Advice for developing yourself, your style and your life

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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!

One of my very best friends from high school got engaged a few weeks ago. I cried after she called to tell me about it, just like I did when my older sister Karen got engaged.

Like my older sister, Michelle helped to make me the person I am today. Nearly all the pivotal moments in my life over the past 14 years we've been friends have been influenced by her friendship, fearless refusal to take no for an answer, insatiable desire for a challenge, and sometimes brutally honest advice. She's been my sounding board for the hardest questions I've had in life, the person who has been on the other end of the phone in the middle of the night with me a blubbering mess, gripped with loneliness, fear and self-doubt. There have been countless times when Michelle has helped me navigate those hard times through her strength, perspective and unique brand of girl power that leaves a wake wherever she goes.

There's a saying that hard times reveal true friends. The people who know your character flaws, insecurities, vulnerabilities and stick with you through it all are rare and incredibly valuable. They become like family.

Marriage, at its essence, is finding in a life partner that same feeling you get from your family and closest friends, that in-it-for-the-long-haul-despite-your-obvious-and-plentiful-shortcomings commitment and loyalty, and combining it with attraction, shared values and life goals.  Realizing that I had that rare combination in my now-husband Wes is how I knew I wanted to marry him. Not because he's dizzyingly handsome, driven, confident, thoughtful and hilarious (although he is), but because he sees me for who I am and accepts me, challenges me, pushes me and ultimately makes me a better person. He has fundamentally helped shape who I am today, and I'm not sure what path my life would have taken without him in it. I think that's why they say that the single most important decision you make in life is who you choose to share it with.

All this "making each other into better people" business comes with A LOT of effort, at least for me and Wes. Our first year of marriage was a rollercoaster of learning experiences which we culminated with a half-serious formal year-end performance review based on a 1-5 rating scale, with 5 being an F. (For the record, I gave Wes a 3, and he gave me a 4.) My lowest point of that year was within a month of our honeymoon: I walked into our tiny 2-bedroom rental after a week on the road for work and an extreme flight delay to find pizza boxes and beer cans in the middle of the living room, basketball shoes and dirty gym clothes in the hallway, and my husband with a newfound appreciation of PlayStation. I dropped my bags and started crying. Wes jumped up to comfort me, confused when all I could say was that I felt homeless. I slept in the guest bedroom that night, and we learned to discuss our needs in more concrete detail. Wes has had the house clean on Thursdays ever since.

Getting married to Wes has been the best decision I've made in my life. When I look back on our engagement and first year, my only regret is that I wish someone had given me a head's up that the ups and downs were not only normal, but necessary to continuing to grow in our relationship. I wish someone had told me that the ideal of a picture-perfect movie marriage is not only unrealistic, but would also be incredibly boring. Wes and I have an extremely strong relationship that I measure by the moments where we're suppressing desires to flick each other in the forehead and find ourselves laughing and holding hands minutes later.

Ok, if you've made it through that long prologue to this point, here are the things that I've learned in my marriage that I want to share with Michelle and my other closest friends who've decided to take the plunge:


#1 You will have a minor identity crisis

Mine kicked in the moment I got engaged, but according to my informal research this happens to others at unpredictable intervals. It starts with considering your name change and realizing that the name you've built independently will cease to exist. For some odd reason, I couldn't get over the fact that "Colleen Kelly" on my birth certificate will never be on a tombstone.  There was also this secret vision I had of myself living in a studio apartment in Paris taking art classes that I had to let die a slow death in order for the new vision of myself getting married to take hold.

#2 You will come in with unwritten expectations of marriage based on the only one you know

Subconsciously benchmarking marriage with what you grew up with isn't surprising, but I was surprised at the small assumptions that I had about marriage in general, about Wes in the role of husband, and about the assumptions he had of me in the role of wife. My friends know very well that my engagement story involved Googling "Why am I freaking out about getting engaged?" at 4 a.m. and ordering books titled "A Bride's Guide to the 'Happiest Time of Her Life'." For some reason, I'd always associated marriage with Honda Odysseys, lots of crying children, and a selfless wife with the patience of Mother Theresa. Also known as my mother's life, one that she loved but produced a daughter who hated her van, disliked babysitting and ended up with the patience of her litigator father.

Marriage is something that the two people in it create for themselves, and it takes a conscious effort to identify and discuss the assumptions you have of each other, determine which ones aren't going to hold true, and learn to specialize where it works for you. In our marriage, I'm the haphazard handyman and cook, and Wes meticulously does the laundry and bills.

#3 You will realize that your former standards of cleanliness do not have a place in your home

I've already described my low point in year one above, but I thought my mom had an interesting take on this. She told me that I had to "lower my standards" of cleanliness if I wanted a happy marriage. (WHAT?!?!) After a long internal battle that involved me independently Swiffering and vacuuming on Saturday mornings in a silent rage, I decided that I'd rather have a slightly dirty house and a happy marriage than be sterile and alone. Hiring a cleaning lady to come every other week helped, too.

#4 You will become more accepting of yourself, your flaws and your path

It's strangely paradoxical, but having Wes see all of my bad qualities (like the neuroses that may be evident in #1-2 above…) and love me anyway made me more confident and willing to work on them. Having him as my sounding board has helped me overcome self-doubt and take risks that I don't think I would have done on my own.

#5 You will be humbled daily by having to look at yourself through someone else's perspective

Sentences like, "I guess I can see how my refusal to hang your giant glowing beer signs and framed portrait of Ronald Reagan in our home could be offensive to you and your interests" suddenly became relevant when Wes and I got married. Learning that I had habits that deeply annoyed Wes opened my eyes and I learned to look at myself more objectively. One in particular was my tendency to go radio silent for hours at a time when I was engrossed in an activity (e.g., exploring a flea market, selecting appropriate wattage light bulbs at Home Depot). I'm still a bad texter (as my friends will attest) but have made amazing progress since 2013.

#6 You will strangely feel more comfortable interacting with men

Let me just say that I used to be uncomfortable interacting with men in certain situations because I didn't want to give the wrong impression that I was interested and end up 1. being asked out on a date that I would have to awkwardly turn down or 2. inadvertently becoming known as the Bridget Jones of the office with a hopeless crush and forever be break room cooler gossip.

Somehow, being publicly and clearly off the market eliminates the need to overthink what you are saying to some random guy on the subway so he doesn't somehow get the impression that you are available and interested. Again, I'm neurotic and recognize that this sentiment may not be widely shared, but it was mildly problematic for me and for my close girlfriends that I surveyed at length about the topic. (I've met a few women who tell me they don't have many girlfriends and have closer relationships with men, and I always ask them how they prevent said men from falling in love with them. I am probably a closed-minded product of my strict Catholic upbringing…)

#7 You and your husband will challenge each other to become better versions of yourselves

In my opinion, marriage is progressive: it's a relationship that is constantly changing, growing and evolving. To keep it progressing means you have to be all in, commit to it fully while continuing to invest in your independent interests, to stay focused on your shared values yet not take yourselves too seriously, to hold each other to the high standards you went in with and keep each other accountable when you're falling short, and to make time for shutting out the world to enjoy each other's company while simultaneously remembering to confirm that your anxious dog has been fed and walked.

For all the joy in our relationship, I'm convinced we'd be stagnant and boring if we never disagreed, got angry, or wanted to flick each other in the forehead out of sheer annoyance. This might be unique to my marriage, but I'm convinced that the challenges we've faced have made us closer and our relationship stronger.

I could write this list for hours, but taking a break here to let my married readers weigh in on this topic. I know many of you have been married for years and years, and am curious what you've learned along the way that surprised you! Please let me (and my newly engaged friend Michelle) know in the comments.
 

Not sure about you, but I am high risk for looking frumpy during the winter months. My motivation to take the time to plan out my outfits and inject a little creativity into what I am wearing tends to wane about November.

This winter, in the last few weeks of my challenge to cut out new things, I decided to do a final pare-down of my winter things to the ones that I love the most and keep the focus of my outfits on just a few key items.

If there is one thing I've learned over the past (almost year) of not buying new things, it's that your money should go to high quality basics, bags and shoes: they don't go out of style, and have the power to make even the simplest outfit look fancy. There are several pieces that are on constant repeat in my closet in cold months (like cashmere sweaters and scarves in neutral colors, my trusty coatigans, and leather leggings) that make me feel instantly put together. Adding a little personality with the right shoe or a cool bag (like the fringed number in the picture above) is easy once you've got the right foundation.

Below are my go-to outfit formulas for the days when I have zero desire to try (like today, where I find myself wearing my trusty Transit coatigan for the one millionth time this year...)


# 1 Flats + distressed jeans + basic button down + coatigan + tote + red lipstick

For whatever reason, I have an aversion to boots. They're hard to style with pants, so I tend to brave the cold ankles and keep everything else well-cocooned. This outfit has been repeated many times, and looks even better when you add a cashmere hat and scarf.


#2 Oversize gray sweater + leather leggings + fancy flats + neutral bag

An oversize gray sweater in a substantial, thick wool has been a gap in my wardrobe for years. ThredUp recently offered me a credit to shop their site, and I was so excited to find this Eileen Fisher number! It's the perfect counterpart to my leather leggings, long enough to cover my buns and versatile enough to work with ankle pants or a skirt and tights for work.


#3 Tall boots + loose, sleeved dress + simple bag

I know I just told you I don't like boots, but I like to contradict myself. These equestrian boots are a deep brown suede that my mom bought for me in college and I love them. I wear them exclusively with dresses in the winter, with thick wool socks and no tights so only my knees are at risk for getting cold. I love that they're such a classic style (unlike over-the-knee boots that I categorically hate for reasons I cannot explain). This simple Malene Birger dress is also a gift of ThredUp, one that is truly meant for all seasons and works great for winter with boots. (Also kind of a unicorn find!)

Ok, that's all for now! I'd love to hear about your go-to outfit formulas for the winter in the comments below. Also, thank you so much for all of your continued support of this little blog. I have really appreciated all your comments on this blog, Instagram and via email! To those who have asked for my revised "Things to buy in 2017" list, I promise it is coming soon!