My first memory of Wet Seal is when I walked in the store for the first time and promptly told my friend, "It smells like drugs in here."
I was 13 then, and the closest thing I'd ever seen to drugs was when a kid snorted a line of Pixy Stix powder once after school. I had no idea what I was talking about. The point is that, to me, Wet Seal was scandalously cool with all of it's tiny dresses and built-in bustier tank tops. Naturally, that made it totally irresistible. So when I heard the news of Wet Seal closing all of its stores, it was a sad reminder that my youth, like a time when Pixy Stix where somehow always easily accessible, was dead and gone.
When I was in my early teens, going to the mall with my friends was a weekly ritual. I'd thoughtfully pick out what I was going to wear for the event. I chose carefully curated outfits, like two bright-colored polo shirts layered on top of one another. Self-conscious about literally every other aspect of my existence, popping both of the shirts' collars just seemed natural — a necessary style choice, if you will. I'd pack my Coach bag with my Motorola Razr, a clunky digital camera, and enough cash to pay for a movie, burgers at Johnny Rockets, and maybe a little something extra. That something extra is usually what brought me to Wet Seal.
What made Wet Seal particularly excellent was that you could basically buy up to 65 items with almost no money at all. You could purchase enough paper-thin tank tops to adorn an entire nation if you wanted. Would the tops make it through a normal wash cycle or basically any activity at all without being completely destroyed? No, of course not. That wasn't the point. The point was that you could have $3.40 leftover from Johnny Rockets and still manage to walk out of Wet Seal feeling like a freaking superstar.
If you wanted to find the perfect super-stretchy, thick belt to wear low-slung on your hips (didn't we all?), you had oodles of options at Wet Seal. There were racks spilling over with what were essentially bungee cords with faux leather buckles in the front. If you didn't take them off carefully they would snap off your waist and go flying across the room with impressive force, eventually landing in a pile of other equally thick belts. A girl needed choices, you know?
And then there were the bubble dresses. Remember the bubble dress years, guys? When we all thought that extra-short dresses that bunched up and created an odd, pouch-like effect at the hem were a great idea? We all looked like life-size Hershey Kisses and, yet, we carried on. In satin. And sequins. And (obviously) leopard print.
Without fail, any day of the week, any time of day, somehow Wet Seal always looked like it had just been ransacked. It didn't matter that each item sold came in approximately 34 patterns and colors — people were clearly searching for something very particular in the brightly-lit aisles of the store. In my memory, the linoleum floor of the store was always lined with discarded floral-printed mini dresses and cotton bodycon numbers. I won't say that going there was ever a relaxing experience for me, but it was certainly an experience. And, no matter what, I always left feeling good.
Few things are as simple or as pure as going into a store and leaving feeling great. Finding the best extra-long tank to layer under my polo shirts made me feel excellent when I was 13. Not many things feel excellent at all when you're 13, but I had Wet Seal. And, for that, I'll miss fondly passing it in the mall. I'll miss remembering a time when all it took to make things feel a little better were spaghetti straps.
Images: Wet Seal (1)