Building a Capsule Wardrobe 101

capsule

Capsule wardrobes are one of the core elements of a minimalist approach to personal style. In the best case scenario, a capsule wardrobe should consist of a small selection of key pieces, express the essence of your style, be optimally adjusted to your lifestyle and allow you to quickly pull together an outfit for every occasion. Think of it as the ‘main ingredients’ in your wardrobe – you might want to try out a few new spices here and there, but as long as your main ingredients are in the mix, you know that the end result will turn out well. There are a couple of different definitions of the term and in particular the size of the ideal capsule wardrobe; in this post I will show you how to create a capsule wardrobe of 20-30 core pieces consisting of both key items and basics (including shoes and jackets, but excluding underwear and other accessories). My seasonal capsule wardrobe is really the only part of my entire wardrobe that I like to plan in such detail; I don’t mind a couple of spontaneous buys, as long as I have my ‘main ingredients’ sorted. To facilitate the process I have developed a little method that I use about twice a year to develop a new capsule wardrobe for the upcoming season and redefine my style. When I say ‘new’ I actually mean ‘adjusted’ because my capsule wardrobe only varies slightly between seasons style-wise, although I of course have to modify it to cater to the different temperatures. I do tend to switch up my colour scheme and main proportions, but I definitely don’t buy an entirely new wardrobe every six months; I usually save up for about 5 new pieces each season and might replace two more.

Creating a capsule wardrobe requires you to consider form AND function. However, instead of trying to integrate both elements at the same time, I like to alternate between using an aesthetic and functional viewpoint because it makes the whole process a lot simpler. The method below is divided into four separate steps: The first and third step are creative tasks allowing you to concentrate solely on your visual concept of style, which you will then integrate with practical considerations in the second and fourth step. To illustrate the whole idea a bit better, below each step I will show you how I have used the process to plan my own spring wardrobe for the S/S ’13 season (somewhat prematurely :)).

PART I: Create a concept

First comes the fun part: create an overaching concept for your capsule wardrobe or, in other words: define your style for the coming season. The best way to sum up abstract, creative ideas and get a feeling for the overall concept is to collect everything that inspires you in one place (e.g. pinterest, your bedroom wall). Look for inspiration everywhere: Browse lookbooks, click through runway pics on style.com, scour personal style and street style blogs and save any outfit that speaks to you in some way. Once you have collected a big pile of pictures, look for themes. Write a long list of all the elements you want in your capsule wardrobe: specific items, colours, textures, trends, fabrics, combinations. Use all the adjectives and metaphors you want (ethereal, soft edgy-industrial, posh but punky), it’s totally fine if the list doesn’t make sense to anyone but you. Include your old favourites and figure out a way to incorporate new themes into your overall style concept.

The next step is crucial for translating visual concepts into a functioning selection of items: pick one uniform or signature look. A uniform is a specific combination of items that expresses your style perfectly and that you can see yourself wearing a lot in slightly different versions (click here to read more about uniforms and see examples). Even if you haven’t yet consciously adopted the concept of a uniform, you might already have one: Do you tend to reach for the same combination of button-down shirts and boyfriend jeans whenever you want to feel extra comfortable? Do you find yourself pinning every pic of someone wearing a maxi dress with a cropped jacket? Your capsule wardrobe will be developed using your uniform as a starting point and include several items for each of its item categories, so take your time to figure out the perfect signature look for your style and lifestyle. Also write down a few additional proportions (=combinations of items) to broaden your selection.

I use pinterest throughout the year to collect everything that inspires me, so when it’s time to plan a new capsule wardrobe I only have to edit my selection and identify themes. I like to organise all style-related pics by seasons; this is my spring board, which I used to plan my spring ’13 capsule wardrobe for this post. I want a simple, layer-less capsule wardrobe based on slim-fitting jeans/trousers, shorter jackets, flat, ankle boots and my beloved longsleeves. My colour scheme will be relatively monochromatic, with lots of white, black as the base colour and a few pastel shades.

part1

PART II: Basic structure

In order to translate your vision into a fully functioning wardrobe it is best to first develop a basic structure of categories and quantity estimates.
To get started, write down every item category you need for each of the proportions you chose in part I (including your uniform). For example, if your uniform is a shortleeve dress with a cropped jacket and sneakers and as your extra proportions you chose sneakers + skinny jeans + raglan tee and wedges + skinny jeans + cropped jacket + loose-fitting shirt your categories are

shortsleeve dresses (uniform)
sneakers (uniform)
cropped jackets (uniform)
skinny jeans
raglan tees
wedges
loose-fitting shirts

Now, estimate how many items you need per category. Aim for a total of 20-30 items and bear in mind that these are just estimates that are supposed to give you a rough idea of your ideal capsule wardrobe; you can always adjust them later.

  • Start with your uniform: your capsule wardrobe should include several different versions of each item in your uniform, so try to allocate about 50% of your available 20-30 items to uniform categories.
  • The distribution should correspond to the relative importance of each category in your capsule wardrobe: If you definitely want skirts in your capsule wardrobe but can only see yourself wearing one once every three weeks, a single skirt might be enough. On the other hand, if skinny jeans are a part of several of your chosen proportions you definitely need more than one pair.
  • Consider the laundry requirements of every item category and allocate more items to categories that need to be washed frequently: The same pair of shoes can be worn multiple times per week or so, but one or two t-shirts won’t get you very far.
  • At the same time, make sure to allocate at least 3 items to categories that you have to wear daily (e.g. shoes and jackets); giving each item a break in-between wears will greatly enhance its shelf-life which means you will need to replace fewer items each season.

For the upcoming spring season my uniform will consist of slim-fitting jeans/trousers, a longsleeve, a short jacket and flat (ideally pointy) ankle boots.
 As my extra proportions I chose a mini skirt + a longsleeve, jeans/trousers + thin, loose-fitting knits and either of these proportions + non-boot flats (e.g. loafers, sneakers, brogues, etc.). I know that I will want to wear trousers on most days and a skirt maybe once a week, so I allocated 6 items to the trouser category and 2 items to skirts. I LOVE longsleeves, so two thirds of my tops will be longsleeves, the other third will be reserved for loose-fitting knits.

part2

PART III: Draft

Once you have a basic framework for your capsule wardrobe, its time to fill in the blanks with the visual concept you created in part I.

First, go through your closet and pick out every garment that fits both your visual concept and structure of categories. If your personal style is relatively well-defined and you have edited your closet in the past, you will probably be able to fill about 80% of your structure with items you already own. Then put your creative hat back on and draft a brief description of what you want each missing item to look like (think colour, texture, pattern, details, etc.), using the inspiration you gathered in part I as a guide. Remember that this is just a draft, you can always adjust it should you find an amazing piece that you hadn’t planned for.

One tip regarding the distribution of colours and styles within your capsule wardrobe:

  • Examine categories in sets (e.g. tops, bottoms, shoes) and try to find a good balance of neutrals/bright colours and basics/statement pieces within that set. For small sets (e.g. shoes) make sure you have planned in a high proportion of neutral items: If your capsule wardrobe includes four pairs of shoes, do not choose bright colours for three of them, because your neutral pair would get a disproportionate amount of wearing time (with all of your bright tops for example) and thus get worn out quickly.

Since my personal style has remained relatively stable this year I could fill in most of the basic structure with items I already own. I only have one pair of non-boot flats, but I have wanted to buy some loafers and black supergas for a while, so those will go on my shopping list come springtime. I also added a couple of white pieces and pops of colour.

part3

PART IV: Working wardrobe

In order to keep track of my wardrobe and any actions I still need to take, I use a ‘working wardrobe list’ on which I note down all capsule wardrobe items, including those that need to be repaired, replaced or bought. This will be my spring working wardrobe:

part4

I will start implementing my list in March and will keep an eye out for items I plan on buying until then. Once you are ready go on a hunt for missing capsule wardrobe pieces, make sure you take your time to compare items and find the best quality and fit that you can afford. Since you know exactly how many items you will be buying this season, you will have a much easier time calculating your budget and will hopefully end up with a couple of new items that fit your style exactly and will stay in your capsule wardrobe for several seasons.

Once you have all of your 20-30 items together, start working with them! Reorganise your closet in a way that fits the structure of your capsule wardrobe (e.g. sort by colour, category or occasion). It is also a good idea to store frequently used items in places that are easy to reach (shelves at eye-level or top drawers), so give your uniform the top spot, the rest of your capsule wardrobe second-class seats and organise other non-capsule pieces around them. Set aside some time to figure out a few fail-proof combos, your day-to-day looks and a couple of special occasion outfits. Note down all of your ideas, or even snap a quick pic for reference!

*image via flodeau.com

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This post is Step 5 of the 10 Step Wardrobe Revamp

17 comments

  1. what a great step-by-step approach! i have been participating in a capsule wardrobe philosophy (Project 333) for three phases now. each phase lasts 3 months and allow for 33 items. when my current third phase ends, i am considering embarking on a year-long capsule wardrobe of 52 items. while in the past, i have relied on mainly instinct to see me through each three month stint, for the year-long project, i just might employ some of your more systematic approaches. thanks for the info!

    my latest capsule wardrobe is outlined here: http://thislifeuncommon.blogspot.com/p/project-333-phase-3.html

  2. Wow. This has revolutionised my life. I never know what to wear and always grab the same items but never feels purposeful. Love this. It will give me a good focus and enable me to have a productive clear out.

  3. Brilliant! I’m maniacal about lists and organization, seems like just the plan for me!

    xx
    Maria Nichole
    thefashionserf.wordpress.com
    ttylusa.wordpress.com

    • There aren’t too many out there that are really focused on building a small, high-quality wardrobe (at least I haven’t found any good ones). Perhaps you could try ‘I love your style’ by Amanda Brooks, it’s mainly about defining your personal style but also gives some good advice on how to improve your approach to shopping.