Six easy pieces, 31 challenging days

Imagine that horrible though
all-too-familiar feeling: You are standing before a fully stuffed closet and
yet have nothing to wear.

Now, imagine something worse: Your closet
contains only six items, and you are restricted to wearing only those six items
for an entire month.

Now, if you can bear it, imagine
something unspeakable: No one notices.

Nearly a month into what amounted
to just such a self-inflicted fast of fashion, Stella Brennan, 31, an insurance
sales executive from Kenosha, Wisconsin, realized last week that not even her
husband, Kelly, a machinist, had yet figured out that she had been wearing the
same six items, over and over, since June 21. The sad punch line is that Kelly
Brennan is the one who actually does the family’s laundry.

During her experiment – something
called a “shopping diet,” actually – which ended recently, Brennan made do with
the following: a black blazer and pants from H&M; two button-down shirts,
one black and one pink; a pair of Old Navy jeans; and one well-worn pink
T-shirt.

How she settled on those items was
complicated by her having two young children, a golden retriever and three
cats, and that she was starting a new job last month with an hourlong commute.
She said she needed “six items that are animal-hair-, kid-, food- and
wrinkle-resistant. I need these items to be professional but also work for
playing football with my son and tea parties.”

She agonized the longest over the
T-shirt – the button-down shirts and suit separates were for work, but the
right T-shirt could be worn casually with jeans or dressed up with the blazer.
Her revelation at the end of 31 days, after her husband still had not noticed,
even when she wore her floral-printed pajamas to do yard work: “Obviously, I
didn’t need all of these clothes.”

This self-imposed exercise in
frugality was prompted by a Web challenge called Six Items or Less
(sixitemsorless.com). The premise was to go an entire month wearing only six
items already found in your closet (not counting shoes, underwear or accessories).
Nearly 100 people around the United States, and in faraway places like Dubai
and Bangalore, India, were also taking part in the regimen, with motives
including a way to trim back on spending, an outright rejection of fashion and
a concern that the mass production and global transportation of increasingly
cheap clothing was damaging the environment.

Meanwhile, an even stricter
program, the Great American Apparel Diet, which began Sept. 1, has attracted
pledges by more than 150 women and two men to abstain from buying for an entire
year. (Again, undies don’t count.) And next month, Gallery Books will publish a
self-help guide, called “The Shopping Diet,” by the red-carpet stylist Phillip
Bloch. (“Step 1: Admit You’re an Overshopper”… “Step 9: Practice Safe,
Responsible Shopping”… “Step 10: Make the Diet a Way of Life.”)

Although their numbers may be
small, and their diets extreme, these self-deniers of fashion are representative,
in perhaps a notable way, of a broader reckoning of consumers’ spending habits.
As the economy begins to improve, shoppers of every income appear to be
wrestling with the same questions: Is it safe to go back to our old,
pre-recession ways? Or should we? The authors of these diets – including some
fashion marketing and advertising executives, interestingly enough – seem to
think not.

Sally Bjornsen, the founder of the
Great American Apparel Diet (thegreatamericanappareldiet.com), said she was
prompted to stop buying clothes for a simple reason: “I was sick and tired of
consumerism,” she said.

Last summer, Bjornsen, 47, said she
was thinking about how years of easy credit had led to overspending on cars,
homes and luxury goods. Then, looking in her own closet, she realized that she
was part of the problem, she said. For her job, as a representative of
commercial photographers in Seattle and before that as a marketing executive at
fashion companies like Nike and Nordstrom, she’d spent $5,000 to $10,000 a year
on clothes.

“I was buying in an egregious way,”
Bjornsen said. “I was just kind of grossed out by the whole thing.”

Independently, the “six items”
experiment was conceived by two friends, Heidi Hackemer, 31, a strategic
business director at the New York advertising agency BBH, and Tamsin Davies,
34, the head of innovation at Fallon London, after an informal discussion about
their desires to pare down their wardrobes. The idea snowballed into a creative
challenge, Six Items or Less.

The rules were not hard and fast.
If a person owned, for example, several similar black blazers – as Brennan, the
Wisconsin executive, did – she could count them as one item

“Our whole thing was not to put a
philosophy behind it and not be too preachy,” Hackemer said.

The challenge has proved so popular
that she said it would be repeated this fall.

Her six items were a black dress, a
pair of black jeggings (a jeans-leggings hybrid), a black tank top, a black
blazer, a gray skirt and denim shorts. The combinations she came up with were
surprisingly diverse enough to get her through the month, “but once you hit
Week 3, you think, You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Sixers, as Six Items or Less
enthusiasts call themselves, have formed something of an online fashion support
network, especially when they feel tempted to fall off the wagon.

Brennan did sound ripe for some
kind of fashion intervention. In a recent interview, she spoke of a rack of
clothes in the back of her closet that still had the tags on them and clothes
that she has not worn in 15 years but that she cannot stand to part with, and
her 72 pairs of “active” shoes (meaning those that she actively wears, not the
ones still in the boxes), and a closet full of clothes for her 3-year-old
daughter, and, lest she forget, a wardrobe of clothes for her dog.

“My daughter doesn’t care what she
wears, and I’m turning her into a monster,” Brennan said. “We’re ruining the
next generation of girls with fashion.”

The dieters’ comments reflect the
complicated and sometimes confused relationships between consumers and their
closets – which perhaps was to be expected in a nation where women, on average,
own seven pairs of jeans but wear only four regularly, according to the
September issue of Consumer Reports’ ShopSmart magazine. One in four women
asked by the magazine said she owned 10 pairs or more.

Still, the month has been grueling.
One Sixer from Los Angeles confessed online to splurging on T-shirts at a James
Perse sample sale. Addy, from Milwaukee, wrote that she had become so bored
with her six items “that I don’t even have a desire to get up in the morning,”
and she complained of mood swings.

But others describe a life-changing
experience. Sneha Lakshman, 32, a founder of Dig Design, a Web and mobile
products company in Bangalore, said by phone that she had decided, “That’s it,
I’m going to wear only black from now on.”

Kelli Bauman, 24, a visual
communications student from Indianapolis, said she was facing up to her
compulsive-shopping habits. She described herself as the type who gets excited
about buying cleaning products; a thrice-weekly shopper at Target. “I feel like
I am programmed to want to buy new things,” she said. “When my jeans got a hole
in them, I wanted to buy new jeans that instant.”Just look at how far she has
come.

“I’ve only been to Target twice
this whole time,” she said.

On one visit, she bought wasp spray
and toothpaste for herself, but she splurged on gifts for a bride-to-be –
buying for someone else was like a “gateway drug,” she said. Another Sixer,
Dean Kakridas, 42, the director of business development at Frog Design, an
innovation firm in Austin, Texas, said that he was obsessed with efficiency.

“I kind of question everything,” he
said, including why he was spending 20 minutes every morning figuring out what
to wear. He wanted to identify the clothes that made him happiest and fit his
lifestyle. He chose a pair of G-Star jeans, two button-down shirts, two
short-sleeve polo shirts and, cleverly, a pair of shorts from Life After Denim
that are reversible (one side is charcoal; the other plaid). Speaking like a
programmer, he said: “Anything that removes complexity or cycles from your day
is really valuable. I have freed a lot of bandwidth in my head.”

(After three weeks on the program,
however, he was quoting Coco Chanel: “I don’t do fashion. I am fashion.”)

The most interesting thing to many
of the Sixers was how few people noticed what they were doing. Except, that is,
for those who did. Kakridas said that his wife disapproved.

“My wife jabs at me almost on a
daily basis,” he said. “She tries to get me to waver from the commitment and
get me to cheat. She hid my Fabreze from me.”

As with any diet, abstinence is not
for everyone.

Of the 150-plus-people who signed
up for the Great American Apparel Diet, about half have given up. Bjornsen’s
own sister quit after four weeks. And she has herself cheated twice, once when
she realized she had forgotten to bring her workout clothes to the gym, a
second time when her husband told her that her pajamas looked worn out and
gross. Although she said she feels no guilt about those indulgences, Bjornsen
said that she was looking forward to the end of the diet Aug. 31.

She had thought about ways to make
money off the diet, she said, but instead she plans to pass on the management
of the website to continuing and future participants.

“It’s taken about 10 to 20 years to
build up the idea that nothing is good unless it is new,” Bjornsen said. “Five
years from now, if the diet is still going, it would be interesting to see how
that changes.”

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