Six style lessons I learned by cutting out shopping

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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Tomorrow, it will be six months since I set out on my self-induced "no new things for a year" challenge to be more thoughtful about how I spend my money and be more creative in how I style myself every day.

Since I'm officially at the half-way point, thought I'd take an intermission to write this post reflecting on the lessons I've picked up along the way. I'd also love to get your perspective on how to focus going forward.

*WARNING: This is a super long post, you should probably get a drink and a snack before diving in.*

#1 Creativity is fueled by constraints

This is going to sound trite, but I really mean it: being thoughtful in how I use what's in my closet has inspired me to create some of my favorite outfits. It's helping me to refine my style, think long and hard about what I really love about an item, and develop a deep and true appreciation for versatility. Things that I loved but forgot about (or didn't really know how to wear) have resurfaced, reminding me of why I bought them in the first place.

The constraint of this challenge has also motivated me to do productive things such as taking every single one of my bags and shoes out of my closet, spreading them all over the floor, and pairing them up in every permutation possible. (I also took reference photos… more on that in a future post.)

The pleated Alice & Olivia midi dress in this picture is a prime example of an item that resurfaced and was transformed into a new outfit: I formerly classified it as a fancy dress that needed to be worn with high heels (and therefore I never wore it). Pairing this dress with the fresh "new" combo of vintage olive leather cross-body bag and burgundy lace-up flats, an outcome of my "Beautiful Mind" moment on the floor of my closet...

#2 Limitations clarify needs and define boundaries

Basically, what I've learned is that I don't really need much (at most, some upgrades and a pair of great nude flats) and that these are my boundaries for shopping that I'll likely keep for good:

It's OK to:
It's not OK to:
Save money
Save money at someone else's expense
Change my mind
Do it frequently and without examining why
Enjoy shopping
Treat shopping as a recreational activity
Respect the opinions of others
Put the opinions of others before my own
Question my needs and wants
Acquire mindlessly
Love the feeling of "new"
Use it to fill a void

#3 Impulses can be conquered with thoughts

Retail corporations are not in this game to help us look cute. They do not invest millions in consumer insights and marketing because they care about our opinions and thoughts, but rather so they can tap into our collective psyche, understand what triggers our emotions and what will stir a desire to buy, and then use that information to drive volume and margin. Personally, I am most susceptible to the marketers at Madewell and Anthropologie. They just know me, about my deep desires to let my bohemian soul fly free from the clutches of corporate America, and my weakness for independent French designers and snobby scented candles.

I'd be lying if I told you that I haven't walked into Anthropologie for one of said snobby scented candles, tempted myself in the dressing room with a blush ruffle dress, and had to dig deep in order to shake myself out of my trance to buy. It was a sad, low moment and I thought about that dress for a week. Unpacking my spring and summer boxes stuffed with dresses that stirred the same emotion years ago, only to gather dust, cured my inner wannabe bohemian on the spot.

#4 Clothing should be a long-term investment

The reason clothing is classified as a disposable good today, my friends, is because of price elasticity of demand. For those needing a refresher on consumer economics, that basically means that we (as consumers) have the ability and willingness to postpone our purchasing decisions in order to search for substitutes. The clothing industry has exploded in the past several decades, meaning we have more choice than ever. Most middle-of-the-road, available-at-every-suburban-mall-in-America retailers have to compete on price, which means they also have to strive to find the cheapest production sources possible to maintain margins.

Quite frankly, I feel bad for retailers: they get a bad rap for underpaying Bangladeshi workers to make our cheap jeans, but the favorable alternative (convincing us to place less importance on price vs. other purchasing criteria) is next to impossible. In fact, it's basically asking to transform us all into luxury shoppers with zero price sensitivity and extremely high standards for quality, material and construction.

But I'm actually starting to believe we can all be luxury shoppers with those same standards, even if we don't have the resources to spend the equivalent of my apartment's rent check on a tote bag. (See #5…)

#5 Second-hand shopping is strategic and sustainable

Thanks to the loophole for second hand and vintage that I baked into my challenge, I've learned that all of my fashion dreams can be fulfilled at a reasonable price by searching pre-owned on eBay. Or at one of a million second hand retailers and e-retailers popping up everywhere. It forces you to be thoughtful about what you're looking to add to your collection, and makes it almost impossible to impulse purchase because of the high variance in availability.

Vintage and second-hand is also cooler because you'll find things no one else will be wearing. On my recent Eurotrip, I did some vintage and second hand shopping in Prague and Berlin. I left with a giant silk Czechoslovakian Airlines shawl circa 1960, a hand-carved bone bead necklace, and an oversize COS shirtdress along with a desire to hunt down a pair of garnet stud earrings on eBay rather than pay $250 for them in a tourist trap of a shop.

#6 Fulfillment comes from focus on what matters

Although I already knew this, what this challenge has reinforced for me is that I want time and resources to invest in my family, friends, health and passions (both professional and creative). While I love style, it's not something that is really worth the time and resources I spent trying to develop it all these years. At the end of the day, the things that get the most love and mileage in my closet are simple pieces that are beautiful, functional, high quality and play well with the other items that I love in my wardrobe. And I don't need many of them given my penchant for re-wearing the same outfit two, three days in a row…

With just six months to go and a pretty clear idea that I'm probably going to be a lifetime second-hand shopper slash outfit-repeater, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about where to focus my writing long term. I love style and will write about it every chance I get, but have been thinking long and hard about these two questions:

  • How can I use this blog to serve others?
  • What do I care about that you might, too?

Here's where I need your input and feedback:

There's an inkling in the back of my mind that what I'm really trying to answer through my reading and writing is, “How can we improve our lives by making better use of our time and resources?”

As an operational effectiveness consultant and an avid reader of self-improvement books, I am constantly experimenting with my own life. I've shared a little of that here, but am considering expanding on that more broadly and outlining the key takeaways in a way you can easily understand and actually use to save your time and resources for what matters most. To give me some food for thought, I'm hoping you'll humor me by answering these two questions in the comments or via email:

Question #1: If you had to pick three aspects about yourself or your life that you could positively impact if you had unlimited time and resources, what would they be?

Question #2: Considering your favorite authors, speakers, and influencers, who is your favorite and what specifically do they do that keeps you coming back?

Thank you for reading, and have a wonderful weekend (and one filled with July 4th fireworks and flag Jell-O molds for the Americans).
10 comments on "Six style lessons I learned by cutting out shopping"
  1. 1. Weight and general fitness bc I want to drop a dress size but haven't been able to; relationships with my husband and friends/family; knowledge and intellectual capacity
    2. Dale Carnegie. Has clear opinions, uncomplicated, offers advice that I have been able to use to get results.

    1. Thanks so much for your feedback, I hear you on #1 and also love Dale Carnegie! He was the original self-help author :)

  2. Dear Colleen, you blog is always thoughtful and inspiring, that's one reason I love reading yours and looking forward to them.

    I really admire your determination in this "no buying new things", and I think you are doing so great. Whenever I shop I think about what you are doing and wonder how can I do it. It's so hard to resist sometimes!(by the way I am a big fan of madewell too, you might be able to tell from my instagrams) I don't buy very expensive or name brands, I like good quality and good price, but I also buy a lot of basic things like Ts. I was thinking of getting a nice bag, but then I asked myself haven't I got enough of them? and knowing myself, I know when I get a new addition, I usually use it everyday for a while then I get bored. that seems like my biggest problem, I get bored after a while. I try to look into the reason why i get bored. I know it is not because my things are not good, they might not be very pricey but they are of good quality and style. sometimes I think I am still like a kid, who likes new shiny things haha...

    anyway, reading this post gives me a lot of thoughts as usual...Now to answer your questions:

    1, I would like to improve my self esteem, or self image. I always feel I dont have nice enough body, I especially do not like my calves, that's one reason I feel i am limited to how I can dress. for example, I can not just simply wear a dress or skirt without wearing boots to hide my legs, that makes it a bit harder. i am way to self conscious.

    2, i want to spend more time with my parents, they live in China and have not visited me here in US for various reasons. I would like to have them here and see this country i adopted and love.

    3, i want to travel more and read more.

    I love reading Jumpa Lahiri and Elizabeth Strout, they are thoughtful, sensitive, tender, their words always move me. and I also love reading anything by Bill Bryson, he's funny, observant, you learn so much yet you have fun reading his books. Another writer I enjoy is Damon Galgut ,he's a from south africa.

    thank you for letting me sorting my thoughts here my dear, and thank you for sharing yours, this is wonderful! it always makes me very happy, thank you for providing this space :)

    Happy 4th of July. oh, lovely pic of you and Sophie.

    1. Echo, thank you for reading and for your very sweet compliment! Your encouragement helps me to keep writing even when I feel like quitting. Your love of the "shiny new thing" feeling is something I share, and has been one of the hardest parts about this challenge... but realizing that vintage can get me the same feeling was a win!

      I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts, and hear you on body image and self esteem. It's so funny, that even people we regard as beautiful and perfect have body hang ups and image issues that we would never notice. It's helpful to know that so many people are challenged with this.

      And, your parents being so far away must be very tough. Even living 1,000 miles from mine was hard, because sometimes there is no cure except having your mom next to you. How often are you able to visit them in China?

      Reading and traveling (not for work!) are things that I share with you. I've added Jumpa, Elizabeth and Damon to my reading list - love how you described their work. I feel like I'm experiencing life through someone else's mind when I read work by really thoughtful and honest writers. Also love Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods is one of my favorites. Anyway, thanks again for reading and your thoughtful comments - they have given me good food for thought going forward.

  3. I enjoyed this article so so much, Coco.
    2 aspects about me and my life that I would like to improve would be:
    -learn to speak french fluently.
    -travel "more": in the sense that I would love to stay for a longer period of time in one country/city instead of spending one or two days in a city and then hop onto the next adventure.

    I love your blog and your "no new things for a year", you're doing great!

    1. Hi Valeria, thank you very much for reading and your thoughts! I hear you on wanting to learn French and travel more (and do it right)! Do you currently speak multiple languages? I've heard of you speak more than one, it's much faster to learn a third! Sadly, I can only claim English. I really appreciate you providing your input, will be considering this for my writing going forward!

  4. Congratulations on making it to six months! There's nothing wrong with some second-hand shopping. In fact, I see so many advantages some of which you already pointed out. Fashion, after all, comes back around, right?

    Repeat Outfit Offenders Club? Where do I sign up?? Haha!

    And now to answer at least one of your questions.

    1. Be more mindful about how my decisions impact others. This is the motivation behind watching "The True Cost" and joining you on the "No new things challenge." It's also the reason why I'm seriously considering going back to being a vegetarian or even - gulp! - vegan. In my own small way, I want to make a positive contribution to this planet.

    P.S. To prove that styles always come back into fashion, I'm sending you the following link. It shows a Google search result on shoes called "krpce" that were worn in the past as part of a traditional costume in a region of the Czech Republic called Valachia. I hope you enjoy looking at this as much as I do! :)

    1. Hi Ivanka, great to read your thoughts as always! Hahaha and you can sign up for the Repeat Outfit Offenders Club riiiiiiight here ;) Your #1 is huge - you inspired me with True Cost months ago, and I'll gladly join you on a vegetarian or vegan challenge!

      Those shoes... the original laceups!!!!!! I literally laughed out loud at my desk when I opened that link hahaha! So true that everything comes back eventually.

      Anyway, really appreciate your support and thoughts. Have a great weekend!

  5. Long-time reader, first-time commenter! Thanks for this insightful post, Colleen. I enjoy reading your thoughtful musings, as they inspire me to give more thought to my day.

    Question 1: If I had unlimited time I would cultivate more skills and hobbies. I would take "physical" classes -- ballroom dancing, rock climbing, fencing -- as well as cultivate more abstract skills like learning a language. I would also spend more time outside, and entertain more, and go on a million amazing trips. Basically, I would pursue more experiences. Note that these would also require me earning more money and also hiring a maid :)

    Question 2: I can't pick out a specific person to highlight here, but a common theme amongst the speakers/authors/leaders I read and follow involves inspiration/aspiration (on my part), authenticity, humor, truth/vulnerability. They manage to inspire a sense of admiration in me that also makes their success attainable.

    1. Erin, nice to meet you! Thanks so much for reading along, for your comment and your encouraging words. Your thoughts on #1 have got me thinking of the value of experiences vs. things and how we can shift the ratio there. Easier said than done, but I hear you. Also inspired me to look into rock climbing...

      As for #2, we share the love of authenticity and humor in writers. And the truth/vulnerability comment made me realize that's why I love Anna Quindlen so much. She speaks to my soul!

      Anyway, I really appreciate your thoughts and hope to hear from you again soon. Have a great weekend!