I Stripped My Wardrobe Down to the Essentials, and I'll Never Look Back
It was a hot mid-July day in New York City, and there I was, testing the limits of my organic deodorant.
Despite the heat, I was wearing a long-sleeved cashmere jumper. I'd just KonMari-ed my wardrobe. I didn't have much else left to wear.
Marie Kondo's book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, sparked an extreme decluttering craze that took America by storm this year, causing men and women to clear out their closets and leave only belongings that "spark joy." (Kondo's second book, Spark Joy, was in our January Must Have box.) I was as caught up in the frenzy as any fashion-lover overdue for culling her ill-fitting and rarely worn items.
The movement illustrated a larger trend playing out across the wardrobes of America: learning to love living with less. It's not a question of buying only the best designer items (though that would be nice) but paring down one's clothing collection to focus on quality over quantity.
Crucially, quality here is defined not by how much an item costs but by how often it's worn and how much it is loved. In my version of a pared-down closet, beloved items from affordable stores hang side by side with the rare investment piece. The notion of a wardrobe is changing, and that often means just having way less stuff.
Removing the Element of Choice
The last 12 months have seen a powerful undercurrent that's swept in many women, even in creative fields, who are trying to make do with less. A result: the "capsule wardrobe," a closet stripped bare to just the essentials. (The trend is one of the most popular on Pinterest right now.)
Some women have gone one step further by embracing the concept of the "uniform," a signature outfit. Eyeing that trend, editors at New York Magazine's The Cut christened "Uniform Week" this past January. Stella Bugbee, The Cut's editorial director, detailed her own dalliance with minimalism and Marie Kondo in a piece called "Don't Cleanse Your Diet, Purge Your Closet Instead." Bugbee memorably likened her newly clean closet to "an artery scraped of plaque."
The ensuing clarity allowed Bugbee to develop her own spin on uniform dressing. "I can make a commitment to buy less, buy smarter, and wear a few perfect things all the time," Bugbee wrote. "Those few items can serve as my uniform right now."
Likewise, a Manhattan art director named Matilda Kahl won Internet acclaim this year after writing a widely syndicated essay called "Why I Wear the Same Thing to Work Every Day." Kahl's uniform — a white shirt, skinny tie, and black pants — became her calling card for nearly four years.
For Kahl, a uniform allowed her to be "in control" of what she spent time on — and when. "Monday to Friday I want to be able to fully concentrate on my work," she told us. "I see no reason for spending time in the morning on choosing an outfit."
Kahl believes uniform dressing fits within a wider cultural shift in which women are becoming more deliberate with their clothing choices. "I'm not surprised that women are being more mindful nowadays when it comes to how much they buy and what they buy," she said. "We're slowly coming to an understanding that we should be accepted simply for who we are, the same way men always have been."
At the root of these paring-down stories is a quest, almost juice-fast-like, to find simplicity and happiness through a change of routine. It's an issue facing many millennials, who habitually report being overwhelmed by the number of choices that need to be made in adult life.
What One Buys Matters
Simply possessing less clothing can prompt a reevaluation of what new pieces you bring into the home. Increasingly, it seems, shoppers want information about what they're buying — and how it's made.
American Apparel paved the way for '90s and noughties feel-good shopping with made-in-the-USA, sweatshop-free designs. As that company's fortunes have declined, other brands such as Everlane, Warby Parker, and TOMS Shoes have filled the ethical shopping void.
One new addition to the list, the womenswear company Cuyana, even includes the words "fewer, better" in its mission statement. It's an attitude Cuyana CEO Karla Gallardo believes has found increasing acceptance since the company's 2013 founding.
"This is part of the core philosophy of Cuyana: we truly believe that fewer, better things can lead to a fuller, richer life and world," Gallardo said. She cited several factors in perpetuating the movement, including Marie Kondo and increased awareness of manufacturing conditions in the wake of the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse.
Gallardo and her team have launched what they call the "Lean Closet Movement," an online series that helps women pare down their clothing collections, à la Kondo, but with the specific intention of donating their excess. "In addition to just donating clothes, we've seen a hunger for content around how to build a Lean Closet and live a 'leaner' life," Gallardo said.
Everlane's idea of "radical transparency" is changing the industry as well. The company offers an unusual amount of information about each item it sells, detailing costs of production and relevant factory conditions. The company has struck a chord with shoppers; Everlane sales doubled last year.
"The clothing has a current point of view, but can also be worn in 10 years," Everlane CEO Michael Preysman told Racked. "It's a very tricky thing to pull off. In our view, the best way to be environmentally sustainable is to create really great quality clothing that lasts and that has a lasting timestamp."
In Preysman's definition of quality, cost and style are major factors. He adds longevity to the mix, which in practical terms means having to clean out one's closet much less often.
From Order, Happiness
My own KonMari experience has turned me into something of a proselytiser for decluttering. I passed Kondo's book off to a colleague in the true spirit of avoiding accumulation, just as the guide had come to me through a succession of hand-me-downs.
I haven't gone so far as to adopt a uniform — or to pare down my wardrobe to a state that could be called a capsule — but I did come to a big sartorial epiphany: I realised that I should invest only in pieces I'll actually wear.
Seems simple, right? But it took KonMari-ing my closet to finally learn to stop buying those one-off, jazzy pieces to keep around just in case I, say, ever go clubbing again. For me, that means buying black skirts, good black flats, and striped shirts, items I can wear both to work and to dinner on weekends.
And now, since I'm not buying as much random crap, I have newly freed funds to dedicate to buying pieces with a story, ideally items made in conditions I don't have to feel guilty about.
There will always be high-profile clotheshorses like Giovanna Battaglia and Anna Dello Russo, shoppers who buy clothing — and lots of it — out of sheer love for the game. Fashion is art, after all, and certain stylish women around the world will always treat purchasing like collecting. I can't imagine Lauren Santo Domingo KonMari-ing her closet anytime soon.
But these women are the exceptions who prove the rule. The less-is-more philosophy might not be for everyone, but right now, it's working for me.