Six style lessons I learned by cutting out shopping

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:

  • Experiment, but not waste
  • Save money, but not at someone else's expense
  • Change my mind, but not to do it frequently and without examining why
  • Enjoy shopping, but not to treat it as a recreational activity
  • Respect the opinions of others, but not to put them before my own
  • Question my needs and wants, but not to acquire mindlessly
  • Love the feeling of "new," but not to 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).