From “Fast-Fashion” Addict to Minimalism and Sparking Joy

The following is a guest post from Chau Le of Milo Theory, who previously shared her story of recovery back in January 2015.  She has gained some new insights and tips since then that she is graciously sharing with us today. 

Chau Le of Milo Theory

Chau Le of “Milo Theory”

Chau is a globetrotter (14+ countries) and an avid Krav Maga addict. She lived abroad in Taiwan and Spain during her college years, picking up languages and a love for exotic, foreign foods. She relocated to sunny California after graduating from Portland State University and worked in the Communications and PR field. She has recently returned to school (again) to pursue nursing — perhaps the second hardest decision in her life (besides leaving Belgium after just 10 days years ago)! 


Introduction

Up until college, I lived in hand-me-downs and thrift store finds. While I was frumpily dressed in clothing that was two sizes too big for me, I wasn’t concerned and neither were my friends and significant other. You’d think that upon entering college, I’d care even less about what I wore, but it turned out to be quite the opposite. It was in college that my ego emerged, manifesting as a need to be noticed and impressive, as if the typical high school experience that I missed out on was finally catching up to me.

It was in college that I discovered “fast fashion”; Forever 21, H&M and Zara were a Godsend. While I was never a big spender, rarely surpassing $500 a year in clothing purchases, that didn’t mean I couldn’t fit several $5 tee shirts into my closet just for kicks.  My shopping habit really got out of hand during my year abroad in Taiwan where clothing was dirt-cheap.  In fact, I burned through a third of my living budget on clothes alone! Unfortunately, however, the pieces I bought there promptly fell apart within three months and never made it back to the United States with me.

Years later, after my first post-college job, a wardrobe full of cheaply-made “professional” clothing, and countless hours wasted at the mall, I still found myself trapped in the “I don’t have anything to wear” cycle. I lived in yoga pants and tee shirts and hid from people I knew at the grocery store, lest they see me in my stretched out elastic-waist pants and oversized tops.

Discovering Minimalism and Capsule Wardrobes

I later discovered minimalism and capsule wardrobes and went through several editing and experimental stages after that. I first tried out the “classic wardrobe” (e.g. white collared shirts and trench coats), but I found such attire to be too formal living on the West Coast.  My second stage involved buying cheap, brightly-colored basics that were more suited to casual California, but I was still a fast-fashion consumer, which irked me. I was also tired of cycling through cheap jeans every three months because I was too frugal to purchase brand-name items.

While minimalism and capsule wardrobes taught me how to edit my closet and stick to basics, the problem was that once I curated the “perfect wardrobe,” my clothes still fell apart after mere months of wearing them. I had forgotten a key component of what defines a reliable wardrobe, quality. But how does one buy quality without paying designer prices? I returned to my thrifting roots and turned my wardrobe into a mix of high-quality used pieces mixed in with some basic trends.   Along the way, I learned a few important lessons which I hope will help you as well.

Chau Le's Tops

These are my tops today, all neatly hung up in my closet. 

Only Keep Things That “Spark Joy”

After graduating from high school, my friends and I went backpacking through Europe for three weeks. Armed with a 50-liter backpack (I’m 5’2”, so clearly there was a sizing problem), I “smartly” packed everything I owned with the exception of my grandfather’s collection of dusty brass animal figurines. I may as well have packed those antiques, though, as my hardcover copy of “Twilight” weighed about the same as one of my grandfather’s brass elephants. As expected, my back was warped by the end of the trip and I was begging to be carried home, but my boyfriend at the time refused.  Note to self: Don’t rely on your significant other to literally carry your mistakes.

I could have saved my back a lot of pain had I known the meaning behind “sparking joy.”  This phrase was coined by Marie Kondo (author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”) and is a feeling you should ideally have about all of your possessions, including your clothes. Just because things are good “on paper” doesn’t mean that they will spark joy for you.  As an example, you may have a blue blazer that fulfills every category of being the perfect wardrobe item – all natural material, neutral color, and nice fit – but you may never wear it because it doesn’t speak to you.  You hold on to it, but like a relationship that seems perfect but lacks chemistry, it doesn’t spark joy.

Do yourself a favor and don’t hold on to anything that doesn’t serve you.  While traveling, I wore just two of the eight outfits that I packed for my 3-week trip!  If I had packed using my heart (knowing what I actually would wear) instead of my head (imagining what I might wear), I could have gotten away with taking just a carry-on bag – and been a lot happier on that trip.

Chau's favorite clothes

These are all of the items I love and wear on a regular basis.

Don’t Be a “Pack Rat”

Don’t “stock up” and don’t hold on to things just because of sentimental value. I’ve had the habit of holding on to clothes, even ones that had bad memories attached to them, simply because I couldn’t bear the idea of letting go.  I didn’t realize that these items were like baggage that was weighing me down both emotionally and physically. I was holding on to monetary costs and “what-if” scenarios, such as:

  • “This jacket cost me $100, so I should keep it.”
  • “What if I need to go to a black tie event? Perhaps I should keep this ill-fitting black dress for such an occasion.”

I wasn’t, as Marie Kondo preaches, holding on to only things that “spark joy.”

Bottoms and lounge wear are hung up

All of my bottoms and lounge wear are folded and hung up like this.

Frankly, if it doesn’t fit in your closet – both metaphorically and physically, it doesn’t belong in your life. And in some cases, that might refer to your entire closet.

Take a Shopping Hiatus

I dislike shopping – or rather, now I do.  As my life became busier, I couldn’t find the time to go shopping and I had less and less time to think about clothes. But this wasn’t always been case; I used to spend all of my free time between classes at the mall.  While my frugality stopped me from burning a hole through my wallet, I obsessed so much over having the “perfect outfit” that some days I wasn’t able to focus on my studies. I noticed that during the most stressful stages in life, I went to the mall every weekend. Once I realized that I was spending more time at the mall than with my boyfriend, family, and friends, I knew something was wrong and that I needed to stop.

Weaning myself away from weekends at the mall and curbing online my shopping was a slow process, but one day I realized that I hadn’t thought of going to the mall or buying anything for weeks.  By taking a hiatus from shopping, I was forced to streamline my wardrobe and find the “jewels” that had previously been gathering dust in my closet.

If You Must Buy, Try Used First

Clothes fall apart. You get bored of the same old tee shirt. These things happen, and sometimes you do have to go to the store to replace basics or buy something fresh.  In such instances, I try to buy used items, as there are important economic and ecological benefits to doing so:

  • Finding Quality Pieces:   If a tee shirt still has a rigid neckline and hasn’t started fuzzing after several washes, it’s a quality tee shirt. Think of buying used as the item already having gone through a “test run.” Good jeans keep their stretch and buying them used means that you don’t have to worry about the dye bleeding into your laundry.
  • It’s More Economical:  I recently purchased 8 items for less than $50 – all brand-name items! Buying used is more economical for your wallet. Also keep in mind that the money stays in the community.  It goes to a charity or to support a local business, which is one way to vote against fast-fashion.
  • It’s Better for the Environment:  The amount of waste produced in order to make our clothing is astounding!  While buying organic cotton and ethically-made clothing are great ways to vote for better clothing standards, many of us simply cannot afford these items. However, by shopping second-hand, you’re not only saving the item from filling up a landfill, you’re also giving it a second life.

Are there drawbacks to thrifting? Of course there are.  For one, it’s time-consuming, but so is driving to the mall. Whether you’re buying used or new, you will have to hunt for what you want. I solve the time issue by scheduling certain days of the year when I will hit the thrift stores with a list in hand.  When you visit a secondhand store, don’t buy anything you don’t need, but keep an open mind as well. As a recent example, instead of the black skinny jeans I was set on, I found a pair of dark blue skinny jeans that fit perfectly and matched with everything in my closet. Consequently, my “need” for black skinny jeans disappeared.

Thrifting can be tiresome and I’ve definitely fallen into the trap of buying something just because it was cheap. However, with a clear mission in mind and a heavy editing hand, the economic and ecological savings can be highly gratifying.

Conclusion

Learning how to edit my closet through using minimalism and capsule wardrobes, as well as implementing a no-waste, ethical mindset, has improved the overall quality of my wardrobe.  I no longer count my possessions, but I know that almost everything I own – for all seasons – can fit into a standard-sized suitcase that I can pack in five minutes if necessary.

I regularly review my closet and for each item, it’s either a “yes” or a “no.” The most important part is to make sure that my items are interchangeable and that I have a proper “canvas,” which for me is stretchy blue jeans. I love blue and white and try to adhere to that color scheme, as it facilitates putting outfits together quickly. I have one formal outfit (dress pants and a white collared shirt) for interviews, but since I’m back in school, I don’t need to dress in those types of clothes very often.  By creating a workable wardrobe that suits my real lifestyle, founded on the basics and beliefs that I am trying to live by, getting dressed has never been easier.

A big thank you to Chau for sharing her story!  You can learn more about Chau and read more of her essays and tips via her blog, Milo Theory. If you have any thoughts or questions regarding this story or wish to share similar experiences, please feel free to comment. If you would like to be profiled in an upcoming installment of the “Stories of Recovery” series (you can be anonymous if desired), please connect with me to share your thoughts.

24 thoughts on “From “Fast-Fashion” Addict to Minimalism and Sparking Joy

  1. One of the best posts on your site, Debbie. Words of wisdom drawn from good sense and experience. My thrift store finds tend to last much longer than new items from the store.

    • Nutrivore – thanks for the comment! It took a long time to get this good sense and experience 🙂 It’s amazing how clothes that make it to the thrift store have a much longer life than new clothing. I’m definitely a thrifting fan, now!

    • I’m so glad you liked this post, Nutrivore. I loved it, too, and I’m very grateful to Chau for sharing her wonderful insights with us here!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience. The insight you have gained is valuable to all of us.

  3. I loved reading your story and the things you learnt Chau! I have learnt many of the same things. I like to buy secondhand and used to do it too much, but with my ‘list in hand’ I now find I am good at walking out if there is nothing I need. Thanks for writing.

    • Thanks for sharing your own experiences, Ruth! It’s amazing, all the things we learn overtime if we actually stop to reflect – glad we came to the same conclusion. I second that idea – go in, and get out if there’s nothing on your list!

    • Yes, the list is SO important, Ruth! Whenever I get off-track and don’t go into a resale store with a clear purpose in mind, I tend to buy too much and the wrong things. This post served as a wonderful reminder to me to practice what I preach!

  4. Thrift stores are great for all the reasons above, but I find that I need to remind myself :
    only buy items of good quality and in good condition no matter what the price, whilst it’s a good way to experiment without spending a lot you still need to do a reality check and balance the cost and how often you are likely to wear it, and consider whether you would pay full price in a shop for it or are just buying it because it seems a bargain.

    • Hi Lynn, absolutely! While I said to “keep an open mind” to thrift storing, my example of buying blue jeans instead of the black ones shows that I was open to having the basic need met by a similar, versatile piece (I needed something that could go with any outfit, and thought black would be nice – but the blue jeans ended up making me even happier!). However, it is not the same thing as buying something just because it’s cheap, not at all! No, like you said, just because you’re buying used and thrifted doesn’t mean you should buy freely – employ the same mind as you would at a brand-new retail store, even when shopping used! Great input on remembering not to fall for a bargain, thanks!

  5. Wise realizations Chau! I particularily liked how you interpreted what ‘sparks joy’ means to you. After a number of trial and errors, I’ve realized that clothes that spark joy for me must be items that are realistic and practical for my lifestyle. Initially I was keeping many items that I love yet rarely worn, precisely for the reasons that you stated – imaginary scenarios and monetary costs. As time went on and those items linger in my wardrobe like musuem pieces, I continue to convince myself that they will be worn, because they looked great on me and I still loved them. I justified keeping them because I already had a small wardrobe (around 60 items), plus they sparked joy when I looked at them! I purged 1/2 of my wardrobe very recently after coming home from a 6 week trip, where like you, wore the same few outfits and a lot of what I brought an inewly bought items during the trip were not worn. I realized from the trip, that my ‘spark joy’ items were the ones where I was not afraid to get dirty, can be throw in the washer multi-times without worrying about them getting worn out. When I came home and looking at my entire wardrobe, less than half of my clothes fit all those catagories. Now I own 34 clothing items and 5 pairs of shoes and still have a few pieces that are in the ‘what-if’ catagory.

    • Wow, Wendy – 5 pairs of shoes, 34 items total and you’ve still got some ‘what-ifs’ – that’s actually awesome! I think it goes to show that we really do not need very much – which makes me wonder, how on earth did I cope with such a big closet in the past? I was always so distraught about what to wear, when really, I felt so incredibly confident and comfortable – ready for dinner or a hike – in the outfits that ‘sparked joy’ while traveling. Comfort doesn’t mean sloppy, it just means the items that YOU love. Another great point you made is that we let the item spark joy while hanging in our closet, and assume that it is enough – that’s where most of us stop purging, I believe! There’s actually that last, hidden step, the question you have to ask yourself – does this item spark joy while I wear it?! I think that’s the most important part of getting to that ideal, working wardrobe. Thank you for the input, great insight!

      • This is SUCH a great point, Chau – asking ourselves if the item sparks joy when we wear it beyond just looking at it hanging in our closets! It was an “aha moment” for me when I read that. A big part of that extra step includes how an item either does or doesn’t fit into our lives. Something may have sparked joy for us once, but it may not anymore, and that’s okay! If we pass the item on, the guilty feelings that are associated with it often dissipate. This has happened to me many times.

      • Absolutely, Debbie! Letting go of an item is difficult at first, but rarely do we anguish over it months, let alone years, later!

    • Wendy, our experiences are very similar. Even though I have downsized a lot, I still have quite a few pieces that I love for a variety of reasons yet rarely or never wear. Your analogy of “museum pieces” resonated with me. I think I need to do the KonMari process again taking what both you and Chau said to heart. I’m glad you now have a wardrobe in which everything both sparks joy and is being worn. Good for you!

  6. I have to say, I’ve never thought I’d consider thrift shopping…until now! I might just have to use your tips and give it a try.

    Debbie – have you considered Poshmark? I recently heard of it through another blogger and actually love it. It’s an alternative to bringing items to consignment; you create a profile and list your items. Sort of like “thredup”, but more profitable. Check it out! My username is milliewest if you want an example.

    – Millie

    • Hi Millie –

      Definitely give it a try! It CAN be exhausting at first, especially if your local thrift store carries mostly duds – I find that going to more affluent neighborhoods often have gems, with less-worn, sometimes designer brand names. Do some online research about the thrift stores in your area and then go check it out for yourself! Some thrift stores are highly organized – some are dusty and remind you of the attic, it all depends, but for sure give it a chance.

    • Thanks for the suggestion, Millie! I don’t know a whole lot about Poshmark, but I have heard of it. I like the idea of not having to haul my items to the consignment store, where I may also be tempted to buy more. Perhaps I will try Poshmark after my next closet downsize (like another KonMari) and see how it works out for me. I will check out your profile so I can get an idea of how it works.

  7. Thanks for the inspiring guest post, Chau. I like the idea of going on a shopping hiatus. I have done that before, sometimes for a whole year. My Achilles heel is the pack rat thing, though. I can’t let go of the idea that I will one day be able to fit into my favorite old pairs of pants from college.

    • Hi Bex – wow, going for a whole year?! That’s still a big goal for me! It is heart wrenching to think about letting go of a great pair of jeans that was your best friend in college, I totally get it! However, I found that sentimentality caused me to retain a lot of stuff – and when it came to moving house/traveling, it added to one more decision I had to make (take it or leave it?!). I still have many items that are still in my home because of emotional attachment, but I found a system that has helped immensely – if it’s something you love/once loved, but you can’t fit it now, why not pass it onto someone who might (and who will end up loving it as much you!). Those pants have no only served you, but someone else as well. However, there is nothing wrong with keeping something that sparks joy in you – if it makes you happy, keep it! But I find that rule helpful when I have to be really critical 🙂

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