located in Southern Village, and the previous building became Gourmet Kingdom, a Chinese restaurant serving Szechuan specialties. But when Smith, Wolf  and Early worked there, art from their travels covered the walls to the point where nobody remembers the paint color underneath.

Moving On

When Smith left Ipas in December of 2016, she needed to find something to do with her time. She began crafting. For the next two years, she experimented. She stayed curious. She found a mould and deckle in her house, purchased from her college days, and tried her hand at making paper. She tested concoction after concoction, added flowers and seeds to paper slurries and searched for the perfect water-to-The New Yorker ratio.

Smith tried to find what sparked her interest.

She joined The 100 Day Project, a worldwide art project that builds creative confidence. She tried making something for 100 days in a row in 2018. She fashioned handmade envelopes, tree hangers, cloth bags and fabric puzzles. The next time Smith participated in 2020, she practiced photography, taking snapshots of nature’s insects and flowers. Smith began her most ambitious attempt at the project in 2021–she created 100 replicas of art by women or art depicting women. Smith stitched fabric onto old postcards and backed the pieces with upholstery samples. The collection includes fabric recreations from Billie Zangewa, Elizabeth Catlett and Roz Chast.

During this period, Smith developed a penchant for handmade paper adorned with sewn fabric designs. Art she could create in a day.

The table she presses her paper on is wrought iron, weathered by the sun and stained with the pulp of past projects. Her yard is something out of “The Secret Garden,” with flowers and vines covering as far as the eye can see. It is here that Smith begins the artistic process.

She experiments with different flora and vegetation to create natural dyes for her work. Today, that pot on her porch holds butterfly bush. Weeks ago, the pot held onion skins, creating a dark yellow dye. Before that, red cabbage dyed newspaper strips a deep purple, a mix between periwinkle and plum.

Smith blends the dyed paper shreds, pours the mixture onto a mould and deckle, and adheres the pressed liquid to large cotton squares. The handmade paper dries under Carolina skies before Smith peels it off to use in her next project.

The stacks of fabrics in Smith’s sewing room stretch to the ceiling. Bins sit next to her Viking sewing machine that boast polka dots, pinstripes, and paisleys. Boxes hold herringbones, harlequins, and houndsteeth. The sewing room is her oyster, and the dozens upon dozens of fabrics are her pearls.

Making the Meaning

Smith is quick and decisive. She knows what she wants to make. It may be a trial-and-error process, and it may take a few tries, but she envisions what the design should be and creates it.

She considers herself more of a craftsperson than an artist, affectionately dubbed a “gluepotter” by her older sister for her projects and creations decades in the making. Growing up and continuing into adulthood, Smith would choose to stay home and “gluepot” rather than go out. Smith battled boredom by crafting day and night with nothing but a trusty pot of glue by her side.

“It’s a family joke now, that we’re glued to our chair. We made it into a verb. What are you going to gluepot this time, you know?” Smith said.

“Gluepotting” aside, Smith is a jack of all trades, skilled in design, photography and fabric. An artist in every sense of the word. But what makes her work unique is its components: recycled papers and fabrics scraps. Smith breathes new life into them, bringing purpose and meaning to materials that others might throw away.

“I don’t envision myself becoming a famous artist, nor do I particularly want to,” said Smith. “I don’t need to accomplish anything. I feel like I’ve done enough interesting things in my life that I will keep exploring and having fun and try new things.”

To Smith, opportunity is everywhere and fulfillment is at her fingertips. Meaning can be found in things often overlooked.

Edited by Em Welsh