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Exactly How Cutting Out Fast Fashion Changed The Way I Shop


Recently, in the Ask Chelsea Anything inbox, I got a nice email from a reader named Grace with this request: “You’ve mentioned in several articles that you cut out fast fashion in the past year, and I was wondering if you could do a post breaking down where you shop instead. Thanks!”

It’s definitely something I’ve mentioned, and it’s true (though I admit has been more out of a slow-and-steady life evolution than a concerted, planned out effort), but I’ve never really written an article about how I shop now. Given that it has been well over a year since I first wrote about my desire to stop buying fast fashion, and I’ve pretty painlessly lived up to that, I think I’m officially qualified to talk about it. Though it’s definitely an imperfect science, and will be different for everyone, I’d like to share how I’ve personally shopped over the past year to lead myself to an almost entirely fast fashion-free life.

I should say, first of all, that the key to my shopping now is mostly not shopping. I have drastically cut back on a lot of things in my wardrobe, and realized that I really don’t need to replace them. This is probably most easily evident in jeans, where I used to have about five-or-so pairs I cycled through, none of which I was really happy with, and none of which cost more than probably 20 dollars. At the end of 2014, I finally bought (on 50% off sale), my first pair of designer jeans (retailed for like $150 originally), and wore the hell out of them for the next year. Relegating the rest of my shitty, poorly-fitting jeans to the “around the house and/or while painting” category, they became my sole good pair of out-of-the-house pants, aside from one pair of white jeans.

This meant that I wore my skirts and dresses a lot more, which had fallen by the wayside to that point. And when, last fall, I realized that only having a more fancy, dark-wash pair of jeans was a little annoying, I broadened my jean life by one pair, getting a distressed, lighter-washed pair for $100, which I looked for for some time and finally settled on after trying on about a dozen.

Until last week, those were my only two jeans, until my dark pair was lost at the cleaners (RIP, still getting over this). I’m going to be going to Nordstrom Rack and a few other discount stores this week to find a new designer pair at half price, and if that fails, I’ll go to a J.Brand store and suck it up to pay full price. It’ll sting, but it’s worth it, because they are the only jeans I’ll need, and they won’t gradually disintegrate in the crotch/thigh area, as cheap jeans inevitably do.

Anyway, all of this to say that my biggest change in shopping has been not doing much of it, and doing it very intently. I’m coming up on my next wardrobe purge, for spring cleaning, and I’m ready to go in with a much more judicious hand than even during my move. I’ve gotten a lot less sentimental about clothes, given how little I’ve shopped this year, and I’m much more interested in reducing the clutter than having fourteen lackluster options when I go to grab a sweater.

As far as stores, I’ve found that, price-wise, I can usually find things pretty comparable to fast fashion at TJ Maxx and Marshalls, and that thrift stores almost yield what I’m looking for if I commit to going to three or four of them in a day. Essentially, the only issue there is that you really have to dedicate the time, whether it’s at a discount store or thrift. One of the biggest draws of fast fashion is its convenience — the fact that you can stop in at any time of day and, within a few steps of the entrance, pluck something off the rack that you can find in your size and which will be a decent approximation of whatever is trendy right now. The “having to scour for your size and the right cut” is something I’ve gotten used to over the past year, but once you accept that your shopping has to be done on a specific day that you’ve dedicated to the task (instead of in a fog on your way home from work), it becomes its own pleasure. Like at the grocery store, for a clothes shopping trip now, I’ll load up a podcast and be prepared to search the entire store several times like I’m on a scavenger hunt before I head to try things on.

Alternatively, when I’m looking for something very specific that will be a pivotal wardrobe item (such as my new pair of jeans last year), I sometimes pick out the item online from a store, confirm that it’s at my location, and then go try it on. I never go to “regular” (ie, non-discount) stores without that level of preparation, because the sudden influx of convenience and “everything exists in my size” will definitely push me to spend more if I’m not explicitly prepared.

Most importantly, the shift for me has been mental more than anything else, especially when it comes to self-esteem. There is a big part of fast fashion that preys on the insecurity we all face about being “cool,” or “stylish.” I am one of those women who was never a cool girl, never a sharp dresser growing up, and always perceived myself as being behind whatever trend was going on at the time. As a teenager, I would have given a kidney for a couple-hundred-dollar shopping spree at Abercrombie. And as an adult, though I’m obviously not so crazily brand-loyal as teens tend to be, there is that same desire to be on-trend, to see something on a chic Instagram account and want to recreate it, or not want to be left with that tug-on-your-sleeves feeling of wearing something decidedly uncool when it’s too late to go home and change. Fast fashion sees that gnawing desire to be cool and trendy, and it feasts on it by providing us, each week, with a new way to spend $20 in an effort to get there.

Mentally, it’s been important to remind myself, at every turn, that I will never be the perfectly-trendy person. And though my two most recent home cities have been New York and Paris, where the pressure to look perfect according to that city’s individual standards of style is overwhelming, I will never be the picture-perfect SoHo shopper or Rive Gauche cafe-goer. That insecurity, and that need to be constantly chasing after a visual ideal that will always be just out of reach, is something that comes from not feeling good enough as a person, not as a dresser. And the more I remind myself that I am smart, accomplished, funny, and with my own distinct taste and style, the less I feel the need to imitate some woman glaring at me from an ad in a magazine.

I do like dressing and shopping and putting together outfits. I’ll never be one of those people who rejects it entirely, or goes for a “capsule wardrobe.” But I also know that my tastes are not always of-the-moment, and I’m not going to be perfectly put-together at all times. I’m just not. And that’s not something that I need to compensate for by hemorrhaging money on cheap clothes — it’s something I need to accept as part of life. I can be interested in clothes without being defined by them. I can enjoy putting together a wardrobe slowly, thoughtfully, and based on what I actually like, instead of worrying about always having the exact cut or silhouette that’s being sent down the runway. I can hate capital-F fashion and still love capital-S style. And the day I stopped medicating any insecurity with a quick trip to buy clothes I’d hate in a few weeks was the day I started feeling better. About everything.

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  • Lexie

    Rather than striking through fast fashion altogether, I try to just think about the material and how much it’s worth. There is no way I am going to pay over $50 for a polyester dress, no matter if it’s from Nordstrom or Forever 21. If Gap or Madewell has a silk dress I like, I’ll buy it from there even if those stores are considered “fast fashion.” Jeans (no matter the brand!) that have less than 2% spandex are fine with me, but the higher the spandex from there, the more they tend to stretch out and lose their shape (in my experience). No one should pay more than $25 for a cotton t-shirt, no matter if it’s Elizabeth and James or Hanes. Trying to buy natural fibers over synthetic has really helped my shopping. There are always exceptions, but this has been the easiest way for me to keep my fashion picks in check.

    • erinsux

      I honestly think the biggest and most effective change you can make is to stop buying polyester

    • Maggie

      I agree! Look for quality, not labels. I also do my best to try to stay away from stores that have bad records when it comes to how they treat their workers, although I know I’m by no means perfect on this. I suggest watching “The True Cost” for anyone who wants to know how those “fast fashion” stores can possibly sell their clothes so cheap.

  • Emily

    It really helps me to hear this…it’s much easier for me to cut back on eating out and buying expensive tickets to shows, but buying clothes and accessories to be “trendy” and “interesting” still sucks so much of my money!!

  • Can we talk about crotch disintegration on jeans for a moment because all three pairs of my 7 for all mankind jeans which I purchased at Nordstrom Rack did this as well as split horizontally at the thigh on the back (not on a seam/an area where the thighs rub). Now I know I have larger thighs and there was some spandex in the jeans which makes them less hardy than the 100% denim kind but damn if a $100 pair of designer jeans in my size does this shit. Are j Brand really any better? A friend of mine had some that split on the first wearing (she is a tiny person and they fit her). I wonder if it’s spandex content or they actually make cheaper ones to sell at Nordstrom Rack or on sample sales. I am beginning to feel that Levi’s are a better bet or maybe it’s just the spandex content issue.

    • Irisgeist

      Have you tried Levi’s? I bike quite a lot from spring to fall, and while any H&M jean would just eventually give up and rip at the crotch (happened to me already once), the Levi’s I got in 2013 still hold strong! Although as disclaimer, I don’t wear skinny jeans, but rather a classic straight cut.

    • I had the same issue with 7s! It’s been a while since I’ve invested in nice jeans but it makes sense that the spandex would have something to do with it… I wonder if the Nordstrom Rack return policy is as generous at Nordstrom? They might replace a pair for you given you’ve had the same issue with three pairs?

  • It’s cool to hear your thought process behind deciding to buy new clothes (and the fact that you have a clear thought process about it at all is inspiring, honestly). I, too, love getting nice jeans at Nordstrom Rack since they usually have a great selection and you can get nice Paige jeans for $70-$80 instead of $150+.

  • Irisgeist

    I really loved this post! after moving to another city half a year ago, I had to do a major purge of my things, specially fast-fashion clothes that I only wore a few times before they started to look shitty (bad quality), or simply were not completely of my taste/fitted right. It was an awful feeling to realise that I could have used the same amount of money for a few good quality items that would still be in good condition to keep wearing and look awesome. So I am trying to switch my mindset and my relationship with shopping. I agree completely on the non-shopping part (or at least, I had to do it in order to save money after all the relocation costs), and for me it meant to cut out the visits to shops after work on the way back home “just to look around”. Although I have considerably less clothes, every morning I can assemble in a second a work appropriate outfit that looks polished, instead of feeling like I have “nothing to wear”.
    The first purchases I have done so far were related to survive the cold winters here, namely heavy winter boots, a couple of 100% wool sweaters, and the best winter jacket I have ever put on (Wellensteyn… about 200€ on sale, but one of the best investments I’ve made in my life). I’ve heard the swedes say something like “there is not harsh winter, only bad clothes” and now I completely understand it.

    • Summer

      Haha! Det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder. My Swedish husband has bestowed this wisdom on me several times, usually in reference to my shitty jackets…. I need to make that winter jacket (and boot) investment myself. Where do you live, if I may ask? I recently moved from South Carolina to Nuremberg and am in Stockholm pretty regularly.

      • Irisgeist

        Great to hear the original phrase! I’m originally from Mexico …then I moved to Würzburg for a few years (waaay colder than Mexico, but still quite mild for the German standard -or so I was told). I honestly don’t know how I survived all that time with very shitty jackets and light shoes. Now I am in the Austrian Alps (about 1h away from Munich), and after learning that the winters are even colder and with a lot more snow, I finally decided to buy decent winter clothes and shoes.
        So great that you live in Nürnberg 🙂 ! I used to go there often while I was living in Würzburg, and is one of my fav cities!! I fell in love with the Rothbier from Alstadthof, and they have a very cool open air music festival each summer at the Markplatz. If you need any tips about the city or the surroundings, let me know.

        • Summer

          Ahh that’s so exciting! I was definitely not expecting you to say Würzburg, what a small world. We’re planning to take a day trip there in the coming weeks (and one to Bamberg, too). I LOVE the rotbier beer from Altstadthof! I came to Nürnberg several times before moving here so it hasn’t taken long for it to feel like home. I’d love to learn your favorite spots here (and for Austria actually, I’ve been to Salzburg and want to see more), if you don’t mind emailing me it’d be fun to chat. summeroutside at gmail 🙂

  • GemNoelle

    Interesting post – this has inspired to to invest in 1-2 upgraded pairs of jeans. I would love to see a post on how to build a basic wardrobe. I know you did a post a while back going through what clothing items to splurge verses save on but it could great to have something on building a simple, functional, high-quality wardrobe.

    • Alyssa

      I do like the idea of the basic wardrobe post but it can be hard to do an all-encompassing post on that. Some of us work from home and mostly wear yoga pants and sweaters, others work in the creative industry facing clients with pressure to look cool and put-together, some of us are lawyers who have to wear suits every day. There are resources if you search around for each of those lifestyles. 🙂

  • Scissors

    I know this isn’t the purpose of the story but I don’t think you’re supposed to clean jeans. That might help you not lose another pair in the future.

    I write this while wearing an H&m top and a Walmart skirt. I tried buying designer jeans once but the jeans the salesperson suggested were so tight and unflattering I never went back.

  • I so agree with this! I finally gave up shopping almost all together. We live in such a consumerist society that says you must constantly be looking for your next great deal. Can we finally just relax and be happy with all that we do have? Anyone else get tired of the fashion blog headlines that all say something like “5 tops under $20 that you NEED this fall!”.