Empire Records is the Movie That Changed How I Think About Style
I want to tell you something that would maybe make you run away from me if we were chatting at a party: the movie Empire Records changed my life. Not in some grand philosophical sense. I don't want to talk to you about objectivism because I just read Atlas Shrugged and now feel justified in being a dick. And this is a 1995 comedy/drama/coming-of-age flick about a bunch of attractive teenagers who work at a record store and feel feelings, after all. But in some very concrete and personal ways, it changed the entire trajectory of my adulthood.
Johnny Whitworth as A.J. and Liv Tyler as Corey in a still from Empire Records.
Why am I telling you this? Because it's Rex Manning Day! That is, it's April 8, the date the plot of the movie unfolds and a garish, pompous pop star—Rex Manning, wearing a very purple shirt—sets into motion the events that send everyone into a tailspin before they learn and grow and look very cool in a very '90s way. (Which means, thanks to the trend cycle and everything old becoming new again, they look very cool right here in 2019, too.)
Rory Cochrane as Lucas, in his turtleneck and jeans.
As a suburban not-quite-teen watching the movie on VHS after it came out on home video—and even now, as someone who's lucky enough to talk and write about men's style for a living—I wanted to emulate the guys who were loafing around while listening to the Gin Blossoms and contemplating adulthood. They were all so cool, in their own ways. (This is all colored by a hefty dose of nostalgia; can you tell?) And their clothes told their stories.
Ethan Embry as Mark.
To understand, you don't need to know the plot of the movie—just the players. There was Lucas, the rebel-philosopher and wearer of perfectly faded jeans and very sophisticated turtlenecks. There was Mark, who wanted to start a band and joyously embraced color and made it look like a scoop-neck dude-tee might actually be a good idea. There was Joe, who was the Old Guy—even though Anthony LaPaglia, who played him, wasn't exactly withered at 37 years of age when the movie released—but still rocked out the drums when he got frustrated and had kinda perfect Old Guy Style.
Anthony LaPaglia as Joe.
Then there was A.J.—the romantic, artistic type—with his perfectly floppy '90s hair and his perfectly floppy everything else, too. I spent years searching for a cardigan like his, and felt it was very important to rock a wallet chain and patch my jeans with checkerboard fabric like he did. Even Rex Manning, the counterpoint to all this hipster cool in his shiny shirt, looks kinda great...in that ironic sleazy way of 2019, and when you leave out the fact that the character actually was a complete scumbag.
Maxwell Caulfield as Rex Manning.
Was it all a little on the nose? Sure! But sometimes that's fine—especially in a '90s movie. And Empire Records made me realize two things. First, that I cared about style and the message you could send to the world with your clothes. Second, that I wanted to work in a record store. And because this was The Past, I was actually able to do it.
They were all so cool, in their own ways. And their clothes told their stories.
There, in the looming shadow of Y2K, in box of a record shop called Wonderland located in a strip mall off Route 1, I met the guy who would eventually introduce me to my wife. And, when we were still dating, she was the one who convinced me to give this whole "writing about men's style" thing a chance.
So, to the cast and crew of Empire Records: Thanks for that. And happy Rex Manning Day.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.