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How I Built a Minimally-Minded Wardrobe

Turns out, you don't need a closet that's bursting at the seams in order to look good.

A couple of years ago, I realized I had too much stuff in my closet. I sifted through the row of ill-fitting oxfords, low-quality chinos in every color you could think of, jeans in different cuts and washes, shoes I wasn’t very attached to, and piles and piles of orange, blue, and black sneaker boxes, and realized that not a lot of the clothes I owned actually made me happy.

I’d purchased stuff for the sake of versatility, so I could have something perfect to wear in pretty much any situation – but most of the “situations” I’d bought stuff for weren’t actually ones I’d likely find myself in. Example: I owned a linen suit. Linen suits are great, and if you need to dress up often when it’s hot outside, it’s hard to find a better material to suit up in. But I live in New York, where summers are mostly too humid and oppressive for sleeves, and each summer job I’d had at that point rarely had me in anything but chinos, sneakers, and a t-shirt.

The recognition that I didn’t have much reason or desire to wear over half of the clothes I owned spurred me into purging my closet of the impractical stuff I rarely wore. When I was done donating, giving away, and selling all I could, I really didn’t have much at all left in my wardrobe.

Over the next couple of years, I focused on rebuilding my sartorial arsenal from a minimalist’s perspective. That didn't mean that I denounced material possessions and resolved to wear only one outfit for the rest of forever – I just wanted to put thought into every wardrobe purchase I made, keeping practicality, ubiquity, and quality at the heart of every decision.


Shoes

Most guys either have too many or not enough pairs of shoes. My lucky number here happens to be five, but quantity doesn’t matter nearly as much as having all the necessary bases covered as best as possible.

I like to keep two pairs of sneakers in my closet at a time because I wear sneakers most days of the week. For me, this means one pair of casual, understated ones in a neutral color like white or navy that can go well with most low-key outfits, and one pair of ultra-comfortable athletic shoes I can wear either to the gym with workout gear, or with tailored sweats and a hoodie for off-duty days and weekends.

As far as boots go, I stick to one nice pair – lace-ups, chukkas, Chelseas, or anything else that can be dressed-up enough to go with a work outfit – and one rugged, all-conditions pair that can work for days spent on the trail, in the garage, or just commuting during a downpour. And since my nicer pair of boots functions as a casual dress shoe, I’ve found that I only really need a pair of traditional dress shoes for formal occasions.


Pants

My pants philosophy is even simpler because, formal trousers aside, you only really need to consider three types: Jeans, chinos, and sweatpants.

  • Jeans – You don’t need more than three pairs of jeans, even if you wear a pair every day. The most important to own is a pair cut in a standard dark indigo, preferably raw selvedge denim – they'll last a hell of a long time, go with everything, and become more comfortable and uniquely faded with each wear. Every guy should have a good pair. My other essential pair of jeans is a simple black pair: they can go with just as many outfits as their indigo blue relatives but can be dressed up (or down) differently, especially if you like the sleek all-black look. If you wear jeans as much as I do (almost every day of the week), a third pair with a light wash works well for casual, warm-weather outfits with a classic American cool-guy style.

  • Chinos – When it comes to chinos, I like having a nicely fitted pair cut from high-quality cotton twill. My personal favorite is a deep olive green, but dark brown and gray work just as well too.

  • Sweats – Your best bet is to aim for something made from high-quality cotton (cotton-fleece blends and french terry are sure winners) that you can wear to the gym, around the house, or to run errands. Their ability to be worn well outside the house is contingent on their fit, meaning that if they’re cut in a modern slim, tailored fit, and have some sort of elastic by the ankle cuff to keep them from devouring your shoes, you can get away with wearing them from the couch to the weight rack to the coffee shop.


Tops

This is a broad category, so it’s super easy to buy more than you can wear. To keep things simple, I’ve broken this part of my wardrobe into categories: tees, button-ups, sweaters, and sweatshirts. Let’s start with what’s most simple.

  • T-shirts – Everybody has too many of these, and that’s completely normal, so it can be tough to pick out a clear set of essentials. For me, a properly minimal tee collection looks like a few high-quality basic tees to serve as base layers in neutral colors like black, gray, and white, complemented by some a couple of nicer, more outspoken iterations that can stand alone over jeans or chinos, and then a few long-sleeved tees in colors that complement the rest of your wardrobe. My favorites in the long-sleeved department are sturdy, but soft henleys, natural cotton shirts with classic horizontal stripes, and anything in a solid color with raglan sleeves.

  • Shirts – I’ve got quite a few button-ups hanging in my closet because I wear ‘em most days during the week, but I try to stick to only the essentials. I've got two well-fitting, sturdy white oxfords that I wear quite often, one light blue one, and one a dark olive that I wear almost as much. That’s always been the foundation of my shirting, but it’s also nice to have a checkered option or one with an interesting pattern if that's your style. I’ve also got two flannels I’m absolutely in love with, and that’s about all I’d ever need for any non-formal occasion.

  • Sweaters – As for these, I try to limit myself to just about four, because they’re usually thick and can take up a ton of space. My current lineup is a thick wool fisherman’s sweater, a waffle-knit gray cotton sweater, a black cashmere crewneck, and a classy-as-hell gray shawl-neck cardigan.

  • Sweatshirts – When I first purged my closet, I sold a ton of sweatshirts since I owned way too many shoddily made ones with big logos and graphics that, in retrospect, probably made it hard to take me seriously. I still wear sweatshirts and hoodies a lot, because comfort is super important to me most days, but I’ve traded my old collection of about fifteen junky ones for one sturdy raglan-sleeve gray crewneck, a nice black French terry hoodie, and one ultra-soft navy terry crewneck. Sure, spending a hundred bucks on a sweatshirt or hoodie might sting, but if you only have a few that you spend a most of your off-the-clock hours in, it becomes a way more practical decision.


Granted, all of the above still adds up – which is why "minimal" is kind of a stretch for my collection of clothes. But restocking my closet with a laserlike focus after all the effort I spent on getting rid of all the stuff I owned but didn’t love has allowed me to stick to a reasonably low budget while stocking on exactly as many premium-quality staples I need. And now, I genuinely look forward to wearing every piece of clothing I have. When you focus on having less and place thoughtful consideration into every purchase you make, you’ll find that it’s simple to look better, stay more organized, and appreciate your clothing more than ever before.

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