Many of us believe the key to a killer wardrobe is more: more clothes, more colors, more options. But Hanna Lee, a Chicago wardrobe stylist who juggles commercial work with private clients and has a special genius for making the vague notion of style accessible to the lay-person, says the real secret to stylish dressing is restraint. To that end, Lee recently devised an Instagram challenge that blew our minds and had us reconsidering our overblown closets: 40 outfits with only nine pieces.
Inspired by her less-is-more philosophy, we asked Lee to walk us through her process for building a well-edited clothing collection. Below are her steps for curating a scaled back wardrobe that’s big on style.
1. Know Your Numbers
We often have a skewed sense of our actual proportions. “It’s amazing how many women think they have broad shoulders,” says Lee. One of the first things Lee does when she meets with clients is to take their measurements. Numbers don’t lie. Measure around your shoulders, bust, waist and hips, and you’ll get a clear picture of your body type. “When you learn what’s best for your figure you really learn to edit,” says Lee.
2. Choose Colors Wisely
You know that mustard scarf that looks so chic paired with hypothetical outfits, but makes you look sort of sickly when paired with your face? It’s time you let that one go. “Wear your best colors,” says Lee. Photos can help. “It’s easier to see yourself objectively in pictures,” she says. Lee recommends looking through old photos and noticing when you really stand out. And if in doubt, “royal blue is one of my favorite universally flattering colors,” says Lee.
3. Neutralize Your Basics
When it comes to everyday staples (think: non-denim pants, cashmere sweater—i.e., not statement pieces), keep it neutral. Lee advises sticking with a single neutral color for your basic pieces. “It makes for a more refined wardrobe,” she says, and “when you have core staples in black for example, you’ll have an immediate collection to play with.”
4. Cultivate Your Personal Style
“Decide how you want to look and feel in your wardrobe,” says Lee. She creates a Style File for her clients that helps them do just that. To create your own, Lee advises imagining how you would want someone else to describe your style: put-together or classic, for instance. To stay on track, “remember this as your fashion mantra,” she says. And if you’re not sure what your mantra should be, start by loading up a Pinterest board with images of outfits you’d love to wear.
5. Trim the Fat (with a Pro or a Friend)
A well-edited wardrobe requires vigilance and emotional fortitude, so enlist a friend or professional stylist to help you get through it. “The truth is,” says Lee, “it helps to have an outside eye and someone else to encourage you to let go.” Ditch anything you haven’t worn in the past year, or that doesn’t reflect your fashion mantra. If you’ve never worn an item, your “outside eye” may be able to help you see it in a new light, but if not, kick it to curb. You’ll feel liberated without all those price tags mocking you.
6. Put Your Clothes Where You Can See Them
After you’ve purged, organize your closet so you can see what you have (and what you need) at a glance. Lee suggests sorting clothes by style first: long sleeves together, then short sleeves, dresses, skirts, pants and finally layering pieces (like jackets and cardigans). Within each category, sort items by color to make getting dressed a snap! Another tip? “Matching hangers are a major plus,” says Lee.
7. Embrace the Swazer
Put down those jeans (you already have 10 pairs)! Instead, focus on pieces that will allow you to create more outfits with your current wardrobe. Layering pieces, like vests or jackets, are the most efficient way to enhance your style and increase your options. Lee swears by the swazer, a jacket-y cross between a sweater and blazer that’s less casual than a cardigan, but less business than a blazer. “This is a game changer in outfits,” she says.
8. Abide by the Rule of Three
The key to a slim and sufficient wardrobe is versatility. According to Lee, everything in your closet “should work three different ways within your wardrobe.” If you can’t make at least three outfits with the same piece, you shouldn’t own it. Consider this the golden rule of building a wardrobe.
9. Don’t Rest the Best!
Why save your best pieces for special occasions? “Live!” says Lee. “Pare your wardrobe down to all the bests you have. You’ll be amazed how creative you can become when necessary.”
Lee’s 13 Pared-Down Essentials for a Killer Closet:
1. Neutral sleeveless top in a fabric that “can be dressed up or down,” suggests Lee.
2. Brightly colored blouse
3. Layering piece (a draped vest, sweater, jacket or swazer)
4. Fabulous coat
5. Dark skirt
6. Dark denim
7. A great pair of black pants
8. Stand out dress (“Something you feel insanely confident in—it’ll turn heads!” says Lee.)
9. Day-to-night dress
10. Chambray shirt
11. Nude pumps
12. Accessories like belts and jewelry, which Lee says, “can instantly make an outfit.”
13. “A bright lipstick is an essential!” adds Lee.