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Wardrobe basics: Clothing essentials for building your wardrobe

Never feel like you don't have anything to wear again!
Illustration of Levi's Wedgie Fit Jeans, Michael Kors Cropped Leather Jacket, Cuyana Classic Structured Leather Tote, Banana Republic Madison 12-Hour Pump and Bony Levy 14K Gold 16mm Hoop Earrings
TODAY Illustration / Cuyana / anana Republic / Saks Fifth Avenue / Levi's / Nordstrom Rack

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You’ve spent years building your closet, yet somehow oftentimes find yourself completely at a loss for what to wear. We’ve certainly been there, and because the new season offers the perfect opportunity to hit refresh (fall cleaning is the new spring cleaning, right?), we’ve taken it to style and organization experts to help you build a wardrobe that you'll want to wear right now — and years to come.

From building a proper foundation to how to sort your clothes and which items to avoid completely, read on as they help us break down eight tips for creating a smart wardrobe that will serve you and your evolving lifestyle time and time again.

Below, we have an expert how-to guide to building a wardrobe you'll love forever — plus, our favorite basics to start you off.

How to build a wardrobe you'll love

Start with a proper foundation

The first step to building a smart wardrobe is nailing down the basics — a streamlined assortment of stylish and versatile pieces that can be dressed up or down and stand the test of time.

“In terms of casual pieces, you can never ever go wrong with classic denim, some quality tees and tanks, and easy sneakers and sandals that feel and look good. A leather jacket is another piece that will go with everything and transcend trends,” explains Ariel Tunnell, a celebrity stylist and costume designer in Los Angeles.

For office wear, get yourself some tailored pants and skirts. “Pair them with blouses that aren’t fussy but make you feel powerful and flats or pumps in nude and black shades.” A well-fitting LBD, cashmere sweater, and blazer can also go a long way!

Don't focus on quantity

With the rise of fast fashion and shopping haul culture, it may seem budget-savvy (and instantly gratifying) to prioritize low-cost or sale items, but experts say there are advantages to narrowing in on a more select, quality few pieces.

“When you invest in quality pieces, you won’t have to replace items as much so you’ll wind up saving in the long run and your closet won't be over-saturated with one-time wears,” says Molly Cohen, a stylist and wardrobe consultant in New York City.

It can help to think of items in terms of price per wear. “That designer handbag you have your eye on starts to make more sense if you carry it every single day versus something you only take out for very special occasions,” explains Tunnell. “Designer items also tend to retain their value so you can always consign items you no longer wear. Companies like The RealReal are a great resource for reselling, as well as purchasing gently used designer items at a lower price.”

Choose your materials wisely

When assessing the quality of your pieces, experts caution that you’ll want to consider not only whether their materials are beautiful and durable, but practical.

“Ideally, you’ll want to look for fabrics that are pre-shrunk or designed with a micro-modal blend to hold their shape,” says Cohen.

Because a big part of having nothing to wear is not having the time or patience to iron or prep specific pieces ahead of an event, you’ll also want to consider maintenance and care.

“For everyday, I opt for low-maintenance fabrics that don’t require a ton of de-wrinkling and can be washed at home easily without much prep time, saving dry cleaning for clients and special occasions when possible,” adds Tunnell. She also suggests keeping a wrinkle release spray on hand for getting rid of creases quickly.

Tread trends lightly

Trends present the perfect opportunity to revive your staples and refresh your style, but you’ll want to take care not go overboard (after all, it could take years or even decades for your favorites to make a comeback).

“A trendy pattern or shoe, like a chunky boot, will give a whole new look to your wardrobe essentials,” says Cohen. “Since trends are fleeting, this isn’t an area where you need to go for the highest ticket item, and it’s important to remember that every trend isn’t for everyone. As a stylist, I typically pick only one trend per client, never do we try and tackle them all at once.”

Tunnell points out that trend-loading is also a major culprit when it comes to fashion excess, and that cutting back can not only help to reduce the impact on your wallet and space, but the environment.

Opt for comfort

Another big reason you have nothing to wear? Your pieces are simply unwearable for long stretches, which is why our experts stress that when it comes to a functioning wardrobe, comfort is key.

“Opt for softer fabrics and waistbands, especially if you spend a lot of time sitting and remember that clothing sizes are pretty arbitrary. They're not always consistent among brands or even the same styles depending on fabric, so be gentle with yourself and don’t be afraid to go up a size. Being comfortable and feeling good in your clothes is more important than the number on the label,” advises Tunnell.

Cohen adds that, when it comes to try-ons, it can also be helpful to consider real-life situations in your clothes.

“Practice throwing your purse over your shoulder (you'd be surprised how difficult it is in a big bulky jacket) and or holding a make-believe steering wheel in front of the mirror,” she advises. “It’s also best to try on shoes—and especially boots—in the evening when your feet are more swollen from the day as they would be in a pair of closed-toe shoes.”

Shop for the life you have

You may have heard the saying “you should dress for the job you want,” but it’s also important to take into account the job (and life) you actually have.

“Fashion and personal style are very aspirational, but it just doesn’t make sense to have a closet full of fun cocktail dresses if you never go to parties,” says Tunnell.

To avoid having to fish through unrealistic pieces every time you get something from your closet or finding yourself all dressed up with no place to go, shop according to your current lifestyle, Tunnell suggests, and then supplementing it with outliers when a particular need arises.

“Try taking the sustainable route with companies like Rent The Runway that allow you to rent pieces for one-time occasions without weighing down your wardrobe or breaking the bank.”

Sort for success

Of course, you can’t wear a piece if you don’t know where it is — and searching can exhaust your time and patience.

“It’s helpful to think of your wardrobe like a capsule collection. Pair colors and prints that go together to mix and match with ease, arranging your closest from light to dark in order to visualize what works together and what doesn’t,” advises Tunnell.

“At my company, we hang all tops according to color and sleeve length, organize pants by color and style or fit, and fold sweaters so they don't stretch out (the weight of the yarn can push a garment to the point of no return),” said Cohen, also suggesting that you face the clothes you are hanging the same direction.

“And we like to get dressed from bottom to top, so when we pick the right shoe for the occasion, we know exactly which pile of pants to go to and then have an assortment of tops to choose from to finish the look," she added.

Perform regular edits

Lastly, while the goal is to create a wardrobe that’s low maintenance, it can be helpful to reassess here and there in order to adjust for wear, fit, and lifestyle.

Cohen suggests tackling each wardrobe category at a time, re-trying everything and creating separate piles for items that no longer serve you. “With wardrobe pieces out of the way, this is also a great time to wipe down shelves, rails, and bins.”

The reward? A de-cluttered space, feeling of accomplishment, and perhaps even some cash in your wallet. “Attempt to sell name brand items that are in good condition through various consignment channels and donate items that don’t have significant value to places in need!” advises Cohen.

Clothing essentials you should own

Tops and dresses

Everlane The Organic Cotton Cutaway Tank

Madewell Northside Vintage Tee

Universal Thread Raglan Long Sleeve Button-Down Shirt

Treasure & Bond Dobby Classic Shirt

Uniqlo Cashmere Crew Neck Sweater

Cicy Bell Casual Blazer

Everlane The Oversized Blazer

Gap Faux Leather Moto Jacket

MICHAEL Michael Kors Cropped Leather Jacket

Lulus Westwood Black Half Sleeve Sheath Dress

Kasper Crew Neck Sheath Dress

Bottoms

Levi’s Wedgie Fit Jeans

Spanx The Perfect Pant

A New Day Women's High-Rise Midi Slip Skirt

Shoes and accessories

Amazon Essentials Pointed-Toe Ballet Flat

Marc Fisher Caitlin Pump

Banana Republic Madison 12-Hour Pump

Madewell Chunky Large Hoop Earrings

Cuyana Classic Structured Leather Tote

Kate Spade Lori Tote

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