How to let go of your wardrobe

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In May, caught in the adrenaline rush of a lockdown clear-out, I followed Marie Kondo’s step-by-step decluttering process, thanking and saying goodbye to almost a third of my wardrobe. My collection, built over 20 years as a fashion editor, was now neatly folded in bags and on its way to the nearest Oxfam. However, instead of the promised glow of a declutter, regret crept in immediately.

Gone is the once-loved Yves Saint Laurent boxy-shouldered jacket found at a vintage shop in Seattle. The Marc Jacobs floral dress that I bought as a Vanity Fair intern in New York instead of groceries. The black silk Dries Van Noten dress worn by a model in a swimming pool during a shoot; it was too damaged to return, and given to me. My life stories were spilling out of black bin bags — a sartorial phantom limb.

Kondo’s bestselling organisational philosophy KonMari, based on Japanese Shintoism, prizes clear space and what “sparks joy” instead of nostalgia. But what about clothes that used to spark so much joy, even though we no longer wear them? Do some pieces have inherent value that makes them worth keeping for posterity?

If a piece no longer works for you, move on, says my former colleague Lucinda Chambers, who spent 25 years as British Vogue’s fashion director — “Don’t have it in your wardrobe, [making you feel] guilty.” While this philosophy has generally served her well, she does have some regrets about giving away, for example, a Prada skirt bought in 2012. “It was an unusual piece. Although it isn’t right for me now, I probably should have kept it for a future daughter.”

Clearing out is never easy but it’s helpful to think about the joy these pieces might bring to others. “I don’t want bagfuls of clothes I never wear,” Chambers says, “I love seeing all the younger generations enjoying them and watching the pieces carry on.” A tradition started at Vogue where she gave clothes to junior editors and, more recently, she used a wardrobe clear-out to raise funds for The Museum of the Home.

Lucinda Chambers at a clothes sales. ‘It’s not about fashion or trends, it’s [usually pieces that are] intrinsically wonderful,’ Chambers says

Chambers suggests using a good seamstress to extend the life of your clothes, to alter or mend them, and even adjust the fit before you wear them. She regularly works with London-based seamstress Maria Londono. “I have a Mango handbag that I look after as if it’s my firstborn child,” she smiles. “I know I’ll never find another one.”

Knowing what suits you is also imperative when deciding what to give away, Chambers notes. “There are things that I return to repeatedly; I know they don’t have a timeframe or an expiration date. I’ll never get tired of wearing curious earrings and stripes; or print and colour. It’s not about fashion or trends, it’s [usually pieces that are] intrinsically wonderful.”

Savile Row tailor Edward Sexton — the designer of Bianca Jagger’s 1971 wedding suit — believes that clothes can have many lives. He suggests that if you’re not ready to let go of a piece, but it’s not quite working for you, to consider having it remodelled. “I often get people bringing their father’s clothes to me to remodel for them. It is beautiful to see clothes made for a specific person, for a specific life, find a second or even third life.”

Sexton reassures me that these personal style evolutions are part of the fabric of life. “We can fall in and out of love with a statement piece as we move through different stages of our lives,” he says, “but we can then come back to it and wear it differently, from a different perspective.” Taking note, I recently had my father’s suits altered to fit me with the help of the seamstress at my local dry-cleaner for £150, a fraction of the cost of buying a new bespoke suit.

“We should remember that fashion is cyclical,” says fashion archivist Keesean Moore as we chat on a Zoom call from his adoptive city of Philadelphia. “After all, what you think is old will always come back.” The ultimate test for any piece should be how you feel in it and the craftsmanship behind it. Take a closer look at the detail of your designer and vintage pieces before giving them away. Vintage pieces have often been more carefully constructed than modern, mass-produced garments.

Bella Hadid wears a Tom Ford-era Gucci dress at Cannes in May © Getty Images

Still wondering what to do with that dress you wore to your engagement party 25 years ago and no longer wear? (Yes! Mine was a white bias-cut slip dress.) Colomba Giacomini, a stylist who helps clients edit their wardrobes, cuts to the chase. “You have the picture [of yourself in the outfit], and at this point, it’s just stuff and clutter.” So far, so Kondo. But knowing what to let go of isn’t an exact science; there are further considerations that extend beyond wearability. Some brands and rare pieces — such as the Tom Ford-era Gucci dress worn by Bella Hadid at Cannes this year — can accumulate value over time. Originally worn by model Carolyn Murphy for the fall 1996 Tom Ford for Gucci show, the dress has gained a cult following among fashion archivists and collectors. Nostalgia and storytelling also play a part.

In many cases, a curator’s rigorous criteria offer a blueprint. “[Think] about how the garment would look when displayed in a gallery or an exhibition,” says Sonnet Stanfill, senior curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum. “Does it have design merit? Can you fall in love with its story?

“It’s also about the provenance or story, who wore the clothes, where they wore them, and what societal significance that story reveals,” she continues. Another factor to consider is whether it captures a “unique inflection point in design history or the life of the designer”.

Stanfill points out that clothes can reflect our identity and alliances in perpetuity; they come under close scrutiny when an individual passes away or experiences a life change. Those who donate to the V&A want to memorialise their own or another’s life through style.

Lesley Cunliffe’s distressed punk jacket, donated by her family to the Victoria and Albert Museum © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Stanfill’s favourite piece in the museum collection is a distressed punk jacket donated by the family of American-born fashion journalist and author Lesley Cunliffe, who died in 1997. “This jacket is a perfect reflection of her personality. I never met her, but I feel from [reading her work] that I have a sense of who she was and what she was about,” says the curator. “I love the wit and the humour and irreverence of this literary figure, completely distressing this very tailored jacket. It looks quite dishevelled. But it’s a record of one woman’s wardrobe. And I find that powerful.”

When I inevitably revisit the idea of a wardrobe clear-out, I will do so through the eyes of someone who loves a good fashion story.

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