Honing your Personal Style through Closet Organization

Last weekend I was asked to speak at IKEA for their BYOF event. They asked me to speak about honing one’s personal style through closet organization. Some of you fabulous people came to the event (and even drove long distances, which humbles me so), and some of you were unable to attend but wanted to know what I discussed. Earlier this week I shared some of the discussion during the seminar’s Q&A, but below is the script I made myself for the seminar (though I practiced a lot and tried to ad-lib as much as possible).

Think about it, we start every day in our closet. Our experience in front of that bar of hangers really sets the tone for the rest of the day. What I hope to do today is give you tips and tricks to make that first part of your day less stressful, more positive, and inspiring.

I am proof that when it comes to closets, size doesn’t matter. A little over a decade ago, I moved into the historic part of Greenbelt. If any of you have been in one of their row homes, you know they can be charming but boy are they small! My bedroom closet was smaller than the coat closet in my old bachelorette apartment, and as for a coat closet well there wasn’t one. It was a great learning experience on how to work with little space, and to choose wisely as to what deserved to be in that minimal amount of real estate.

75% of the stuff in our closets we don’t even wear. When I have performed closet cleanouts for clients in the past, I found that three quarters of the clothing in their closet is there for sentimental reasons. A dress worn on a first date, the suit you wore to the interview for your current job, the lucky sweatshirt you wore through every finals week of college. Today I’m not going to tell you to toss your sartorial memories, but I am going to ask you to make your closet more functional.

The only way you can truly know what you have in your closet is to take everything out and start fresh. As your best friend to watch the kids for a couple of hours, turn on Pandora radio, pour a glass of wine, and lock yourself in your bedroom. Take everything out of the closet and once it’s empty, give it a quick cleaning with a damp cloth. Now you’re going to go through each individual garment and put it into one of four piles. Keep, Purge, Fix, and Store.

Keep means you have tried it on that day, it fits, it flatters, it’s useful to your life and style and is in perfect condition. No missing buttons, no need for ironing, ready to be worn.

Purge means it’s time for the piece to leave your home completely. It’s too small, too big, too dated, too damaged, or just plain wrong. Often we keep pieces that we bought and then had buyer’s remorse. The garment is just plain wrong, but you feel guilty because you spent good money on it. Your money is not coming back by letting that dress collect dust in your closet, it’s time to let it go and move on. We’ve all been there. When I say purge, that doesn’t mean throw everything in a bag and set it out on the curb for trash day. The majority of clothes in your closets can be useful to others.

For things like that dress you bought and never wore, consider eBay or a consignment shop so you can get back a bit of what you spent on it. For gently worn pieces, consider setting up a swap with friends where you can trade clothing for free. For everything else, you can donate for a nice tax deduction, or even consider Freecycle. In my house, we cut up old stained tee shirts into squares and use them as dusting cloths.

So we have kept that which is still fabulous and purged that which is not. With what is leftover, they go into two other piles – Fix, and Store.

Fix is the pile of items that could be great if they just had a quick little repair or makeover. Maybe it’s a wrinkled oxford, a pair of pants with a dropped hem, or a jacket missing a button. I keep a box at the bottom of my closet where I store all the clothes that need to be fixed. When I have a spare moment, I sew on buttons, iron, or pack up pieces to take to the dry cleaner or tailor. Having this box keeps you from justifying wearing a stained shirt or a stapled hem.

The final pile is Store. Here’s your sentimental clothing, as well as anything that is in fantastic condition but just not right. Maybe it’s a skirt that’s a flattering yet not of the moment length, or a great interview suit though you are now a stay at home parent. Pieces that fit, are made well, flatter, and just aren’t right at the moment, though they may be in a couple of years. This pile, store carefully, but store them where they are out of sight and out of temptation. Even when at the back of the closet, it’s far too easy to grab these items during a moment of weakness and sacrifice your style. (Here I started speaking of the merits of breathable canvas storage versus plastic.)

So now, you have a closet just full of great pieces that fit your current body and your current lifestyle. It may look a bit empty, but that’s not a bad thing. A closet that can breathe makes for easier dressing each morning. You wouldn’t think it, but it’s easier to get dressed each day when you have fewer options. However you’re probably realizing you have a few holes in your wardrobe. Make a shopping list of what you feel you need to pull the current closet together, make it cohesive. Maybe it’s a black pencil skirt, or a replacement dress for weddings and funerals. Think about your life, your current life, and what you do and where you go in a typical month. What else do you need to dress appropriately for each occasion? Write the pieces down, and carry them in your wallet or purse. This way, each time you hit the mall, you can stay on track and only buy what you need instead of what looks great or is being pushed by the salesperson.

It’s important to stick to a budget – you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your quality of life to be able to dress well each day. A good rule of thumb is 5% of your income towards what you wear. Now this may be more or less based upon your lifestyle and it may be more while you’re filling in holes in your wardrobe. From this, figure out a monthly budget and stick to it. Sometimes you may not use it all, but that’s good because you can save it for other months where you may spend more, say for a new winter coat or a pair of designer jeans that make you look five pounds and five years younger. I recommend tracking your budget on the same sheet or notebook as your shopping list, so it’s there staring you in the face each time you consider buying clothes. My motto at Wardrobe Oxygen is style comes from choosing quality, not quantity.

So now you have a pared-down closet of clothes that work as hard as you do. Now it’s time to take care of them. In this day and age of Pinterest and reality shows about celebrities, it’s easy to get wrapped up in having a pretty closet. The thing is, you want a functional closet, a closet that makes your life more enjoyable, that makes getting dressed each day easy and enjoyable. Here’s a few suggestions.

I recommend having all the same hangers. Not only does this make for an attractive closet, but it prevents you from losing clothes. I once bought a new black cardigan thinking I lost mine, but months later I found it on a dry cleaner’s wire hanger hidden between two black dresses. With all the same hangers, you can easily see everything in your closet. Speaking of wire hangers… I may sound like Mommy Dearest but get rid of them. They stretch out knits and can even leave rust stains on clothing. Dry cleaners are happy to take them back and many areas will recycle them.

So your clothes are hung up on consistent hangers, it’s now time to organize them. I highly recommend zoning your closet. Have all jackets together, all dresses together, all shirts together. This way it’s easy to see what you have and make ensembles. For categories you don’t wear often, such as cocktail dresses, have that zone in the farthest back part of the closet.

For making the most out of the space you have, I like closet organizers. I have one of those hanging fabric shelf gadgets where one can store purses, gym clothes, and even jeans. Also they have bars that hang from closet bars so you can double hang and maximize your closet real estate. (I really ad-libbed here because IKEA gave me a wardrobe and storage containers that they sell as my props).

With shoes, people have differing views on this, but I again recommend consistency. Choose one manner of storage and stick to it to prevent losing shoes and spending more than you need. Shoes can be an investment, so choose storage that is kind to your shoes – I keep my shoes in their original boxes and label them, but some like clear boxes, some like shoe racks, and IKEA has these cool gadgets where you can store your shoes on posts. Whatever seems best for you and protects your shoes. (At this point I started rambling about how a tree fell through my closet and that’s why I use boxes for storage.) As for boots, they sell fancy boot trees, but I just roll up old magazines and tuck them in the shafts to keep them from folding over and creasing.

I never get rid of accessories unless they are damaged. Accessories take up so little space, it’s worth it to keep them and reassess them every couple of seasons. A belt that seems dated this spring may be completely on trend in a year. I store jewelry in plastic baggies to keep them from tarnishing, loosely coil belts into an old shoe box, and for purses I stuff them with paper and then tuck them in an old pillowcase to keep them from getting dusty.

I recommend doing a closet reassessment like this twice a year, once at the end of the summer or back to school time, and once around this time of year as the weather is getting warmer. Not only can you again clean out all which isn’t doing you any style favors, but you can pack up out of season clothes and make a fresh shopping list of what you need for the upcoming season. Keeping up with your closet keeps you in a style frame of mind. You shop for clothing more carefully, you think more about how your clothes work with your body and your lifestyle, and you are better able to hone your personal style.

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