For the first time in my life, I have a really nice closet. I say this, because before this year, I spent the past two decades migrating from one cramped, crumbling rental apartment to another. My husband and I, against all odds and advice from many friends and one couple's therapist, lived (mostly harmoniously) for seven years in a 300-square-foot apartment. That's seven years. Three hundred square feet. I don't know how we did it, either. But with the good fortune of sacred real-estate juju shining down upon us, we were able to buy and basically rebuild a top-floor apartment in an old 1900 tenement building in Brooklyn Heights. The building is a tiny bit crumbling. But our apartment, thanks to my husband's snazzy architecture chops, is practically perfect.
I love many things about this new apartment: White-washed floors, giant windows and skylights, our peaked roof where we have a tiny working loft office — the whole space feels kind of like a mini urban beach house in the sky. But what I think I love most about our place is my closet. It is not at all huge or particularly glamorous (no expertly trained spotlights showcasing my many Alaïa dresses, à la Mimi). But with the advice and near-spiritual guidance of Melanie Charlton of Clos-ette, we designed it with me in mind. Hooks on the outside for rotating the latest flea market find; cubbies and drawers inside to stock my too many pairs of sunglasses and cuff bracelets; and an extra-wide space on the right for long stuff, of which I have a lot. And, so, because of all these organizational trademarks, I feel a certain respect and duty in keeping it organized and cared for…like the closet I never had. Truly.
Which is where Stacy London comes in. She's my friend and neighbor, and also happens to be the longtime arm-waving, brow-furrowing host on the TLC show What Not to Wear. Over the course of 10 seasons, Stacy helped women all over the country gut their closets, face the mirror, and, in turn, discover their true selves. Say what you will about the theory, but the idea that your closet can be a metaphor for life holds a lot of truth. It doesn't matter if you're obsessed with clothes, a compulsive shopper, or wear the same basic uniform every day — what we keep, hide, hold on to, or forget about in our closets tends to always come back to haunt us.
Because we all have our hangups. My college best friend, Kelly, has wailed to me on numerous occasions that she almost can't face her closet without a glass of wine in her hand. Drew Barrymore, our editor-at-large, confessed to her own long-held closet strife. For me, I just really wanted to get over my need to keep things that I simply didn't wear. And likely would never wear. Because like a Cuisinart or my last two cell phones, those things were taking up space in my newly renovated life, and according to Marie Kondo, if you don't use or wear something, it is neither loved nor needed.
Although we've been in our new place for only a few months, my shiny, new closet was already hitting maximum capacity. I have a lot of clothes, but I am not a hoarder, I swear. I donate, gift, and sell lots of things every month to try and keep my possessions in check. But I also have three fatal roadblocks when it comes to achieving true closet nirvana: I am sentimental and a collector of vintage; I am a fan of the one-of-a-kind thing that I might possibly wear in a sometime-someday scenario; I have repeats of go-to pieces…a lot of repeats.
And so, Stacy agreed to come over on a Saturday morning in the cold, hard light of day to help me streamline my closet. Not exactly overhaul it, but get even better at making my edit of clothes the right edit. That's what I wanted...but I think that's what most of us want: to make enough room so hangers could actually move from side to side, and, ultimately, have every single thing in there make our hearts sing when we look at it. So, I made coffee and got strawberries from the Farmers' Market. And, despite the fact that Stacy gives really good, hard hugs, and jokes like a sailor, I was scared shitless. With good reason.
Stacy really couldn't care less about the right hangers, fancy bins, or, actually, any of the accoutrement that make you feel organized. Other than keeping my hangers to one color (black), I have to agree with her. For Stacy, and for me, too, it’s the stuff you wear (or don’t) that matters most. And, so, without as much as a peruse, she immediately zeroed in on what would be the first lesson of the day: Closet categories. I'm pretty organized, but I will admit that with the abundance of prints in my closet, and my lack of strategy around grouping, it looked a lot like a crazy costume closet from a high school theater company (read: I had NO categories...and apparently should have been ashamed of myself). "How do you even know where your pants are??" she bemoaned. I pointed to a section with mostly pants in it. She said that didn't count. It's the oldest trick in the closet-cleaning book, but grouping by categories does make it way easier to know exactly what you have and how much.
Once we got all the sections organized — long dresses, suits (yep…I wear suits), trousers, fancy coats all in one place — it was very easy to identify my next big lesson of the day: Simplify your repeats. We all have them: the go-tos we feel most comfortable, and most ourselves, in. We buy backups up the wazoo. I mean, I do. And, I swear, Stacy was literally panting when she counted one, two, five, eight, 12 white shirts in my arsenal! "Why would anyone have 12 white shirts in one wardrobe?!" She had a point. But I argued they were all different and each served a unique purpose (i.e., the slim-fit one for under sweaters; the sheer, oversized one for wearing with bustiers; the shirtdress one for wearing as a jacket, etc.). And here's where she really got me and where the lesson rings true: She asked me to rank the shirts in order of how often I wear them. And when she asked me how many times I had worn the six on the bottom half of the ranking, I honestly couldn't tell her. She said, "Why keep the backups if you're always going to reach for the perfect one you love?" She was right. And so, my theory went out the window, along with six perfectly good white shirts. Just like that.
And, you know, it felt really good.
But, here's what did not feel so good. Having Stacy pull every single bag, clutch, necklace, and pair of shoes out of my closet to see the utter volume of crap that I had. She could see it all, as soon as she opened my closet doors, like a Grey Gardens ultimate yard sale explosion. But I never could, even though I'm in that closet every day. I think because accessories are smaller and tend to take up less room, it felt okay to have a lot of them. But I really had no idea just how much of them I had. Honestly, it was horrifying. Which leads to: Scale back the accessories…way back. I couldn't believe how many things emerged in this wave of excess I didn't even remember I had. Which is never a good thing. Marie Kondo would undoubtedly lose her mind. So, piece by piece, we put back only the items I really loved and used, despite a sweet spot for a tiny vintage silver evening bag and one too many pairs of black heels. Once the new order was in play, I literally felt a surge of adrenaline from seeing only pieces that I was excited to wear. And if I’m really being honest, I hadn’t realized how long it had been since I’d felt that way while getting dressed.
The last big learning of the day was this: Let it go. All of it. Commit. Do you know how many times Stacy had to slap my hand out of the pitch pile? Throwing stuff out is hard…but, eh, what if?...ahhh! And, we all have our reasons for keeping things around. They symbolize our former selves, forgotten dreams, an unrequited love of what maybe never was. For people like me who share a real kinship with clothes and as a result like how much they can tell the story of who you are, throwing things away can feel like a betrayal — of the person you thought you were or never became. It’s sad, and there’s no way around it. Admitting to myself that I am not a person cool enough to wear white tights (ever), ankle socks and high heels, or chic short things. And I am actually okay with that.
By nature, we are drawn to things that inspire us to dream of who we can be; what becomes dangerous, though, is dwelling too much in that could’ve/should’ve-been land. And that’s where letting go is so much bigger than just throwing out a pile of T-shirts. Your true self doesn’t lie when it comes to trying on clothes. In our hearts, we know when something is awesome and sparking our soul, and when it’s not. When it brings out the best in us, makes us vibrate with self-love — or does just the opposite. And for all the times you or your full-length mirror fail you, there’s always an unforgiving friend around who’ll be happy to tell you the truth. And, hopefully, go home with a vintage straw bag and some Céline pants (you’re welcome, Stacy).