MY STYLE JOURNEY (III): Sustainability

In last week's post on smart shopping, I shared my recent decision to stop buying clothes "new." As mentioned, this decision doesn't rule out "new to me" clothing -- i.e. secondhand purchases, hand-me-downs, and gifts from well-meaning friends and family. Thrift shopping is an essential joi de vivre of mine and is also happens to be one of the most environmentally-friendly ways to outfit yourself (and your home!) On the same vein, disposing of perfectly useful gifted items kind of counteracts the whole use-what-you-own goal behind this whole endeavor.

Despite my best efforts to minimize my possessions, I still own a lot of clothing -- probably around 100 items here in NYC (counting shoes, pjs, bras, etc.) and maybe 50-70 additional pieces stowed away at my parent's place. So I really have no excuse to buy new things. I realize eventually I'm going to have to purchase something new (at the very least I'd like to keep my undergarments coming to me firsthand...), but for now I'm focusing on actually wearing out the clothes I have. When a good enough excuse comes along, I intend to seek out eco-conscious, fair-trade, and/or USA-based brands to fulfill this need. In other words, I'm redirecting my focus to maximize garment sustainability.

You may wonder how someone who has spent 25 years indulging in a consumer-capitalist lifestyle -- the owner of many fast-fashion, department store, and sale-bought items, and someone who loves shopping -- suddenly decides to prioritize sustainability. As this blog evidences, I've been interested in honing and perfecting my personal style (a process which typically involves a more careful shopping approach anyway) for several years now. Still, it wasn't until this past summer that my motives evolved beyond a mere selfish thirst for perfectionism.

My youngest brother -- hero, science genius, touter of all things worthy of touting -- made the choice to go vegan last spring. I was traveling abroad at the time, and I when I first heard news of it through the family grapevine, I was astounded. In fact, I was almost annoyed. My brother? Champion eater of all things animal? The kid who for years made fun of my healthy baking replacements, my refusal to eat lamb, and my preference for veggie burgers over beef? How dare he!!

Upon my homecoming, I learned that my brother had not only stopped consuming animal products, but he was also swearing off plastics, drinking Soylent, composting, buying less, donating more, and judiciously explaining his reasoning for it to anyone who so much as raised an eyebrow in his direction. Within a month of living back under the same roof, he'd convinced our entire family to watch Cowspiracy, solidified me (and my parents, at least temporarily) as vegetarian, and converted my Taco Bell-enthusiast second brother into an equally devout vegan ambassador.

Once my head stopped spinning, I realized I was immensely proud of my brother, and simply envious that he'd managed to perfect something I often lacked: commitment to his ideals. Sure I'd fancied myself something of a hippie since I was old enough to know they advocated granola and hugged trees and and kept farm animals in their backyard. But what was I doing personally? Despite living with a vegan roommate-and-best friend for two years of college, I was still a meat eater. I recycled, but I continued to drool over plastic organizers at The Container Store. I shopped for new clothes when my old ones were perfectly useful. My brother, on the hand, made a choice to remove himself from our consumerist world's earth-destroying habits -- and he didn't just start drinking soy lattes to make it happen.

What began as mere impetus to become vegetarian gradually made me rethink my entire lifestyle, and I owe it to my little brother -- and now both my brothers -- for inspiring such a change in me. When J and I moved into our new apartment, we purchased almost everything secondhand, resisting the simpler glow of a one-stop shopping trip to Target. I started making a better effort to bring my reusable bags to the grocery store, and I (graciously) implore the Trader Joe's assistants to lay off the triple-bagging when I forget them. I have taken up a personal crusade against plastic home products. Perhaps most importantly, I've followed my brothers' lead at being more vocal about the reasoning behind these choices.

Since I knew cutting meat from my diet would not be a huge sacrifice for me (beyond salami and seafood, I hardly miss the stuff), and since I knew I wasn't quite ready to take on veganism myself, I started brainstorming my own version of sustainable abstinence. When I started the KonMari process, it became immediately apparent what my own eco-mission would be: buying less in an effort to seek quality over quantity and, in the meantime, learn to be content with what I had.

Yesterday I entered a Gap store for the first time in 13 months, and I felt the compulsion to shop surge immediately back through my bloodstream. I was never a huge Gap fan per se (if we're talking unethical fashion, H&M is way more my jam), but I had come there for a blogging event, and the open bar, cute appetizers, and pumping music all served to put me in prime consumer mode. My discovery of The Denim Jacket of My Summer Dreams on a rack near the mojitos only amplified this problem, and it was with a pang of regret that I confirmed "Made in China" on the side-seam care label. I wondered: should I treat fast fashion like fast food? Should I avoid window shopping like I avoid walking by Panda Express at certain times of the month (for fear I will lose control, hop the food bar, and begin force-feeding myself orange chicken)? Was it too torturous to even look?

While I'm still examining the answer to that question, I believe I've at least I've discovered the ultimate weapon against falling back into familiar, unwelcome habits: staying curious. With each book I've read on the history of garment production, I've become more committed to seeking out quality clothing. It's the same with baby pig videos; nothing will cure a ham sandwich craving faster than watching the cutest baby animal alive racing around a pen with its squealing siblings. If you're a logical person and you want to break a habit, then your brain needs continual reminders why it's not getting that which it thinks it wants. If you are setting / have set out on a sustainable fashion journey and are hitting your first obstacles, the resources below might help steer and/or solidify that focus.

  • 30 Ethical Fashion Brands (Into-Mind) - Really can't say enough about Into-Mind. I have yet to crack the sustainable clothing seal, but next time I have a buy-new need, this is definitely where I'm going to start!

Clearly this post just grazes the surface of the project at hand, and I realize that I've offered more narrative reflection here than actual guidance. If you're interested in this lifestyle or if you have questions you'd like me to explore in future posts, please note them in the comments section or via personal message! And of course I'd love to hear your own tips and tricks for sustainable living as well.


MY STYLE JOURNEY (II): Smart Shopping


The mundane act that nevertheless shapes us.

You may remember the childhood trauma of going on errands with your mom -- which of course seemed endless and never involved enough cafe rice-krispy treats or toy store detours. Or perhaps you recall the preteen significance of receiving an invitation (via landline, naturally) to to "hang at the mall" with fifth's grade's top queen bees. Or the sacred bonding, however materialistic, that blossomed between you and your mother when she unexpectedly agreed to buy you that Paul Frank tee (which you knew was vastly overpriced, but which you also knew would surpass even the Bearers of Gum on the junior high great chain of being.) Trying on hideous prom dresses with your friends at the Macy's clearance center in the years before selfies; learning what it meant to be a woman in the hands of a troublesome society; nitpicking the oddest parameters of your body in mournful imitation before your confidants' reflections. Discovering yourself in the process of combing through discarded fashions at Value Village, realizing you're the type of soul who takes comfort in the anomalous, who even finds beauty in it.

Whether the mall is your church or your throat gets itchy just thinking about it, we've certainly all had to shop for ourselves at one time or another. (And if you haven't and your age includes two digits, it might be time to reexamine your relationship with your parents.) Chances are, whether you're a man or woman and whether you like shopping or not, we've experienced some amount of universal clothes-buying experiences. Pondering from the safety of a fitting room cubicle whether we can "pull off" a new trend. Feeling like the seams of a garment weren't sewn with our bodies' best interests in mind. Inducing a headache from weighing prices against budgets against wants against worries.

Long story short, shopping can be a total pain in the ass.

While there are certainly marathon, curatorial, and psychotheraputic shoppers out there, the majority of us would like to spend less time thinking about what to wear and where to buy it. We mostly want to look the best we can for the least amount of money and have a merry old time making it happen. (This and this, amiright?)

Personally I've always enjoyed the shopping process, and, largely thanks to my mom, I've always been a fairly mindful buyer. I never had to deal with shopping addiction, credit card debt, or designer fever.* Regardless, I still fell victim to the occasional impulse buy and all too often I'd stand before an overstuffed closet with the age-old quandary of having "nothing" to wear.

My parents provided almost all of my clothing through high school, and I waltzed through college in a combined wardrobe of Christmas-gifted items from them and secondhand clothes I purchased myself. This is when I truly learned to budget, setting aside 10% of my campus job income to cover my purchases. When I graduated and started working full time, I immediately fell victim to that seductive temptress Fast Fashion. (More on her later.) With time on my hands and money in my pocket, I was more inclined to buy new than to thrift, and I'm pretty sure my wardrobe suffered from it. Fast fashion garments (that is, quickly-manufactured on-trend styles often made with cheap materials and cheaper labor) rarely hold up for more than a season, let alone a year. As sweaters pilled and dresses lost their shape, my closet was constantly in need of replenishment. I found myself needing to shop more and more and enjoying it less and less. It was exhausting, it was wasteful, and it may sound all too familiar.

In line with my new interest in minimalism and my decision to embrace a more sustainable lifestyle (a topic I will address in my next post), I decided to stop purchasing new clothing. While I have not eliminated secondhand shopping, I have made far fewer purchases even in that arena than I normally would. With the exception of Christmas gifts my wardrobe has not seen a truly "new" addition since I made the move to New York -- and if you've ever stepped foot in SoHo or taken a stroll down 5th Avenue, you know it's not for lack of opportunity!

As it turns out, New York is also the perfect place to become a dedicated thrifter. Between the plentiful Housing Works, eclectic Beacon's Closets, and hidden gems like the East Village's Cure, I've been want for nothing here. Besides, there's a city's worth of fashionistas (and -os!) to keep refilling my stock.

In places where exclusively thrifting might prove more challenge, here are some other approaches to try:

1) Limit yourself to a budget or number of items, then make a clear GAME PLAN. Yeah, yeah, you're spontaneous. Having a roadmap cramps your style... But if your end goal is a cohesive, uniquely-you wardrobe, this is an essential part of the deal. Sit down and get real with yourself about what will support your current wardrobe. Not what Zooey Dechanel was wearing on the last episode of New Girl (unless that happens to fit your style, of course) -- not what you want, but what you need. Take time with this, and let it marinate awhile. When you're getting dressed in the morning and you realize you could really use a fill-in-the-blank to achieve the look you want, make note of it. Once your list is complete, copy it into the Notes section of your phone or onto an index card in your wallet. Reference it before you leave to go shopping, while you're in the store, and while you're in the dressing room. Reference it to the sales people who have commission lasers beaming out their eyes. Whatever you do, don't stray from that list.

EDIT: As your wardrobe takes shape and your sense of style becomes more clear, then by all means relax these guidelines a bit, and don't worry so much about following "the plan." Until then, however, I'd advise learning the rules before you break them.

2) Just don't shop for a while. Arguably the most challenging, you can always just quit shopping cold turkey. For a time. Try a year, six months, or a three-month season. Maybe keep a journal of what items you find yourself wanting, and how you feel throughout the process. The times I've taken shopping hiatuses have always been something of a stress-relief for me. Just one less thing to think about!

3) Wait a week. This is a tough one for sale shoppers and thrifters, as there's always the issue of scarcity at hand. Still, if you struggle with impulse splurges or buyer's remorse, this is a great remedy. When you see something you think you'd like to buy, but you're not really sure you need, leave it there and do your best to forget about it. If you're still thinking about it in a week or two, give yourself the green light.

4) Try a Wardrobe Challenge. In addition to the links I posted in Part 1 of this series, the following challenges are particularly structured to limit superfluous shopping:
  • Project 333 - I haven't tried this challenge myself, but it seems straight-forward enough! Another one you can find various versions of in several bloggers' archives.
  • 30-Day Winter Wardrobe Challenge (Who What Wear) - While I wouldn't advocate trying to recreate all of these (doing so would only serve to further enable unnecessary spending), these monthly challenges offer great suggestions for building of-the-minute looks from pieces you probably already own.
You may be wondering why any of this matters. You may love shopping, have the funds for it, and wonder why you'd want to limit this pastime at all. There are a number of benefits I see in evaluating our consumption habits -- learning to value experiences over "things," taking stock of our privilege, understanding our own psychological habits, encouraging civil rights, appreciating craftsmanship and function over novelty, challenging double standards of the fast fashion industry... But the most important reason lies beyond these concepts. The fact is, the shopping-obsessed, capitalist-driven, mondo-consumerist lifestyle embodied in much of our world today is simply not sustainable for the planet we call home.

Kind of brings a new weight to "Shop til you drop," doesn't it?

Other Useful Shopping Resources:

*If you do struggle with any of these, and/or if the concept of budgeting is mind-boggling to you, I encourage you to check out this series for tips on how to deal!

**One mystery I have yet to solve about this challenge: Once the season is over and you're left with these 5 key items, where do they go? Do you store them for next year? Do you sell them before they're out of style? Do you integrate them into your basics and donate 5 old things? Or is your closet just supposed to expand by 5 pieces each season until you cull again? If anyone wants to hazard a guess, PLEASE SHARE IT BELOW, because I'm desperately curious!!


MY STYLE JOURNEY (I): Minimalism

When I first approached minimalism as a concept three years ago, Marie Kondo's world-changing book was but a twinkle in our collective eye. In my mind, minimalists were people who collected modern art, had monochromatic kitchens, and dressed only in black and white. I secretly suspected they were all terribly unhappy with the lack of texture, color, and flavor in their lives. I not-so-secretly fancied myself beyond such a lifestyle, imagining that I had my own, artistic form of order and style. I was the kind of person that claimed clutter made more sense to me -- that I could "find things better" when they were in disorganized piles. I'm just eclectic, I thought. Why would I want to pigeon-hole myself into some mundane form of living? Basically I was special-snowflaking all over the place. And it enabled me to avoid the process of actually confronting my possessions.

By this time, the concept of building a wardrobe around an established palette had already caught my attention, thanks to my obsessions with Color Me Beautiful and What You Wear Can Change Your Life. It was Anuschka Rees' blog Into Mind, though, that awakened me to the capsule wardrobe process: maintaining a functional, minimal closet with a clearly defined style. Suddenly minimalism stretched beyond the bounds of black and white. I realized it was not just a design concept, but the manifestation of a lifestyle choice: to value more and buy less.

My initial capsuling attempts were earnest to be sure, and I received a lot of feedback from friends who were likewise seeking a quick-fix for their closet problems. But it wasn't until I was staring down the barrel of a hiking backpack, wondering how I could possibly fit three months' worth of clothes into that tiny vessel, that I fully understood the benefit of embracing minimalism. After much deliberation, I took about 20 pieces of clothing, and I never regretted packing as light as I did. There's nothing like The Trip of a Lifetime to make you take fashion less seriously. You don't need eight dresses to appreciate the streets of Venice or fresh cherries from a Bulgarian orchard. One of my favorite moments on the entire adventure was sitting on top of a hill in Ireland, in a borrowed mechanic jumpsuit (yep, you read that right), listening to the bleating of nearby newborn lambs. Oscar de la who?

My discovery of The Magical Art of Tidying Up came on the heels of my return from this adventure, and it offered me an extra push toward the discarding process. I followed the KonMari steps just as the book proscribed, and you know what? It worked.  

To illustrate: Over the course of last year, I rid myself of eight grocery bags of extraneous clothing, and I've since replaced maybe six individual items. I went from someone who couldn't choose a favorite color to someone whose home decor now matches the colors hanging in their closet; from someone burdened by multiple "kitchen sink" shoulder bags to someone who empties out their purse each day after work; from someone who put off laundry as long as possible to a weirdsmobile that actually enjoys ironing. I am now extremely discerning about what comes into my home (so much that poor J, who hasn't read the book yet, gets the third degree each time he pulls out his wallet....) I've learned to throw away most paperwork without a moment's processing. Every book I read in the past six months was borrowed from a friend or the library... and somehow I'm reading more than ever.

Trimming my possessions down to the most important items granted me the time and energy to actually engage with them. Ridding myself of books I didn't immediately want to read kept me hungry for literature I was genuinely interested in at that moment. Culling my closet gave me a clear picture of my style trajectory, making shopping less tempting and more defined. With less "stuff" to entertain me, a world of new experiences opened up: teaching myself guitar, inviting friends over for brunch, painting watercolor croquis... Seems totally counter-intuitive, right? You'd be surprised.

If you're currently struggling with buying or holding on to too many "things," if you find yourself ever in need of more storage space, or if you've always admired that friend who looks ever-stylish yet lives in an apartment without closets, consider embracing a more minimalist lifestyle.  I've copied some resources below which I found helpful on my journey thus far -- and keep in mind it is indeed a journey you're setting out on here. It has taken me three years to accept that, yes, I can live with just 25 hangers. And it's worth noting that I still don't consider myself a true minimalist. I simply found the right balance of "stuff" for me, then left it at that. Don't compare, and don't be afraid to tweak the process to make it work for you. You're not a pigeon, after all. ;)

  • Minimalist Wardobe (Paris To Go) - This girl is the queen of clothing charts, and I love it! My wardrobe is nowhere near as compact as hers is, but it's something to aspire to.

  • Recipes: 10 Ingredients, One Bowl (Minimalist Baker) - A great way to cut down on your kitchen supplies (which is most definitely the least-minimal area of our home right now, thanks to J), these recipes all require just one bowl and 10 ingredients or less. I've made the (vegan) banana bread cinnamon rolls at least six times now, and they're always a hit.


Introducing MY STYLE JOURNEY Series

I've been doing a lot of thinking this past year about... well, end of sentence, actually. I've been doing a lot of thinking this past year period. This has been such a phenomenal twelve months for me, because at this time one year ago, J and I had just left our respective jobs, moved out of Seattle, and were about to begin a life-changing journey abroad.

While I've mentioned how this past year changed my general life-outlook, I haven't illustrated its various impacts on my approach to style. This month I intend to delve into the nitty-gritty of what has changed and why, and also (if you're so inspired) how you might make similar changes in your own life.

I've been excited about tackling these subjects for some time now, but I've noticed myself putting them off out of fear. Fear that I'm not qualified to lend advice so early in my own process. Fear that readers won't find it accessible or interesting. Fear that I will eventually revert back to my old habits. But now that I feel fully settled into my "new life" here in New York (evidenced by paintings on the walls, plants in the living room, and healthcare bills in the mailbox!!), I feel more certain that these new lifestyle habits aren't changing anytime soon -- and might just be worth talking about. 

With that in mind, I'd greatly appreciate any feedback on any topics you'd like me to explore throughout the series. Please don't hesitate to leave any questions or requests in the comment section throughout the month, and I will make a point to address them via my own experience. You may also send requests privately via the right-hand "Message Me" box.

I'll be exploring these subjects as a series through the month of March with the headline "My Style Journey," so stay tuned for future posts!