Crafting My Capsule Wardrobe

I find clothing to be one of the most popular and approachable areas for simplification. When folks first hear about minimalism–the idea of removing the extraneous to accentuate the essential–they tend to decree their closet as ground zero. And it certainly makes sense. Physical decluttering is by its very nature, tangible. And this makes it all the more inviting and simpler to downsize. Furthermore, it seems as if everyone has fallen victim to owning far too many clothes. Mix its very affordable cost with frequent use, and you have consumer products ripe for over-consumption.

Shortly after moving away from home, I came to realize this firsthand. Endless plastic hangers of t-shirts, boxes of pants, and drawers of socks, underwear, and ties. Interestingly enough, I never found this to be much of an issue–or at least I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. In fact, I rarely spent any time cleaning out unnecessary items from my wardrobe. So why exactly did I decide to inject some intentionality into the clothes I wear?

Discovering My Frustrations

Despite my resilience to fashion trends, and regardless of the fact that I had plenty of space to house my wardrobe, a few pain points began to surface. I often found myself wearing juvenile clothes that didn’t give me confidence at work or in my personal life. Making things more difficult,  I would often change into a second outfit after returning home. This was mainly due to believing that I couldn’t make my wardrobe work for both lifestyles. Hence, I would never bring a casual look into the office, nor would I dress so formally on a date or happy hour with friends. Somewhere between the graphic tees and baggy khakis, I began to feel as if I was participating in a quick-change act.

I realized my relationship with clothing was extremely inefficient.

Inefficiency #1: Nothing I owned fit me in a very flattering manner. An alarming percentage of my wardrobe was rolled-over from my high school years. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if I had timeless staples, but I simply didn’t. And since I wasn’t very familiar with cleaning, drying, and maintaining clothes properly, things had shrunk, ripped, or started to fall apart. Of the clothing I frequently wore, I didn’t feel extremely confident in it. I simply wore clothing out of convenience.

How do I develop a basic sense of style and thread of continuity?

Inefficiency #2: My clothes tended to be very activity-specific. While there is a time and place for proper attire (no sweats at Grandma’s funeral…), I found myself constantly changing from work attire, to post-work attire, to the “I wear this on first dates” attire, to athletic attire, and the list goes on.

How can I make my wardrobe more cross-functional?

Inefficiency #3: I wore an embarrassingly small percentage of all the clothing I stored and scholopped between residences. If I had to guess, only 10% of my clothing saw the light of day. The rest was frivolously added and never subtracted.

How do I create a high-frequency use wardrobe?

After a few months of mounting frustrations, I decided to take action. As much as I try disassociating emotions from material possessions, I also source some of my confidence from looking put together. Plus, I’m still navigating the murky waters of post-collegiate dating and community making. I also knew that curating a capsule wardrobe would greatly decrease the space in my closet, make it easier to transport, and encourage me to treat my possessions more intentionally. If I could answer the three questions above, I would have a high-quality, high-use, and high-value wardrobe.

For the next four seasons, I removed and repaired current pieces, took inventory of what remained, and acquired clothing as intentionally as possible. Doing so over the course of a year gave me manageable tasks every three months, and also made it easier to snag up great sale prices as stores turned-over stock. With each passing month, I recognized how much more intentional I am when it comes to clothing.

Reduce & Repair

Taking the time to reduce unnecessary items from the get-go was a huge motivator in continuing this process. A vast majority of this reduction came in the form of easy decisions. For example, pants and jackets I hadn’t worn in years were quick to go. Equally easy to remove was anything too big, too small, or too ugly to continue storing. Why did I have these things? I have no idea. They entered my life without any filtering only to never leave. (My filtering process for non-consumables now is quite rigorous).

I also took the opportunity to repair torn seams and holes in my favorite items. In-sourcing this skill is highly valuable and recommended to save on tailoring costs. It’s amazing to learn how easy some alterations can be with a bit of thread and a couple YouTube videos. If it couldn’t be repaired, I would discard it as responsibly as possible. I often used old t-shirts to clean sinks and toilets or shine up my shoes. After removing a large portion of articles and salvaging the rest, it was time to take inventory and craft my style.

Inventory & Intention

It wouldn’t be a true Designing Essential experiment without some spreadsheets. Once I reduced a large amount of my clothing, I tallied up the rest in Excel. I broke it into fairly common categories: t-shirts, long-sleeved shirts, pants, shorts, ties, etc. I even documented the number of socks and watches I owned. Perhaps this sounds a little over the top…the resolution to which you take note of your wardrobe is up to you. I found this really helpful in visualizing my entire wardrobe at once.

Everything up to this point was simply downsizing. While I did reduce with purpose, I still had not answered the big three frustrations above. Therefore, this next step is the crux of a capsule wardrobe. It involves determining a style and evaluating your clothing for cross-functional and high-frequency use. Of course, this portion of the exercise is completely subjective as we may have differing styles. But regardless of what you find flattering, each of us need to answer these three questions:

  • How do I develop a basic sense of style and thread of continuity?
  • How can I make my wardrobe more cross-functional?
  • How do I create a high-frequency use wardrobe?

Taking all this into account, I crafted a few principles that worked for me. First, I had to leverage the interchangeability of black, white, grey, and tan. More often then not, they go with just about anything else. For a little spice, I opted for a couple colors to accent this base–red and blue. Both happened to look good on me and are easy enough to source. There is also a timeless element to red, white, and blue which gave me confidence I wouldn’t waver too much down the road. I decided that graphic-covered clothing would be difficult to mix and match, so I chose to forgo those articles as much as possible.

In terms of climate, I had to dress for anything from 40 and rainy to 90 and sunny–this meant long and short sleeves and pants. Furthermore I prioritized a wardrobe formal enough for work, but also casual enough for heading our later in the evening. With all of this in mind, finally I evaluated how easy it was for me to mix-and-match tops and bottoms. If I was able to wear a given top with 75+% of pants, it fit the bill.

Although I did an excellent initial downsizing, this second phase required a further refinement of my wardrobe. While some of my clothing was function, it didn’t fit my new interchangeable concept. After a few more purges, I was ready to purchase elements for my capsule wardrobe.

Acquire & Refine

At his point, I had donated or recycled large amounts of lightly-used clothing. I also started taking inventory of great articles I already owned and worked out ground rules to craft an efficient, functional, and (somewhat) stylish closet. I took solace in the fact that being stylish isn’t the same as simply having a style. As a good friend of mine always says: “if you’re part of the simplicity movement, people don’t expect you to dress fashionably”. If you enjoy reading this blog, I assume that keeping up with vogue isn’t your number one priority anyway.

Even if shopping isn’t your favorite activity, it’s likely this journey will require you to source some new items. Below are some tips I exercised while shopping around:

  • Sizing | In order to keep mall visits to a minimum, I spent one day trying on clothing at all the stores tailored to guys of my body type (J. Crew, Gap, Banana Republic, etc). While there, I would try on each type of item and record my size. Having this data made online shopping much easier down the road.
  • Timing | Nothing surprising here: purchase clothing during the off-season. By purchasing swimsuits and t-shirts at the beginning of fall, I snatched up good sale prices on all sorts of clothing. To maximize consumption, stores tend to move stock as seasons end.
  • Emails | As much as it killed me, I signed up for store emails. I know. I’m the worst. Create a fake email address or auto filter them on your primary account if you have to. While they bombarded me during my transition, I saved between 40-50% across the board. Apparel companies have ridiculously high mark-ups, so don’t get fooled into paying full price for anything.
  • Certainty | I kept sale tags on items for a week after buying them just to make sure. This gave me time to evaluate how it fit into my wardrobe.
  • Impact | Remember this principle: one well-fitting, flattering article is far more efficient than five okay-fitting article.
  • Sustainability | Although I’m putting many of these tips in the context of buying new, there are many alternatives. Any second-hand store, thrift store, relative, or friend could be sustainable sources for your wardrobe.
The finished product is 1/10th the size of my previous closet.

Applying the above principles allowed me to acquire clothing for little money and high functionality. After one year of purging and crafting, I had reduced my wardrobe to one-tenth its previous size. Everything was simpler and most everything could be mixed and matched with ease. I may not be the flashiest guy at the party, but my capsule wardrobe is minimal, appropriate in a variety of situations, and well-maintained. Because I’ve thought so consciously about my wardrobe, I never fall victim to impulse shopping as it rarely fulfills my principles. Now, my closet is extremely light and packing for trips is an absolute breeze. And after all this, I can attest to being more confident and comfortable with my appearance than ever before.

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