Minimalism for the New Year

Less Can Be More When You Want to Expand Your Style

Actress Meredith Monroe shows that it's accessories that make a LBD unique (at the premiere of "Real Steel" in 2011).

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Most women like the idea of a closet full of clothing options, but, in practice, it's not always a good thing. In truth, most of those closets are full of tired blouses, moth-eaten sweaters, jeans that last fit in the 1990s, and impulse buys with the tags still on them.

The other scenario is a closet with a handful of items that become new each day thanks to your own creative inspiration. In 2009, Sheena Matheiken went this route with a little black dress for a fundraiser she called the Uniform Project. For 365 days, Matheiken wore the same LBD and made it look unique every time. She raised money for the Akanksha Foundation, a nonprofit that provides education to underprivileged children in Indian slums.

Year two of the inspirational project was called the Pilot Series because it was a series of monthly micro-challenges. Other women were selected to wear their own specially designed LBDs for a month to raise money for a charity of their choice. In each case, they too had to use that single piece as a starting point for a whole new look each day.

The project proved how innovative you can be when you strip fashion down to basics. You too can create a varied, fashionable wardrobe that lasts all year long with just one or a few basic pieces. The new year could be a perfect time to adapt to a chic yet functional minimalist style philosophy and have some fun in the process.

I believe the less you have, the easier it is to get creative.

- Ruth Sonnenshein, stylist and co-founder of A Clothes Call

Fashioning the LBD

If you choose to use the LBD as your minimalist piece, you have to start with a dress that truly fits you.
Summer Rayne Oakes, model and co-founder of Source4Style, took part in the Pilot Series, the month-long version of the Uniform Project. She used a dress custom-designed for her by her designer friends (and mother-daughter duo) Terri and Cassandra Rosenthal. She said that was a critical part of the process because the dress had to fit like a glove.
“It’s so important to understand your body type and find a dress that fits really well and is versatile,” she said.
If you go with the LBD, Ruth Sonnenshein, stylist and co-founder of A Clothes Call, recommends a sleeveless, thin wool sheath dress. Some fabrics, like linen or jersey, are more seasonal and difficult to use as a layering piece. She says a sheath dress can be worn year-round to any occasion. You can add a turtleneck underneath, some tights and some ankle booties for the office. Or, you can wear it with a bold statement necklace and a strappy shoe for an evening out. Throw on a chunky knit sweater and a knee boot for a winter weekend, or wear it bare-legged with a wedge heel in the summer.
Oakes, whose own black dress echoed a "Mad Men" '60s style, said the key to her month in the LBD was accessorizing and layering. As a fan of offbeat accessories, she livened up the dress with an assortment of bow ties, broaches, vintage hats and loud patterned tights. She also diversified the layers, with collared shirts underneath the dress one day, and a gauzy sheer dress over the dress on another day.

“You often get into a routine when it comes to your wardrobe,” she said. “This project was an exercise in making me think outside the box with fashion.
“The project allowed me to look at every single piece that I already had in my closet in a new way. It became a question of: What can I pair with this dress to make it look different 30 days in a row? Sometimes you need that new lens when looking at your closet.”

The Key Pieces

If you choose to go with something besides the little black dress, or just a handful of pieces, Sonnenshein suggests you start with the things every woman's wardrobe should have. A chunky sweater, pair of jeans, tuxedo jacket and that perfect T-shirt could all be used in a minimalist clothing strategy.
She encourages women to use a tailor who can make each piece fit them perfectly. If you’re wearing only a few pieces year-round, tailoring them will be worth the expense.
“If everything fits you well, that’s going to give you the most mileage,” Sonnenshein said.
She also said you should think of the few items as you would those old-time paper doll clothes cut-outs. Mixing and matching the basics with tights, belts, scarves, hats, chunky bangles and statement necklaces will give you an infinite amount of choices.
Not only does the variety come from accessories, but it also comes from styling one garment differently each time. Sonnenshein says cuffing a favorite pair of jeans to the ankle can heighten a look. If you love an oxford button-down, button it all the way to the wrist and to the neck for a geek-chic look. Then, the next time you wear it, do a pony-boy roll that ends above your elbow. Tuck the T-shirt into your jeans, then add a belt and heels for a sleek and casual look. For a more laid-back boho look, try the shirt with a casual front tuck and a pair of boots.
You might be surprised how many ideas will spring out of this philosophy.
“People have the notion that more is better," Sonnenshein said. "I believe the less you have, the easier it is to get creative. If it all fits, and they’re classic pieces, you’ll have the confidence to experiment with what’s available.”
Oakes noted that her participation in the Pilot Series empowered her with a sense of fearlessness with fashion.
“When I had to be creative with what I already had in my wardrobe, it allowed me to run out fearlessly every day in that dress," she said. "People took notice and I got a lot of comments that way.”

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