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A capsule wardrobe is nothing new. The term was coined back in the 1980s by Susie Faux, the West End boutique owner who introduced her clients to minimalist brands like Jil Sander, while Donna Karan popularised the idea in the USA in ‘85 with her Seven Easy Pieces. In 2014, Unfancy founder Caroline Rector reinvigorated buzz for the concept when she posed the idea of a 37-piece capsule, just as Marie Kondo’s decluttering method was shaking up wardrobes the world over. The notion of a refined and utilitarian collection of basic clothing, of creating the maximum number of outfits from as few items as possible, is a familiar one.
Now, though, its appeal is greater than ever. With nowhere to go and no one to see, 2020 forced many of us to recalibrate our relationship with fashion. Giving us time to step off the fast-moving carousel of disposable trends, we’ve had hours in lockdown to sit with the clothes we own and admit which were bought to secure a quick and dirty serotonin hit in the shadow of Instagram’s comparison culture, fuelled by the ease of same-day delivery. For others, waking each morning to a pandemic has left little room for the effort and energy required to pull together a playful outfit. With heavier burdens weighing on our minds, functionality is often the biggest draw when choosing what to wear each day.
"People are starting to rethink their relationship with clothing and with nowhere to go, more time is being spent organising and decluttering as well as learning how to create a streamlined wardrobe," says personal stylist Eunice Abe of the surge in search for capsule wardrobes during lockdown. Donating, selling or gifting items that no longer fit into your life is a great way to save them from landfill but the aim isn’t to mindlessly purge your wardrobe and start anew. It's about whittling it down to a selection of thought-out pieces which will help you to resist the pull of passing trends. "Building a capsule wardrobe made up of core items not only helps me shop less and re-wear my pieces over and over again," Eunice says, "but also to not shop impulsively for the 'next best thing' to wear." I feel the same way. Pre-pandemic, I felt an involuntary urge to shop whenever I saw a new look on Instagram but since rotating a steady collection of around 15 pieces, from crew-neck knitwear and plain, long-sleeved tees to straight-leg jeans and my trusty Birkenstocks, I’ve found it easier to put some distance between what I tell myself I want and what I really need.
At the core of a capsule wardrobe is the idea that its contents transcend passing trends but of course, it will mean different things to different people. If monochrome and minimalism isn’t your flavour, a capsule wardrobe bursting with print and colour is just as valuable — so long as each piece can be worn in multiple ways. Fine-tune your wardrobe so that you’re wearing what you own as much as possible so that each piece stands the test of time and serves a functional but joyful purpose in your life. What it looks like is up to you.
Below, we’ve found the best pieces for a traditional capsule wardrobe, from summer-ready sandals to Breton striped tees.
The Black Rollneck
From Audrey Hepburn to Steve Jobs to the stereotypical Parisian or beatnik-inspired creative, the turtleneck has stood the test of time for good reason. Layer yours under white workwear shirts and crew-neck knits or wear tucked into straight-leg denim.
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The Plain White Tee
If you can avoid spillages and stains, the plain white tee is your hardest-working piece — just ask James Dean, Brigitte Bardot and Pam Grier. We're teaming ours with black blazers, gold jewellery and flared denim but it works with just about anything, from slip skirts to high-waisted shorts.
The Straight-Leg Jean
Jeans silhouettes fluctuate — goodbye skinny, hello kick-flare — but the straight leg remains a constant faithful, no matter which way the pendulum swings. Levi's Ribcage has a fantastic size range while Re/Done's repurposed pieces are the best sustainable option.
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The Crew-Neck Knit
The crew-neck knit is a timeless classic with a neckline that lends itself to different necklace lengths. Don't feel wedded to camel if it's not a colour you'd choose to wear but do explore the cut's styling possibilities: we're wearing ours with big collar blouses and turtlenecks while it's chilly and over slip dresses come spring.
The Everyday Shoe
Lace-up leather shoes or loafers aren't for everyone, but if a smarter style works for your wardrobe, the styling solutions are endless. We enjoy them paired with a colourful sock and tailored trousers, with patterned tights and a mini skirt, with a black sock and a mini dress, and with straight-leg jeans and a turtleneck for a more sophisticated look.
Whether you go for chunky or subtle, yellow or pale-toned, gold jewellery is a perennial classic. It's at its strongest against a block-coloured background like a white tee or black rollneck — perfect for those back-to-back Zoom calls.
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The Cross-Body Bag
Handbag trends fluctuate, from XXL totes to itsy-bitsy micro bags, but our daily walks around the park have hammered home the benefits of going hands-free. Make sure it fits all your essentials — hand sanitiser, keys, phone — and check the fastening is secure enough to make you feel comfortable. A.P.C's Demi Lune is a perennial classic but local brands like Oroton and Witchery also have an impressive selection of leather cross-body bags.
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The Oversized Button-Down
Whether you nab a vintage linen number from the men's section of your local op-shop or go for a crisp new one, an oversized button-down shirt will last forever. Wear over rollnecks or layered underneath oversized knits in winter and over swimsuits and loosely tucked into Bermuda shorts come summer. White is definitely the most common choice here, but don't be afraid to get playful with colours and prints.
The Ankle Boot
No matter your style of choice — hiker, Chelsea, rubber-soled, or heeled – there's an ankle boot to suit everyone. Heritage labels like R.M. Williams can be relied on for pairs that survive years of wear and tear, while contemporary labels such as Nelson Made and Alias Mae make dance floor-ready boots with interesting heels.
The Versatile Dress
Another new addition to the concept of a capsule wardrobe, the versatile dress that can be taken from day to evening. Comfortable enough that you can hit the sofa but smart enough that you feel presentable for work and social gatherings, the perfect versatile dress usually comes in a neutral colour, and has an element of interest that doesn't stand out too much. Keep it interesting by wearing over a turtleneck during winter and team with gold or silver jewellery and sandals when spring (finally) arrives.
The Summer Sandals
Beyond the trainer revival, nowhere has the shift towards comfort-first been seen more than in sandals. Birkenstock has the lion's share here, with its two-strap Arizona style dominating every season (with a fresh pedi for summer, with chunky socks for winter) but Teva and Ancient Greek Sandals are both worthy investments for sandals you can wear from the pool to a sunny plaza in styles that won't date.
The Trench Coat
The trench coat needs no introduction. Though the classic belted style is perfect for those wanting a defined silhouette, we're enjoying the loose-fitting iterations coming from Saba or Camilla & Marc. Nab a vintage Burberry number from Vestiaire Collective, or bite the bullet for a new one, and wear with everything from midi dresses and boots to tailored trousers and tees.
The Tailored Trouser
Thanks to a slew of contemporary brands, tailored trousers have thrown off their stuffy and restrictive connotations. Totême makes the smartest and sleekest pieces in a wide range of fits, while Acne's pleated ever-so-slightly cropped are tempting us away from our trusty denim. Go suited and booted if you please but a tailored trouser looks as good with a white tee and statement jewellery as it does with a crew-neck knit.
Whether you want to emulate a Matrix-inspired cyberpunk or channel your inner Rebel Without A Cause, leather jackets are more adaptable than you might think. Vintage is best – they get softer with age and there are tons waiting for a new home – but the high street has some fantastic biker silhouettes, too.
The White Sneaker
However you get your kicks, there's a sneaker for you. Box-fresh and chunky? You can't go wrong with New Balance's 530s. Retro-inspired? Look to Converse All Stars. For sustainable options, Veja and Saye hit the spot, and designer options from the likes of Burberry are perfect for those that like to go big. And the best part is that there's really no trick to styling this perennial classic.
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The Going Out Top
While there are plenty of trends that come and go, the 'going out top' is the stray wardrobe essential that has warmed its way back into our lives. This time, for good. Whether you opt for glittery, magpie-attracting fabrics, slinky cut-outs or itty bitty crops, the going out top is an item worth dipping out of your comfort zone for.