How to Be a Fashion-Loving Minimalist

Style and sustainable living aren’t as incompatible as you might think

Accumulation isn’t a prerequisite for being a smart dresser. In fact, many successful brands and designers have staked their claim squarely in the uniform-esque consistency of a single aesthetic. Rick Owens comes to mind as a remarkably repetitive brand—one that enjoys immense success and popularity and doesn’t lack for copycats or imitators.

For commercial, publicly traded, survival-staked-on-growth brands, consistency is anathema to novelty. Novelty is what catches consumers’ eyes and keeps the growth machine running (read: capitalism).

We’re also, as imperfect humans, prey to various cognitive biases and pleasure functions that result in extra consumption.

Ever buy something new after a long period of no purchases, then immediately feel drawn to keep going? I always feel a tinge of “more more more!”

It’s becoming clear that frequent consumption of anything—especially overly trendy, seasonal, or fleeting fashion—is environmentally damaging, unnecessary, and irresponsible.

As we begin to eliminate or discourage all the plastic bags, containers, straws, and other temporary items used in food service and grocery, so too are the excesses of unsustainable apparel becoming apparent.

How does one reconcile the seemingly opposed motivations of being stylish and excited by fashion while also living a small-footprint lifestyle?

There are a number of strategies and practices that can help.

Slim Down Your Closet

While it might seem scary to pare down toomuch, studies have shown that most of us only wear about 20 percent of the clothes in our closet on a regular basis. That means 80 percent is made up of things you bought for a specific occasion and never wore again, things you think you might need for a future specific occasion, or things you keep for some sentimental reason. Or perhaps things you thought you’d love, but never ended up wearing.

I’m here to tell you: That 80 percent needs to go. Goodbye! Arrivederci! Auf wiedersehen!

Many people end up with wild, untamed closets because they buy things that are aspirational, based on an imagined future or self.

Here’s the kicker: Cleaning out is great, but living minimally means you also have to stop buying that shit in the first place.

That’s why I have a “one in, one out” policy with my own closet. I’m not too strict about it, but I’m conscious of how much I’m accumulating, and I regularly give away, sell, or donate older pieces. In a few cases, I’ve actually made money selling clothes.

Compared to my 2015 near-bursting wardrobe, amplified by living in Italy for 15 months and shopping multiple times a week, my closet is heading into the new year with some very edited staples:

  • Seven pairs of shoes: a workout sneaker and a dress sneaker, leather wedge boot, leather tall/sneaker boot, ankle chukka-driver shoe in brown suede, dark red polished leather dressy-ish loafers, and a pair of leather flip-flops
  • Two pairs of sunglasses: identical models in two different colors
  • Two pairs of prescription eyeglasses, which I trade off with my contacts
  • Four pieces of jewelry: a watch, a silver cuff bracelet, a silver chain bracelet, and a silver-garnet-enamel ring
  • Four pairs of pants: two identical in navy and olive, two more identical in navy and olive
  • Two pairs of jeans: one nicer/newer in black and one older/shabbier in washed black
  • Dress shirts in navy, light-blue striped, and blue-red gingham
  • An oversized button-down overshirt in gray cotton
  • A single blazer in soft unstructured jersey fabric
  • A handful of T-shirts and tops in black, white, and gray
  • A linen short-sleeved, collared button-down shirt in charcoal
  • A thin rain jacket in “claret” (not maroon, not burgundy)
  • A felted-cashmere unlined coat in dark blue
  • A Shetland wool peacoat in gray herringbone
  • An oversized vintage brown suede car coat
  • Three sweaters: a gray cotton-cashmere crew neck, a gray mohair-blend cardigan, and a multicolored wool-silk cardigan
  • Assorted extra layers: a navy cotton trucker jacket, a tan safari jacket, a gray zipped sweatshirt with no collar, a gray zipped sweatshirt with a collar, and a denim jacket that I may soon sell because it’s feeling snug
  • Three leather bags: an olive green leather tote, a black nappa leather bowler/briefcase, and a light gray nappa leather small tote
  • A freebie canvas tote, made in the USA of organic cotton canvas — surprisingly durable and carefree
  • A single pair of wool dress socks
  • A single scarf
  • A single cashmere beanie
  • A single pair of leather gloves
  • A single square-cut swimsuit

That’s it. For a style-lover, I think that’s pretty damn edited.

This isn’t to say I don’t want for things or see beautiful things I’d like to make mine. But after some forced minimalism in the last few years, I’ve arrived at a very efficient, familiar, well-loved collection of garments and items.

Of course, that journey wasn’t easy. It required a willingness to transfer the love and enjoyment of many items to new owners. To pass along, to give up and let go. And to resist the temptation to click “complete purchase” or take home every item I see in-store that I like.

What am I missing in my closet?

  • Belts—don’t need them physically and never wear them
  • A leather jacket—on my list
  • Nicer sandals—I like the look of Birkenstocks, but my arch doesn’t agree with them
  • Shorts—mostly irrelevant in San Francisco
  • A technical jacket/windbreaker for wet, windy, cold days
  • A pair of hiking/outdoorsy boots—a must for California
  • A real matching suit set (trousers and jacket)

Find Your Uniform

The list above may look lengthy, but in practice, it boils down to some simple, basic looks. Did you notice there are a lot of repeated colors? And they’re mostly earth tones or basic colors like navy and white.

The benefit of buying within a comfortable, complementary color palette is it’s easy to mix and match. The downside is that it can be monotonous.

I’ve found that I’d rather add visual interest with accessories than buy particularly trendy, niche garments. That may change as my finances improve.

Many successful people (Steve Jobs, Barack Obama) have cut down on unnecessary daily decisions by adopting a uniform. Such strictness may not be practical or fun for people who like fashion, but the principle still applies in terms of editing a wardrobe.

Things I have tried and found don’t work for me:

  • Anything gold-tone, gold hardware—just feels chintzy and cheap to me
  • Man clutches—appealing in theory, fussy in practice
  • Most anything baggy, oversized, or relaxed fit—makes me feel unpolished
  • Rustic, vintage-washed, distressed, aged, or sun-bleached—can’t stand it. (There are rare occasions when it works for me, but mostly it irritates me. I love rich, saturated colors or soft whites, tans, and grays.)
  • Flat, hard, leather-soled footwear—a sure way to fatigue your feet after a day of walking
  • Hard, cross-hatched saffiano leather—what’s the point of having a beautiful leather bag if its shiny and scratchy?

Resist Impulse Buys

Many people end up with wild, untamed closets because they buy things that are aspirational, based on an imagined future or self.

Acne Studios, San Francisco. Photo: Alex English

Stores encourage us to buy recklessly, even with ample return policies, because they know we’re unlikely to return things—it can be uncomfortable, awkward, embarrassing, or inconvenient.

For those looking to quit fast fashion, Quartz put together these three questions to ask before any purchase.

  • How much will I wear it?
  • How much do I already own?
  • How long will it last?

I’d add a few more, which apply to all shopping, not just the cheap stuff:

  • Is the item itself making me happy, or am I buying it because the situation is charming and pleasant? (A lot of in-store shopping comes down to the purchase experience, not the goods themselves.)
  • How does this fit into my prevailing personal aesthetic? (For example, I love the Rick Owens look. It’s slouchy, slimming, inky, and moody. It also doesn’t do well on my body and doesn’t mesh with anything else I own.)
  • Is there an artificial urgency at play? (Think supply scarcity, limited time, or perceived savings.)
  • Am I shopping for a legitimate practical need or to fill an emotional hole? (So much of my mindless browsing is a relaxation and coping mechanism, not a necessity for my continued daily existence.)

Lately, I’ve adopted a philosophy about both online and offline shopping: If it’s meant to be mine, it will come to me at the right moment for the right price.

Sure, I’ve regretted not snapping things up when I had the chance. But I’ve also learned that there is so much stuff out there. Chances are, you’ll find something else you love just as much, when the time is right.

Here’s the last thing I’ll say about stylish minimalism: You’ll end up loving everything you have and feel less daunted trying to get dressed each morning. The idea of repeating something in the same week becomes less of an issue, since most people aren’t paying much attention to anyone but themselves.

I haven’t bought much over the last few years, but I’ve greatly increased the connection I have to my wardrobe. I know it inside and out, which things work together and which don’t. And my urge to constantly be shopping has greatly diminished.

Instead, I fill those bits of time by writing more, reading more, engaging with my surroundings, and being present.

And yet, I still get plenty of compliments about my smart looks.

How satisfying.

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