My designer clothes addiction got so out of hand I had 1,500 pieces in my wardrobe
When a 23-year-old Laura Horton came across a vintage Christian Dior pencil skirt, black and gold with deep pockets, it seemed to her the perfect symbol for who she wanted to become: someone thin, stylish and successful, like the women she saw in Vogue, or on Sex and the City.
She had been visiting her brother in California when she spotted the store, and in it the skirt bearing a price tag of $10 - the first designer piece she had ever been able to afford. When Horton returned to the UK, instead of the find simply becoming something to show off to her fashion-inclined friends, it sparked what would become an utterly “suffocating” decade-long shopping compulsion.
Having moved from Plymouth to London to work as a publicist, she signed up to notifications of every sample sale in the city, organising her freelance schedule to fit around a 5am queue, and criss-crossing the entire Tube network over the day in order to hit four more. It was addictive, scoring Vivienne Westwood Mary Jane shoes for £20 and cashmere Christopher Kane skirts for a tenner by lunch.
Some 70 per cent of the Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Preen and Chanel designs Horton was buying didn’t fit, but no matter - it would fit the woman she would be, soon, she told herself.
Horton, now 39, charts her obsession with fashion in Breathless, a play opening at the Soho Theatre, in London, this week. It is mostly true (aside from inflating the price tag on that Christian Dior skirt, because “I didn’t think people would believe the real cost,” she says), unpicking how a seemingly healthy appreciation for designer labels was in fact masking hoarding behaviour, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
There were occasional alarm bells in her twenties, where "I knew I needed to curb it... I think the instincts were there," she says. Yet it had been easy to ignore how bad things were getting, Horton adds, as "it felt normal that women, particularly, had too many clothes."
Her 1,500-garment collection was spread across her own home, her partner’s, and her parents’ back in Plymouth, an attempt, she now realises, to hide the full extent of her endless hauls from other people and from herself. Everything was purchased at a snip, too, making it easier to keep on buying.
There had been an addictive element to racking up bargains, at first. But soon came "lots of moments where it wasn't fun,” Horton remembers - namely on Friday nights, where “I'd have it in my mind that I would get rid of some things, or put some things on eBay or try and sell them in some way. I'd pull them out, and then it would become overwhelming, and I’d put them away again.”
Even the samples themselves were no longer a guaranteed adrenaline boost; she once left a Merchant Archive sale with two jumpsuits near-identical in design, afterwards breaking down in distress knowing "I shouldn’t have done it”.
When her landlord decided to sell up in 2018, and Horton moved back home to Plymouth, the sheer volume of what she had purchased finally hit home. She staged two sales before she left London, getting rid of 400 items. Yet so much remained that when her parents arrived in a rental truck to collect her things, “we had to very finely tessellate this van to get everything in.” That didn't include Horton herself, who ended up getting the bus.
When she did get home, seeing everything spilling out of her childhood bedroom and into the neighbouring rooms was “really horrifying,” she says.
Moving back in her mid-thirties had been challenging enough. “I just felt like I'd already failed. I definitely wasn't in a place that I wanted to be in.”
She sought help from a psychotherapist, who made her realise that, while there had been no single trauma causing what was by now fully-blown OCD, shopping had become Horton’s coping mechanism - an instant way, when her ex-boyfriend was abusive, or when a friend died suddenly, “to generate a nice feeling for myself… it just got out of hand.”
She first openly addressed what she'd been going through in a 20-minute monologue written for the Theatre Royal Plymouth in 2021; it struck such a chord that she was urged to develop it into an hour-long piece and to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe. This she did last summer, winning a Fring3e First award.
Going public has been exposing, Horton says; both in watching audiences’ reactions and how those close to her have responded.
There have been many "beautiful" moments as a result, though, including a “really moving” conversation with her younger brother, who had been unaware of the extent of her condition, and one fiftysomething viewer telling her after the curtain fell that while he didn’t typically come to the theatre, he had made the exception for a play about hoarding because “he wanted to feel less alone”.
Horton says she has hoarding tendencies, but dislikes the label “hoarder”; it is unhelpful, she thinks, putting off those who might have a problem from seeking help. "There seems to be a narrative that people with hoarding behaviours are lazy, messy, perhaps dirty” - which doesn't help those who don't fit the stereotype, or their loved ones, from spotting the warning signs.
She feels “lucky” to have caught the issue while in her thirties, she says, and even more so to be able to give a public platform to a much-misunderstood condition. As well as Breathless, Horton last year launched Hidden By Things, a project and podcast through which people donate a garment of significance, and share its story. It’s designed to encourage people to see clothes as things that can be parted with, and paid forward, to give their new keeper more happiness than it would have in the original owner's storage space.
Contributions vary from the sweet - a vintage belt worn as a university student in the Seventies - to the emotionally charged, including one woman’s Ossie Clark dress, worn to an event with an abusive partner. “She said shedding the dress helped her, [as did] knowing it would bring someone else joy.”
Horton, who is now Plymouth's Laureate of Words, has felt that same warmth when fashion students scoop up ultra-bargains at her own sales (of which she is planning more). It’s all part of recalibrating her attitude to clothes: “I still enjoy shopping. I just have a very different relationship with it now.”
She admits that there have been “knife-edge” moments, where she has been tempted to return to habits of old. But while she is “never going to be a minimalist,” recognising when she’s feeling the urge to buy in order to blunt emotional distress, rather than because she needs something, has made all the difference.
Her 39th birthday last year included a visit to a Mary Katranzou sample sale.
She picked up a few pieces, then realised “I don't really want these things, and I put them back, and then I left. That was quite helpful - knowing that I can do that.”
Moving away from those habits entirely “does take time,” she knows. “I'm still working on it. But I know it's changing.”
Breathless is at the Soho Theatre until Feb 18 https://sohotheatre.com/shows/breathless/