In Conversation: Sabrina Cates on Thrifting, Social Media, and Freedom

Sabrina Cates,

born and raised in New Orleans, is fly as hell and giving me a read on purpose and freedom. We heard of one another through word of mouth and met via Instagram. What started as polite exchange of compliments turned into a discussion about leaving corporate America to build on our dreams, brands and our own businesses. That, is why I chose to sit down with this wonderful woman. Sabrina is a gorgeous, compassionate, light of a human being who finds value in doing what she wants to do, be that blowing bubbles, case managing or channeling her mother at the thrift store. 

My conversation with Sabrina will be the first in a series of conversations and interviews with creative, inspiring folks around New York and beyond. In wanting to learn more about relationships, imagination and the world, I also want to give these people a chance to tell their stories in hopes that they’ll reach and touch some of you. I want to expose us all to the way some of us are living out their imaginations and the ways they are trying to love, move, work and what they really think about the world.

Sabrina Cates (@sabrinadcates) | all photos by laquann dawson (@laquanndawson)

Sabrina Cates: I have this thing, I know what my purpose is. I’ve known what my purpose was since about college.

What’s your purpose honey? 

My purpose is service. I’m here to serve people who have less than me. To help them, to build them, to work in communities and to grow them. 

I went to college originally for sport journalism. I loved sports, I played sports in high school, I had all brothers and I wrote. It made sense. My sophomore year, I started going to counseling for some things I’d gone through in the past and it just hit me. So I was like, I want to do this. I want to help people. Kids who'd gone through what I went through. So I switched my focus to social work. 

Right out of college I worked a few corporate jobs. First, with Verizon then as a flight attendant. At a point I felt like I was just living my life for fun. I was flying, I had money, I was never home, but what was I really doing? Who was I really helping? I had to find something more meaningful.

How long did it take you to come to the conclusion that what you were doing didn’t align with your life’s purpose? 

Maybe three months before I quit flight attending I realized like wow, I am not doing anything, I’m helping people, but not really. So I went to the internet looking for jobs that would let me use my degree. I hadn’t really gotten into case management since college. I figured, I got this degree and spent four years doing case management work, so why not try to use it. 

Eventually, I found a case manager position at AmeriCorps. I applied, interviewed, and they gave me 2 weeks to move to Paterson, New Jersey. They gave me a housing stipend but that was really it. It was more of a volunteer project than a job.

Earlier, we talked about shying away from corporate America. When you are building your own business and stepping away from corporate America, what does that actually look like? 

I wouldn’t do case management anymore. I’ve done social work for so long, and I loved it. I do love it. What I would do now is be in the community, volunteer and tutor after school programs. Things like that. I want to step away from case management a bit because coming here, I’ve realized I am more in-tune with myself in tapping into my creative side and that’s like the thrifting brand that I own.

“When you no longer are moving in a way of worrying about what other people think and feel, especially in regards to you, that’s when you’ll truly know freedom.”

Lets talk about that, because we just shot and you are stylish as fuck, I’m like, who could give a look like this? 

So, I didn’t like thrifting growing up with my mom, we were very poor. I used to have to go to thrift stores with my mom and brothers. She’d pick out all our shit under a certain amount. I would complain the whole time worried about getting teased at school. And we did. We got teased a lot. I hated it, but when I got to college, everybody looked the same. Everybody shopped at Forever21. I remember going to the club one day and this girl and I had on the same exact outfit, from the skirt to the top. Ever since that day I decided to shop at the thrift store. And so when I went, it was like everything my mom taught me just kind of came back. All of her lessons.

Was mom fly?

Yes, she was fly! Apparently, to my family, I’m an exact mold of her when she was my age. I can go into a thrift store and can find anything. I can create these ideas and outfits in my mind and I can go and find everything I want. Everything. My mom taught me that.

It is a skill. A lot of people just cannot thrift. Did mom even teach you the styling part? 

She didn’t teach me the styling part. She just taught me what to look for. She dressed us pretty fly as kids, for what she could afford. But when it comes to styling, I guess it’s naturally in me. I can’t even explain it. 

That just comes from being a creative. 

It comes with freedom and really being able to find out who you are. I feel like once I found out who I was and became in-tune with that, my creativity just amped; it’s not complicated. After a while friends would start asking me if I could style them and I’m like “nope! I just know how to dress me.”

So do you ever style now? 

Yes, I have my own Vintage Brand called Vintage Austerity. I launched it April of this year. I started the brand because my friends, line-sister, and my favorite cousin Roni started asking me to style for them. Once I started, it showed me that I truly have talent. Now, all I have to do is work on making it a skill. I started selling my thrift items on my Instagram, soon I’ll be selling it on my website. My partner gave me the idea to start these wardrobe parties, to sell my things and so when I chose to do them, I decide to have people really dress up. At the last party I had about 20 vintage items up for sale on this name-your-price basis, and I did not have to negotiate at all. They are quality things that I thrift so people were really into it. 

You’re like the middle man, it’s like personal shopping. 

Yeah! I am going to start selling other items too. Vintage furniture, antiques, and things.  My whole home is thrifted. I love vintage things, from items to clothes.

I want to be full out with my thrift line. I’ve always had this vision of taking a school bus and flipping it into this travel store and taking it to festivals. So that’s my project in a couple years.  

It sounds like you’re taking all of the steps to getting there. With your management experience, your thrift parties and such. You’re even working for a start up and not some huge corporation so I imagine there is more room to grow, learn, and practice even more skills, right?

Yeah, definitely. I am currently building their customer service presence on social media. 

“Social media, to me, is creating this microwaveable-instant-popcorn-ready-society.”

What do you think about social media? 

Social media to me is creating this microwaveable-instant-popcorn-ready-society. It is building up this generation of people who think that their dreams and everything should be ready in 3 minutes, like popcorn. 

I do see the positives, though. I've seen people with brands grow and make money. Even looking at my partner, building her brand on social media, selling merchandise. It’s great for marketing and business, if you really put in the work and don’t expect it to happen over night.

What ways do you use social media?

I use it for business and for fun. Keeping up with relationships, but also researching other businesses and things creatives are doing. That's really all I use it for, I try not to take it too seriously. 

I went to Chris Rock’s show yesterday and they collected all of our phones, said we’d get them back at the end of the show. I talked with my friends until the show started. Out of the hundreds of people at the show, not one person had their phone out.

I cannot even imagine that.

I hadn't seen that in a long time. Chris Rock even made a point. He said, “I was with my wife for 16 years and my parents were together for 40. I talked to my wife more in that 16 years than my parents did in their 40.” And that's because there were no phones to call and text. When his dad would go to work at 6:45 in the morning, he wouldn’t get back until 8 at night. There was no communication during that time. When he would get home, they’d sit and talk. There was actual conversation. Now, with texting, Instagram and Snapchat, by the time you get home, there is nothing left to talk about. 

In that sense, his marriage kind of couldn’t have lasted 40 years. We get so burnt out, in many ways being in our phones.

Yep, and everyone thinks they can have Cardi B’s outcome, coming out of social media. But we don’t get to see the work she put in and so people don’t think they have to work hard to get success. People can't even imagine a life without Instagram.

Being a photographer, especially, I can’t imagine deleting it. I actually get sick being on it so much, but because of my line of work, I can’t be without it. I get lost on there, spending hours doing non-work related shit. Killing my self-esteem and wasting my time. 

Exactly, that’s why I try to stay back as far as I can. I still write letters, I journal by hand. I like to read and sit in the park for 5 hours blowing bubbles. I am about not being limited to one thing. If you’re a photographer, take your pictures. If you’re a poet, write your poems. If you wanna flip around and hula hoop, do it. When you no longer are moving in a way of worrying about what other people think and feel, especially in regards to you, that’s when you’ll truly know freedom. For me, I don’t care what people think. At my age, I do what ever I want. 

I remember having a conversation with this girl and she goes, “You’re 30, and blowing bubbles and dancing in the street? What about a career and work? What about family? You don’t want to be serious about that?” Why do people think life is so serious? I work, I have a full time job, I have a savings, I am learning about investing. The adult part is figured out. But that’s not all life is about. I want to be free. 

I learned that people define you by what you do. 

They really do. After I left corporate life I stopped getting pats on the back. People aren’t as impressed that I am trying to build my own thing. People seem so concerned about finishing school and getting a salary with health care and it's exhausting trying to convince people that this is valid way of living.

It’s not your job to convince people that what you’re doing is important and has value. It stems from how they were raised. Older black people were taught that you work hard in school to get a degree to get a good job, to buy a house and car, to have a family, to retire. That’s life for them. That’s what they were taught, that’s what they teach you. I can’t fault them completely. It’s a generational thing. They won’t be as open minded to see it differently. You have to accept those people for who they are and trust that eventually they’ll see your light.

I'm probably the weirdest person in my family and they are still super supportive. Coming out to my brother, who is my best friend but who I also look at as a father figure, I was super nervous. When I told him he responded with "oh, so you like the same thing I like!" My brother has a favorite line: "if people don't like you, fuck them." "if they have a problem with who you are, what you do, who you're fuckin', fuck them." It's not their job to like you, it's not your job to make them. My family accepts me for exactly who I am. They don't understand me all of the time, but they still love the shit out of me.  

That's how I support my friends, that's how I support my partner, that's how I support anyone. Do what you want to do. It won’t always be easy, but stay true to your self, and find out who you are. Spend your time discovering and creating you, stay true to that, love yourself first, and fuck other people’s opinions. To thine own self be true.

This interview has been edited and condensed.