A recent conversation with woman inspired this post. She contacted me after losing just about all of her clothes in a fire. Thankfully, the most important things are okay but she is now straddled with the daunting task of repurchasing and replacing much of what she lost, including her wardrobe. Seriously, if you think you are stressed, imagine having a full plate and then having to add this to the pile. It makes my head hurt. Sure, some may want to take a match and a can of gasoline to their wardrobes because they are so sick of what they have, but having to do it under immense pressure is a whole different story.

This conversation not only got me thinking about how to rebuild your wardrobe after all has been lost but how to go about it in a way that is efficient and effective. Even if you aren’t without your wardrobe, like this woman is, many women have found themselves in situations where they do need a clothing redo. It could be times of great weight loss or gain, times when your life has shifted in a way that requires you to think what is going on in your closet or just times when it has been way too long since you have been shopping. Whatever the situation, here are some things to keep in mind if are facing the need to rebuild your wardrobe.

#1- Don’t Panic

You need to rebuild your wardrobe and you need to do it quickly which would make hitting the stores ‘a-sap’ seem like the logical first step. Hold your horses, you may be in dire straits and in need of some new clothes STAT but going to the stores without any type of a plan isn’t the smartest thing to do. If you don’t have a plan or any sense of your needs, you may feel like you are being productive because you are physically moving and taking steps by going into the stores. But if you just walk around in circles, haphazardly grab things or, worse, come home with nothing this is time wasted. Nobody has time for that.

Instead of putting the proverbial ‘cart before the horse, the steps you need to take first are not unlike the steps I take with a client when I first meet them. Before I can just magically rebuild their wardrobe there are some key things I need to understand in order for me to do my job in a productive manner. While you may be chomping at the bit, even taking a few minutes to think through the following can help you shop more effectively and, hopefully, come home, not just with bags full of clothes, but bags full of clothes you’ll actually wear.

Take a moment to reflect- Reflect? Who the heck has time to reflect when they have no clothes to wear??? Hold up. I’m not asking you to go to the top of some mountain and meditate like Buddha, or anything, I just want you to cool your jets for a few minutes and take some personal inventory. Rarely do we get do-overs. Don’t waste this opportunity.

Every client that gets started with me gets an intake form to fill out so I can glean as much information as possible. There are a bunch of questions I ask them, but here are a two you can just ask yourself quickly:

How do you feel about your overall image/personal style and wardrobe right now? How would you like to feel? What do you think is not working?

What overall image do you want to project? What message would you like to communicate?

These questions are important because you can take the time to assess your past mistakes, your feelings about your wardrobe and, going forward, what you would want to be different. Even if you don’t know how to get there, it’s helpful to put these goals down on paper.

It’s also helpful to use this time to capture visuals of the style you love. You can do this by starting a style board on Pinterest that you use to pin outfits you like, looking at catalogs and magazines or just noticing what you are drawn to about what other people wear. This is a process that shouldn’t be hard or involve a lot of overthinking, you just want to pay attention.

Lay out your life- Next, I want you to lay out your life. You can grab a piece of paper and write this down, it doesn’t have to be fancy schmancy spreadsheety, you just want to take a moment and write down all the different hats you wear. For example, it could be things like:

  • Work
  • Kids
  • Volunteer Work
  • Taking kids to sports activities
  • Casual weekends with the family
  • Yoga
  • Date night with partner
  • Subscription to the symphony
  • Travel for work
  • Gardening
  • Time with extended family and friends

You can get as specific as you want and you can also include changes that you foresee coming in the future, like a new job, a career change, starting a family, and more. The more specific you can get the better.

After your list making is done, the next step is to write down the general dress code for each. For example, next to work you could write “business causal and occasionally suits” or “jeans and sweaters” next to causal weekends and sports activities. This will help you hone in on your general needs.

Now that the list is done, and your dress code for each part of your life is established, the last thing you need to do with this list is fill in the approximate amount of time you do each thing. For example, you may go to yoga three times a week, you probably work five days a week, only spend an hour on the weekends tending to your garden or go to the symphony twice a month. The reason why really honing in on the amount of time doing each activity helps you is that you can figure out how much of that part of your wardrobe should be reflected in your clothing buys. The more time you spend doing one thing should equal the amount of clothing you purchase for it.

The last thing you want to do with this list is lay out what type of pieces would work for each category. Having the percentages of how much time you spend doing each of those activities will help you figure out just how much of the things you identified you will need. For example, if jeans and a sweater shows up a lot in most of these categories and suits for work show up in a small percentage of wear time, obviously, buying more sweaters than suits makes the most sense.

When you hit the stores, this lifestyle list will help you make sure you are checking off all the lifestyle needs. Ideally, you want many of the pieces you consider to fall into several of your lifestyle categories. Let’s say you are trying on a new pair of tailored pants. While trying them on you can refer to your list and check off each of the categories and where the potential item can be placed. Before you buy anything, do a rundown of just how much wear it will really get based on how you live your life. Doing this has stopped me many times from emotional and impulsive purchases. I can’t tell you how many pairs of shoes I have wanted but, after doing a run down of how I live my life, just knew they had no reason going home with me. It can be sobering but very helpful.

#2- If it’s not broke, don’t fix it

When you’re ready to shop it is helpful to also look at what has worked in the past. There is no point reinventing the wheel if you know a certain fit, designer or look has worked for you before, especially if there is an urgency in rebuilding your wardrobe. Depending on how old your old wardrobe was, there is a good chance you won’t find the exact pieces again in the stores but you will likely find the right fit for you, style you like, etc.. I know that if I needed to stock up on jeans again I’d be right back at the Levi’s store because their jeans always fit me well. If you can bang out a few categories of clothing needs based on what has worked in the past you can really shave off some time in this wardrobe rebuild.

#3- Start with the basics and focus on accessories

One of the reasons why most women don’t just trash their wardrobes and start over is because the budget just isn’t there for something like this. Unless this change was thrust upon you, you will likely just add some pieces and take others away over time. However, if you are in a position where you need to start from scratch, the best thing to do is to start with your basics. Depending on your lifestyle (this is why the lifestyle plan is so helpful) these basics and the amount you will need them will vary slightly, however, the most important thing to focus on at the start are that the pieces that will have the most versatility. In times of a wardrobe rebuild, versatility is key. Here is an example of some pieces of a woman who lives the lifestyle I described earlier could consider buying:

  • One good basic suit, preferably with three pieces (jacket, skirt and pants) that can be worn together and broken apart. Ideally this suit would be in a neutral color, like black, navy or grey.
  • At least one pair of jeans in a wash that can be dressed up and dressed down. Two would be ideal. One pair could be a pair that you prefer to wear for things like gardening or super casual.
  • One white button down shirt.
  • One dress that can be worn to work with a blazer or cardigan and dressed up for an evening event. A simple sheath would be perfect.
  • A few cardigans that can work with work looks and weekend looks.
  • One separate blazer that works with the suit to create different looks and also works with jeans on the weekends.
  • Two to three casual sweaters for the weekends or on dress down days at work
  • Slim t-shirts that can be worn under a suit jacket, cardigan or blazer on the weekends and to work. Nothing too casual and nothing too dressy.
  • One to two blouses that can we worn to work and on the weekends
  • One pair of ponte leggings or skinny pants that can work on the weekends (either dressed up or dressed down) and can also be worn to work on dress down days
  • One pair of tailored pants that can go to work and be used for dressing up on the weekends
  • Enough workout clothes to get you through three days of yoga and are pieces that can be taken and worn for super casual activities.

All of these pieces should be basic and void of any tricky details, specific styling and pieces that are hard to accessorize.

The next step, is a crucial one. You need accessories. The more options you have in this area the more you will be able to change up your basics and make them look different. With these accessories you should not only be able to get more with less clothing but take the looks from casual to more dressy. Some things to consider could be:

  • One pair of nude pumps. No matter what color you are wearing the shoes will work which will eliminate the need for a lot of shoes as you rebuild.
  • Two or three scarves that you can add to your suits and casual look. Often the simple wind of a scarf around the neck can make even the most basic of outfits look good.
  • One long silver or gold necklace that is simple but goes with everything. A basic station-like or long pendant style would be ideal.
  • One necklace that is more of a statement and can be worn to fill in the neckline of a top or to dress up more casual looks.
  • Dressier jewelry that can elevate the basic dress and other pieces, like a blouse and tailored pants or jeans and make them more evening appropriate.
  • One tan handbag that will work with any color that you are wearing
  • One pair of flats that can work with jeans and work pants
  • Two pairs of boots, one pair that can be dressed up for work and another pair that can be dressed down.
  • A basic pair of stud earrings and maybe one interesting drop pair.

Keep in mind, these are just examples and why there is no one formula that everyone should follow. Not everyone will need all the things listed, it all depends on someone’s life and, obviously, this is a list that is more fall/winter driven. Accessories should also be seen as the pieces that will assist you in putting the clothing you buy into more of your lifestyle categories. For example, the little black work sheath will now work as a dress for a night out at the symphony because you own the right accessories to make it work that way. Accessories require just as much of plan and lifestyle review as the clothing you plan on buying. When purchasing accessories go through your lifestyle plan and check off where these particular accessories can be used.

The example are also to be seen as a starting point. Over time, more will be added to further enhance the base that you established. However, you never want to stray from being this strategic in your clothing and accessory buys or else you’ll likely find yourself creating chaos and adding things that you really don’t need. Never put something in your closet if it doesn’t play a part and has earned the right to be there. You may also not be able to fill all these needs in one shopping trip, so prioritize the order of these pieces based on need and your lifestyle. Speaking for myself, I’d be buying a pair of jeans and a few tops and sweaters much sooner than I’d have a dress as a priority.

Coincidentally, I spoke with the woman who lost all her clothing in the fire as I was writing this blog. I am going to be helping her rebuild her wardrobe and, I promise you, the methodology that I outlined above is very similar to how I will be helping her. Rebuilding a wardrobe from the beginning is a process and one that does not happen overnight, unfortunately. But, hopefully with some sort of plan, and taking it step-by-step, it can be a lot less painful.