Eight rules for developing style

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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Welcome to the last day of 2016, folks! I've thought for a long time that this year of my self-imposed no shopping for new things vow would end with much (internalized) fanfare and a long, exciting shopping list of things that I can't wait to run out and buy with my thousands in savings.

This post has taken me several days to write because each time I sat down and opened my OneNote to organize my thoughts, I kept coming back to the fact that I don't really want much. So I'm going to wax poetic for a few minutes on what I've learned, and then give you a few pieces that I've observed are gaps in my wardrobe that I intend to fill in 2017.

At the end of this year, I've realized that style and fashion are two very distinct and separate concepts. Fashion is seasonal, mass marketed, and driven by trends. Style is forever, highly individual, and driven by choices. What we choose to buy and how we incorporate it into our existing wardrobes is what builds style. It truly cannot be bought, and I'm convinced that it's impossible have great style without taking the time to inventory and organize your closet, thoughtfully plan outfits, and carefully identify the gaps in the pieces you own to drive your purchasing decisions.

I've also started to think of developing style like we think about furnishing a home. There are pieces that you buy intending to use for years and years, such as your couch and dining table. And there are items you buy and move around from room to room as your inspiration changes, like rugs and accent tables. There are also a few accessories that you buy to add some spice to your rooms and realize that they're impractical and just collecting dust so you donate them quickly.

Building your wardrobe should follow the same thought pattern, considering the foundational pieces you'll wear forever and then selecting pieces that work with your basics to create new and creative combinations of outfits. There are eight major rules about developing great style that I've learned from my year of cutting back, and I've synthesized them for you below (along with some thoughts on the gaps I have in my wardrobe and how I plan to fill them for those asking for the "want" list).
#1 Invest in quality coats

Coats (and coatigans) stay in style longer, hold their shape, and can make your entire outfit when you live in places with long winters. None of my cheap coats survived the Goodwill donation purges that I made this year. I gravitated towards only the really wonderful coats I already owned, and most I've had for several years. Neutral colors (gray, black, cream), quality fabrics (wool, cashmere, down, leather), classic cuts and slightly oversized are the elements that will make a coat last in your wardrobe for a long time.

I've learned how to take better care of my coats, how to layer them, how to accessorize them and how to make them the focus of an outfit. And I've also realized that there's really only one classic coat missing from my collection: a camel wrap coat that I can toss on over a suit, a dress, or a pair of jeans to look fabulous. I plan to invest in a cashmere MaxMara wrap coat in 2017 and hold onto it for the rest of my life (and have my initials embroidered inside so my future granddaughter can think of me fondly when I'm long gone and she's wearing it in 2087).
#2 Buy remarkable, walkable shoes

Although I have an extensive collection of heels, fabulous flats and walkable low heels get the most wear in my wardrobe because they can go literally everywhere. My lace-up, strappy and super-high-quality flats took me from meetings to weddings to Friday night dinner-and-a-walk dates with my husband. In 2017, I'll be investing in a couple of additional pairs to round out my options and add some extra personality to my outfit combinations.

If you're curious what's on the list, I've been eyeing these nude Valentino Tango pumps (a classic in my opinion) and these satin Manolo Blahnik Hangisi flats. (FYI, I plan to get them both from eBay or ThredUp rather than new. I have this complex with new designer items, sort of like the whole buying a new car paradox where the premium depreciates the moment you drive it off the lot.) I've also had my eye on a couple of trendy flats that have stayed relevant for years that I might spring for if I find them at the right price point.

#3 Go with classic bags

Like coats and shoes, bags also have a much longer shelf life in your wardrobe and deserve extra thought and investment. Right now, I'm good with my selection of bags and have gotten a lot of wear out of my well-loved and reasonably priced Monserat De Lucca Docente large tote bag. It travels well, holds everything, has an interior zippered pouch to keep your wallet and phones secure, and comes with a cross-body strap.

Once it wears out, I'll continue my research on the best bags. I've been looking to upgrade one basic bag that everyone thinks is a leather Longchamp but is actually a cheaper lookalike that is starting to look tired. I'd upgrade it with this one. I've also been eyeing a few super-structured, wear-it-forever bags (on my friend Pam, and real estate agent Renee) like this one that I'll also wait for the right deal to come along. And just like with the shoes, I plan to source second hand.

(I've also been hearing a lot about Cuyana and Shinola from my colleagues so will be investigating those brands, too.)

#4 Stick to simple, fine jewelry

While getting my toenails painted, I came across a magazine ad for Patek Phillipe that justified the cost of fine jewelry in a way that spoke to my heart. It read, "You never own a Patek Phillipe, you simply take care of it for the next generation." I think this touches on why we love certain pieces, because they have history, memories, stories. There is meaning attached to it that cannot be bought.

That lens is a great one to apply to the jewelry you choose to buy and wear. For the past year, I've worn the same jewelry every single day aside from a select few pairs of earrings, a Lucite 80s necklace, and a carved bone bead necklace I got on vacation in Europe. I've worked to pare down my jewelry collection to only those pieces I truly treasure, enjoy wearing, and would save for future generations. 
#5 Wait out the trends

Old Colleen used to snap up trendy items without much thought, such as spending $300 on a pair of leopard print jeans that were out after a couple of seasons. Taking a year off and observing some of the trends this year gave me a chance to see if they'd last, and really think about whether I need to add them to my wardrobe. (It turns out I have no desire to purchase flamenco sleeves and a saddle bag.) Giving trends a year or two before deciding to buy in has the added benefit of lower cost because you can find the better quality pieces at consignment shops or on eBay.

#6 Trust your inner judges

This might sound crazy, but I think everyone has an inner 8-year-old self and an inner 80-year-old self that drive the balance of fun and practical in our choices. My inner 8-year-old wants me to eat cookies for breakfast and buy glitter heels, while my inner 80 year old wants me to take care of my health and avoid bunions. They are both right, and learning to listen to them has helped me to build better style that is both fun and practical. (In this example, the answer would be a coconut chocolate RXBAR for breakfast and well-supported glitter flats.)

#6 Don't be a snob about your sources

One of the reasons our culture is stuck in the fast fashion cycle that is polluting our environment and making us collectively poorer is because we're sold this idea that the ability to buy lots of new things makes us rich. Feeling rich and actually being rich are two very different things. Feeling rich for a day because you can buy a pound of polyester clothing on sale at Ann Taylor that will collect dust in your closet does not, in fact, make you rich. (We all know this but forget it when we find that cute top for $49.95.)

Shopping on eBay and hunting consignment, vintage and thrift shops are amazing sources of high quality pieces, and it's also a sustainable practice because you're not adding to the demand for new clothing to be made in Bangladesh by poorly treated and compensated women and children. I think people are afraid to shop in thrift stores and consignment shops because that somehow means they are poor or don't have the means to get clothing from traditional retailers. Or that it's gross to wear used clothing. Just remember that all billionaires are people who think differently than the masses, and that it's equally gross that a five year old sewed those pants you fell in love with in Banana Republic.

#7 Choose versatile items that can be worn many ways

Traveling with my wardrobe has taught me the value of versatility. Any new item that I purchase going forward has to provide me the ability to wear it in many ways and for many occasions. I've written a lot about my collection of suits, and trying to style them in multiple ways without feeling stodgy and corporate. I received a comment (hi, Erin!) that suggested a suit should make you feel the opposite. It inspired me to donate EVERY suit that made me feel too stodgy, and led me to do some research on what would be the perfect suit that would make me feel fabulous no matter how I style it. Nordstrom has a signature line with Caroline Issa, and right now has an amazing navy tuxedo pant and matching jacket that have my name on it.

#8 Remember who you are and what you value

Last but certainly not least, I feel like the biggest thing that I've learned this year is how to be honest with myself about my lifestyle and what I care about. It's so easy to be influenced by beautiful pictures, seriously talented marketers, and what everyone else seems to be doing. In taking a conscious step back, I've learned that resisting influence with thoughtfulness is the ticket to building a wardrobe that works for you and your personal style.

This year has also taught me that style is deeper than the choices we make regarding what material things are worthy of swiping our little plastic cards. Style is about how you think, what your opinions are, what matters to you, and how you express those things to the world. In many ways, it's a means to give other people a sense of your personality and worldview. That's why I think we all find it so fascinating.
And finally, some closing thoughts for you...

In reflecting on the past year, I've been  thinking about what these takeaways mean for what I want to share in this forum. One thing that bothers me about style blogging is the hyper focus on telling people what to buy. (I'm convinced that "like it to know it" is creating the largest outside sales organization on the planet.) We're collectively overwhelmed by people pushing things on us, and it's leading us to overspend and generate waste. (FYI, I counted every single promotional email I received in one day and realized that I get one EVERY 20 MINUTES round the clock, not counting the lists I unsubscribed - that's 26,280 in a year!)

Instead of focusing on what to buy, I want this blog to be a forum for ideas and inspiration about how we can think differently, be more authentic, and make better use of our time and resources to improve our lifestyles. And I'll still talk about developing personal style every chance I get because I love it. More to come on that…
That said, thank you so much for taking the time to follow this little blog, read this particular post, and for your thoughtful comments and encouragement over the past year. I am so appreciative of your support, and look forward to hearing more from you in 2017!
5 comments on "Eight rules for developing style "
  1. Happy new year Colleen! Hope you and your family had a wonderful holiday.

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful article! I always feel inspired and relate to what you are talking about. And because you talk about your own experience, it's so much more personal and relate-able. Like you said, majority of the bloggers talk about what to buy, or seem to encourage us to buy more, while it can be helpful sometimes, it does help us to overspend. I cant remember how many times I saw pieces recommended by bloggers and wanted to buy them, or actually bought them...

    I agree all your points especially #6! I shop at consignment stores and goodwill stores more and more now, I find it much more rewarding and interesting. Just yesterday I found 2 things in a local goodwill store, for a very nice price. It never bothers me going shopping 2nd hand stuff, if I can find what I want and pay a fraction of the price, I am the winner!

    I guess I got a glimpse of your 2017 shopping list :) It looks great, quality pieces that will improve your style and last, that's what I aim for in the new year. I think about what I really need(well, want), actually, I don't really need/want anything particular right now. I have pretty much a lot of everything. so I keep reminding myself that. I believe the more we define and refine our styles and tastes, the less we need to shop, but the better quality we will get.

    Thank you again for taking the time and thoughts to share with us your tips, experiences, thoughts. It's really priceless. I look forward to more in 2017!


    1. Echo, thank you so much for this very nice comment and for reading the post. Your comments help to inspire me to keep writing and I so appreciate it. I'm in complete agreement about the rewards of consignment/vintage/thrift shopping. It's weirdly fascinating to me and I never feel guilty if I end up deciding to donate a piece I bought second hand. You are also right about how defining and refining our styles and tastes will diminish the need to shop. It's a process, but I feel like I've developed a good filter of what will and will not pass the test of time in my current wardrobe. You know what I still need to try, though? Everlane! I remember you recommending it a long time ago, and I have a couple of items on my list that I need to consider getting from that store since it comes so highly recommended.

      Hope you're having a great week, and thanks again for your support!

  2. Happy New Year, Colleen! As always, thank you for taking the time to write this thoughtful article and for touching on an issue that many of us "fashionadas" care about - how to stay fashionable and stylish while being kind to our planet and the people occupying it. It's truly comforting for me to know that there are people out there who share the same view but, like me, may be struggling with reconciling of the two.

    I agree with everything you said in this post, and while personally I still have plenty of work to do fine-tuning my attitudes about where I shop and what I shop for, I have made some meaningful changes in my life over the last year, which made me very happy. I would be amiss if I didn't mention that part of the credit goes to you for doing some of the heavy lifting by coming up with all these practical ideas and simple solutions that are super helpful in this effort!

    The one idea I admire the most when reading your posts is buying used or vintage clothes. Sadly, it is also the area I struggle with the most and even sadder, I can't explain why! I am not squeamish about buying used books (my favorite used item ever!), furniture, dishes, and home accessories in thrift stores, and indeed, I've scored some great buys in all of these categories over the years. But admittedly, I don't get as excited about the prospect of shopping for used clothes despite seeing some of the most beautiful thrifted pieces right here on this blog. There have been only a few occasions when I've bought used clothes and though they turned out to be great purchases, I have not fully incorporated this practice into my life. Clearly, I need to work on that!

    Though I appreciate having an opportunity to stay on top of what's new in the world of fashion, I feel the same way about "like it to know it." I get a "reaction" whenever I see it that makes me do the exact opposite of what it is intended to do - I never, ever follow the link. There's enough temptation in stores and online without your favorite bloggers pushing you to buy even more. The fact that you never make me feel this way is also one of the reasons why I love coming back here. I am already looking forward to reading more in 2017!

    1. Ivanka, thanks so much for your comment and for reading this post! I'm so glad to hear that you also get a "reaction" from Like It To Know It and have the exact opposite response - I never follow the link, either. Sometimes I'm just curious who made the piece and don't want to be spammed for that! (And I'm VERY happy to hear that you don't feel that way on my blog, that means a lot to me!)

      I hear you on the used clothing front. It's something that a lot of people are squeamish about, and I think the only reason that I'm not is that I grew up wearing hand me downs and borrowed things from my three sisters and many cousins; I guess it's sort of ingrained.

      However, I have noticed that the pieces that I proactively sought out and saved for are the most versatile and valuable in my wardrobe, whether consigned or not. I think it's just about staying true to the principle of thoughtful purchasing decisions.

      Also, agree that it's comforting that there are others like you out there who love fashion but want to develop your style sustainably. In all honesty, I think there are probably many more who would think like you do if they learned more about the industry. You opened my eyes to "The True Cost" and it connected a lot of dots for me and gave greater purpose to my aversion to fast fashion.

      Anyway, thank you again for your continued support and hope that you have a great rest of the week & weekend!