I grew up in a small town a couple of hours outside Seattle. When I was 17 years old, I saw Nirvana for the first time; from then on it was all about denim and flannel. On weekends I'd root around a strange old second-hand store in a nearby navy town, picking out bowling shirts or these farm labourers' shirts you could get with other people's names sewn on them. It meant I could be someone else for a little while.

In the mid-1990s I went to art school in New York. It was my first time away from home and I was trying hard to transform myself into something else; for a while I went through this phase of wearing designer clothes and dying my hair grey. First I had to bleach it out completely, then add this weird blue-ish tint to it; I think I may have been trying to draw attention to myself in the wrong way.

In New York, everyone tries to dress as crazy as possible. In Paris, where I live now, the key is understatement. Here, dressing well is about making fine, subtle choices; it's the difference between one black sweater and another. I appreciate that sensibility of being hyper-conscious about the cut or the material of something. I'm picky about what I wear; I choose clothes that are built to last.

A huge, grizzled 65-year-old called Big Ben inspired this shirt. It took me a whole year to hunt out, and in the end it cost me $15. A lot of my job as an artist involves manual work, surrounded by other guys. Some men just know how to look good within pretty narrow workwear parameters.

It takes effort to pull off the hardy/ functional look and not look like an idiot. It's a fine line, and it's all about delicate choices. For one, there's a whole world of hats out there; I go for black-on-black caps. After seeing a Mexican labourer wearing a black Seattle Seahawks cap, it took three months to find one like it.

I come from Seattle, home of the Utilikilt – a specialist workman's kilt with loads of pockets – but I buy my trousers from a cowboy store in a tiny town between LA and Death Valley. That's the kind of place I really love, but I also appreciate stores like Raf Simons and Rick Owen, where I'd never actually buy anything. Just being surrounded by that stuff is an intimidating yet erotic experience.

Oscar Tuazon's exhibition My Mistake runs until 15 August at the ICA, London SW1