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The M Dash

Live with purpose.


How to Clean Out Your Closet When You’re Ready to Level Up

Plus, how our partnership with thredUP can help you do it responsibly.

By Elizabeth Kiefer, Illustrations by Yan Ruan

New year, new you: The phrase may be a cliché, but it also perfectly sums up the spirit of January. Along with New Year’s Day arrives an annual opportunity to flick to a fresh page and double down on goals. And if yours, like mine, extend to the professional realm, then they probably have some overlap with your wardrobe, too. (“Dress for success” is another clichéd truism, after all.) But whether you’re angling for a promotion, starting a new job, or just hoping to impress your colleagues with your revamped office style, the starting place is the same: a long, hard look into your closet.   

“The majority of people only wear about 10 percent of what they own,” says Jeanie Engelbach, an NYC-based professional organizer who specializes in taming all things chaos and clutter. She explains that, for some, donning a mere fraction of our clothes might have to do with feeling overwhelmed by visual messiness, while others might be in the midst of a fashion identity crisis. Either way: “If you’re standing in front of a closet that is crammed full of clothing and feeling as though you have nothing to wear, what it really means is that you have nothing you like or want to wear.” 

Not that Engelbach is advocating for everyone to replace everything they own—rather, she is encouraging people to use the new year as a reason to commit to a reevaluation and edit as necessary. “This is a really good time of year to address your closet,” she adds, pointing to resolution-related momentum that can carry us through the weeks after the holidays. As for how to actually accomplish that while channeling your career aspirations, read on for a step-by-step guide according to Engelbach and NYC-based personal stylist, Sheyna Imm.

STEP 1

Commit to a Plan

If you’ve been on this rock orbiting the sun for the last several years, chances are you’re already familiar with Marie Kondo and her motto of letting go of things that don’t “spark joy.” Joy being the nebulous concept it is, it’s not always clear exactly what qualifies. That’s why Engelbach kicks off wardrobe sessions with a total cleanout, which means going through literally everything you own. Fair warning: This process is going to take at least a day—yes, a whole day—so schedule ahead and set aside the time. 

She also advises those intending to embark on this journey to tell someone they’re going to do it, which makes it harder to back out. That said, if a friend offers to help, consider still pursuing this mission solo: “With respect to clutter: It’s never about the clutter. Until you figure out how to solve that problem, you’re constantly going to be creating and accumulating more clutter,” says Engelback. For that reason, this is usually a journey best undertaken solo or with the help of a pro. 

Another consideration: Do not plan to parse your wardrobe on a day you’re not feeling good about yourself. But in the challenge ahead, you’ll also find some silver linings. “Most people like what they own. They just either can’t find it in their closet or they’re in a rut of wearing the same thing over and over again,” says Engelbach. “But when you bring things out and really look at them, it creates a new foundation for what you have, and a new perspective.”

STEP 2

Plot Your Piles

Now it’s time to take everything out of the closet and lay it on the bed. (This first round includes everything in the bedroom that’s not socks and underwear.) “The things that are pushed to the back are probably there for a reason,” says Imm, the stylist. As you’re pulling things out, sort them into three piles: one for keeping; one for “on the fence” items; and one for stuff that’s gotta go; that last pile will get subdivided later—stayed tuned.

Primary criteria for the stuff that stays: Does it fit well? Does it feel good? Try things on and inspect for issues like snags, stains, or tailoring needs—damaged items that can’t be mended must head for the “purge” pile. (Intimates, like socks, underwear, and pajamas, should follow the same rules. But these items should get trashed or recycled, not donated.) As for pieces that are in perfectly good shape—maybe even still have tags—but either don’t fit or don’t suit you: “The money has already been spent. You have to make peace with that. Just let it go,” says Engelbach. This is a great pile to send to a re-seller like thredUP.

Why thredUP? Well, to start, it’s super easy. Just print a label, fill up a box with clothes you’re not going to wear anymore, and send it in. thredUP accepts an average of 40% of items sent in, and you can earn up to 80% of the listing price if your item sells (you can also have items not accepted sent back to you). Plus, if you’re a fan of M.M. (and if you’re reading this, we’re assuming you are), when you have items accepted by thredUP, you’ll earn an extra 20% when you redeem your earnings for M.M. shopping credit—making this a great way to level up your wardrobe AND help the planet by upcycling. Click here for more details.

The final “keep pile” should contain only items that make you feel good, literally and emotionally, and reflect the version of yourself you want to see walking around the world. Imm has a few other questions she asks clients trying to pare down: “One of my biggest memos is quality over quantity, and longevity,” she says. This should also guide how you invest in clothes: timeless pieces—like classic suiting or a gorgeous cashmere sweater—are more likely to be with you for the long haul. “Try to be practical about it,” she counsels. “Yes, it’s scary. But having space on your rack makes you appreciate the things you do love, and once you’re done, it’s so exciting!”

STEP 3

Be Strategic About How You Put Everything Away

So you’ve got a bunch of clothes on the bed that you ideally love and cherish—now it’s time to create an organizational masterpiece. “Staring at a closet that is full of mayhem and confusion is going to affect how you see yourself in the world,” says Engelbach. “The truth is: The way you treat your home is how you treat the rest of your life, and having a disorganized closet sends you into chaos from the moment you wake up in the morning.” In other words: An organized closet sets the tone for the energy you’re going to bring to the office. 

One way to create closet zen is through uniformity. Engelbach recommends using slim velvet hangers, all in the same color, which are both visually appealing and space-saving. How you hang things up also matters: With her clients, she typically puts the closet back together in categories, separating tops, dresses, jackets, pants, and skirts. From there, she organizes by length (shirts go from camisoles to long-sleeve; bottoms go from short to long). Within those groupings, she color codes from lightest to darkest. If you have your own preferred system to impose, have at it! Imm cautions her own clients to be mindful about fabrics: Don’t put easily snagged items next to roughly textured ones, for example.

Another pro-tip: “Invest in things that make it easy for you,” adds Engelbach. “I’m great at folding, and I love folding boards; using one keeps everything consistent.” It might also make putting laundry away a little more fun in the future. (That said, don’t buy tons of organization system stuff before you’ve done the sort. As Engelbach put it: “Containers don’t solve your problems. The stuff that goes into the containers is your problem.)”

STEP 4

Move on Tailoring and Getting Rid of the “Purge” Pile.

Engelback tells her clients they have one week to get everything out the door. Don’t give yourself excuses: Choose a dry-cleaner that’s en route to the office or even one that will pick up and drop off at your door. Items that need to be mended must go to the tailor tout suite. Send in your thredUP bags or boxes. Donate clothing that can be donated, bearing in mind that these items should be in respectable, clean, wearable shape; as for everything else, research textile donation centers in your area.

STEP 5

Fill in Your Wardrobe Holes.

While yes, the goal of this process is technically a cleanout, the aftermath might show you what you’re missing. “When you have a lot of items in front of you, it complicates things,” says Imm. Conversely, when you have fewer things, it can create clarity. In the process of trying on everything, you might discover that the perfect black pants would complement other pieces, or a chic heel is exactly what you need to take workday attire into the evening. Create a list of must-haves and shop for them slowly, when you find something perfect, rather than all at once. Make sure not to buy duplicates of things hanging in the closet or stuff that wound up in the “purge” pile—there’s a reason you let them go!

If you’re struggling to zero in on your style, Imm suggests this trick: channeling someone whose fashion sense you admire. “Everyone has a person they want to imitate in some way. The question is: If you could dress like anybody, who would you want to look like?” she says. Tailor that attire to the parameters of your own daily life and go from there. As always, aim for classic pieces that can do a lot of work within your wardrobe and don’t worry about being trendy. (“If you’re owning it, it’s always on-trend.”) Also, consider a capsule wardrobe—it will limit the amount of unnecessary extras you own, while promising you’ll always look polished and put-together.

Prioritize pieces that make you feel confident. In Imm’s case, that means a menswear-inspired boxy blazer, a classic pair of Levi’s, and shoes that make you feel sharp. Another piece of advice for getting dressed, especially if you’re test driving something that feels bold: “People hinder themselves when they spend too much time in front of the mirror over-thinking,” says Imm. “If you want to wear that fun thing, put it on and get out the door.”

Elizabeth Kiefer

Written By

Elizabeth Kiefer

Elizabeth Kiefer is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn

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