After realizing that I’d become a clothes-hoarding fashion victim, I threw out everything and started over. This is the true story of how I became a menswear minimalist (and how you can, too).
January 17, 2022
Like any story of recovery and redemption, mine begins with a moment of clarity. I had been set up on a date. She was smart, with cute freckles, but it was clear from the first margarita that we had little in common. She lived uptown and went for guys who worked at Goldman; I had tattoos and wrote for GQ. Still, enough tequila can persuade two horny people to put aside their differences for a night.
In the morning, I awoke to find her standing over the bed, putting on her clothes in what appeared to be a race against time. “What's up?” I rolled over and asked, not entirely shocked she was running for the hills but disappointed we wouldn't at least have a morning canoodle. She fastened the hook on her bra, threw a blouse over her body, and kissed me on the forehead. I think there was pity in her voice when she told me she was leaving.
“By the way,” she said, “how do you have more clothes than any girl I know—and no TV?”
After the door slammed behind her, I looked around my studio apartment in the unforgiving morning light—at the hulking dresser stacked with folded dress shirts still in the plastic they came in; at the coat rack sagging under the weight of parkas, windbreakers, jean jackets, raincoats, and overcoats; at the ziggurat of boots, sneakers, and brogues stacked knee-high on the floor. Then there was my double-wide closet—stuffed with an auxiliary cache of shoes, plus more suits and sport coats than a Hollywood leading man could wear in a lifetime.
Uptown Girl was right: I had a problem. But she couldn't have known how deep it went, couldn't have known what clothes had come to mean to me—or what, on every level, they were hiding.
I have no family history of sartorial excess. I grew up in Maine, where “style” means Elmer Fudd hats with earflaps. My mother still dresses like she would have at Woodstock—flowing tunics and flared jeans. Dad? He kept to a strict uniform—L.L.Bean khakis, a blue blazer, and sockless Sperrys. My stepmother, like a Tenenbaum, never left her tennis warm-ups. In school, I simply chose from what I saw at the mall: Gap, Structure, and Abercrombie.
And then on the morning of September 11, 2005, a few years after I'd left the nest, my recently divorced father walked onto the Piscataqua River Bridge and jumped. I didn't consciously grieve his suicide through fashion. But a death so sudden leaves a hole. And holes like that take so long to fill that you don't always realize what you're stuffing in there to fill the void. You're not self-aware enough to even comprehend what you're doing to soothe yourself. To distract yourself. To make you feel good about yourself. To project okay-ness to the world when what you feel is anything but okay.
Shortly after the memorial service, I moved in with a girlfriend. Before landing in New York, we lived for a while in her parents' house in Greenwich, Connecticut. Her father was a prominent executive, poised and dashing. I'd sometimes find myself wandering through the closets in their home, admiring his collection of custom wool suits, trousers tailored to brush the tops of his polished Berluti shoes, his dress shirts sewn with a simple monogram: PTG. I had my Daisy Buchanan moment, sobbing among the shirts in that house. How could they all be so beautiful?
One sunny morning, the day after Thanksgiving, he drove me from Greenwich into Manhattan until we alighted on Paul Stuart, the Waspy enclave on Madison Avenue. This was to be the day he bought me some proper clothes. In the mahogany dressing room, when a tailor slipped a perfectly cut jacket onto my shoulders and I stepped up to the mirror, the confusion of the past few months melted away. I didn't have a father, but I had a father figure. And I had a suit of armor made from the purest cashmere.
Clothes soon became my fixation. I spent hours on Scott Schuman's newly launched street-style blog, The Sartorialist, studying lo-res images of peacocking men in Milan. I wanted to be one of them—or all of them. I took a corporate real estate job that I despised, but that enabled my habit, affording me entire paychecks' worth of suits, ties, and shoes, allowing me to masquerade as a Master of the Universe.
In 2007, I spent no less than $25,000 at Paul Stuart. Every salesperson knew me by name. In time the hangovers from these sprees began to hurt; the shame leaked in. I began hiding my purchases, leaving them in my car, running garment bags into our apartment under cover of darkness or while my girlfriend walked the dog. When she'd catch me, I'd feel foolish. “Didn't you just buy a new suit?” she'd ask. I had. One with lavender pinstripes. When had I become Oscar Wilde?
I needed help. I quit the corporate job, the girlfriend quit me, and I left New York for a while. But I still had all those clothes and a strong sense of denial. And it would get worse.
In 2011, I landed any menswear junkie's dream gig here at GQ, covering the style beat for our then fledgling website. A real-life menswear blogger. I could talk pick stitches and raw hems and cutaway collars, reference looks from the Dior Homme runway, name-check the best places to score vintage in Tokyo. For me, clothes were a drug, and I was getting high on my own supply. If Marie Kondo had seen my monthly haul of size mediums, she'd have stroked out. Not to mention the reissued sunglasses. Rare selvage sneakers. Watches. White jeans, blue jeans, brown jeans, black jeans.
And then I had that date.
I spent the morning in bed awed by my revelation: Clothes had become totems of my pain, and it took a meaningless hookup for me to see that they were suffocating me. I quickly realized that any solution would require drastic measures. So I undertook a project I referred to as The Purge, a complete fashion transfusion—everything must go—designed to rebuild my wardrobe, and by extension myself, from scratch.
Preparing for The Purge required genuine soul-searching. I had to admit that I wasn't Steve McQueen, Lou Reed, Miles Davis, or any of the other menswear heroes I blogged about. I'd never be PTG or the Milanese men in their tortoiseshell specs and peak lapels. I was me. Still wounded, but healing. Still interested in style, but growing out of the need to flaunt. If I was honest with myself, I didn't even want these clothes anymore.
What I really wanted to wear, 99 out of 100 days, was jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers. On the 100th, I'd wear a suit. Usually to a wedding. I owned, at the time, maybe 40 suits. Red flag! Another example: New York weather dictated that I wear a jacket roughly six months a year. Which meant I needed maybe two or three in varying styles, right? I owned at least 60. And yet, by comparison, I had hardly any jeans. I'd been doing it all backward.
The dandy suits went first—pastel scars from my former life. I never knew it could feel so good to give something away. I bequeathed half of them to an old roommate who happened to be my size and dumped the other half in a Goodwill bin uptown. The empty space in my closet was a ray of sunshine.
Another buddy, a similarly minded menswear-head, told me he'd sell anything I didn't want for a cut of the profits. It seemed like a more than fair proposition, and I didn't ask questions. By the following day, he'd worked up a digitized flyer. #MENSWEAR YARD SALE it read. He posted it online. I wasn't sure whether to be flattered or mortified. But it worked: Three weeks later, after friends and Internet strangers had dropped by this dude's apartment to pick through my pocket squares, tweed trousers, and silk knit ties, he sent me a check for just over $3,000. I suddenly had half as many clothes. And some cash to boot.
As time went by, I continued to unburden myself. I donated to the coat drive, gave flannels to my building's superintendent to send home to Peru, sent sport coats to a friend's cash-strapped art-student brother. Away went the $7,000 watch I'd been too concerned with scratching to wear.
I found inspiration in Once Upon a Time, a book of Slim Aarons photographs that I'd excavated from my closet. Inside the book, amidst portraits of jet-set royals, tycoons, and socialites in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, was a shot of Patrick O'Higgins, a snappy former captain in the Irish Guards, standing with his complete all-season wardrobe, the contents of which fit easily on a bed. This was visual confirmation that it could be done. Never again would I own more clothes than I could easily pull out and pose with. My entire wardrobe would fit into an Instagram.
Luckily, the options for purging men's clothes these days are plentiful. At the high end, you can do old-school designer consignment through snooty shops like INA (with five locations in Manhattan), though they don't even want to see you unless you're packing Prada. You can also sell on eBay, of course. My seven-year-old Berluti Andy loafers went almost instantaneously to a gentleman in Arizona. Ditto some Guccis from my Greenwich days.
I sold my hippest stuff on Grailed, a menswear marketplace stocked with Visvim indigo and Rick Owens leathers. My overcoat by Our Legacy went for $400, my Ovadia & Sons bomber jacket for $350, my A.P.C. corduroy trucker for $120. But then the buyers dried up, and I knew why: Most of my clothes weren't trendy enough anymore. Virgil Abloh hadn't designed them. Nobody had camped overnight at Supreme for them. This is fashion's dirty little secret. There's always something newer and cooler to buy—and the closer you follow what's new and cool, the more the itch becomes unscratchable.
Toward the end, I fell back on Beacon's Closet, a secondhand chain where you schlep your stuff up to the front counter and then snag about 35 percent of the (already low) price tag the store will place on your garments. The Beacon's people feasted on my scraps. Halfway through one marathon sorting session, the young woman who'd started in on my gargantuan haul was relieved by another employee. I had activated the Beacon's bull pen.
When the store turned down two massive pieces of perfectly patinaed Bric's luggage, I gave up and left them on the curb. Which actually illustrates my biggest takeaway from this grueling process: It is much harder to get rid of shit, even nice shit, than it is to accumulate it in the first place. Tyler Durden was onto something when he said: The things you own end up owning you. I kept chipping away, though, and got down to a few jackets, sweaters, tees, jeans, and a tuxedo. Pretty soon I'd actually need to go shopping again.
I found solace in simplicity. As I sold those few remaining pieces and began replacing them, I decided I would wear only four colors: black, white, gray, and blue. From now on, my clothes would feature no logos. No bullshit. Everything would be elemental. Streamlined. Stripped.
Adopting a set of rules like this saved time and energy, and idiot-proofed packing. It also made my grotesque levels of accumulation almost impossible. If something didn't work with the rest of my closet, it'd never slip past the front gates.
Because I still loved fashion, and knew (to a fault) all the subtle distinctions of all the different labels, I thought carefully about the clothes that best represented my own true self. I decided I wanted two new pairs of plain jeans—black and blue. Two pairs of understated sneakers, some black boots, a cashmere crewneck sweater, a parka, a handful of white cotton tees, and a perfectly faded denim jacket. Plus one lone suit—black cotton, garment-washed—from the SoHo outpost of Aussie tailor Patrick Johnson.
This assortment of 20 or so pieces could get me through eight months of the year. Since I'd have only a small pile of clothes, everything could be great quality. And I'd get to wear my favorite things all the time. No more standing in front of my closet guessing; I'd just get up, put something on, and go.
There'd be no more costuming. No more pretending. Ostentatious clothes couldn't protect me anymore, a fact that actually gave me strength. Maybe I didn't need them to.
All the editing became a full-on audit of my life. I felt lighter. And the lighter you feel, the more you realize how much something has been weighing you down.
A few months into The Purge, I went to my barber and had him buzz off my hair. I also tweaked my diet: I cut out crap like dairy and wheat, which had been making me sick for years. I fine-tuned my spirituality, dabbling in Buddhism (fewer attachments, naturally), and entered a psychodrama-therapy group to hash out the lingering unresolved issues from my past.
It was in the psychodrama group that I got to face my father. Well, a chair where he was supposed to be sitting, anyway. I started off by explaining to him how much his death had hurt me. How it had left me looking for answers in places they'd never turn up. How I'd hidden from the world behind stuff I didn't need, and how I'd suffered for it. I told him he'd be proud of the person I'd become. That I didn't feel like hiding anymore. That I wasn't scared. Of course I said he'd been selfish, too. That he'd robbed us of time we could've spent together. He'd missed out. And then I yelled. I told him to fuck off. I told him I loved him. And when it was over, I felt an entirely foreign feeling: blissful, beautiful emptiness.
A few months later, I signed the lease on a Brooklyn loft with exactly zero closets.