MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now, we are going to head into the Beauty Shop. That's where we get a fresh cut on hot topics with our panel of women journalists, commentators, bloggers and activists.
We were just talking with journalist Robin Givhan about a horrific event in the fashion industry, the collapse of a building in Bangladesh that housed a number of garment factories. We were wondering whether that's causing shoppers and retailers to ask whether the obsession with cheap clothes is coming at too high of a price.
Now I want to head into the Beauty Shop and we want to talk about whether throw-away clothes and other clutter might have some meaning, not only for our closet space, but for our lives.
Robin Givhan is still with us. She's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who's covered the fashion industry for many years. Joining us now is Danielle Belton. She's editor-at-large for Clutch magazine online and creator of the BlackSnob.com. Also with us, Gail Blanke. She's a life coach and she's also author of the book, "Throw Out 50 Things: Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life."
Ladies, welcome back to everybody.
DANIELLE BELTON: Thank you.
GAIL BLANKE: Thanks for having us.
BELTON: Happy to be here.
MARTIN: Robin, I'm going to start with you. We recently read a piece in the Wall Street Journal that quoted a chief design officer at California Closets, which - you know, if you read any magazines, you'll see their ads. They, you know, make your closets more...
ROBIN GIVHAN: I have a California closet.
MARTIN: ...efficient. You have one of those. And the chief design officer there estimates that we regularly wear only about 20 percent of the clothes in our closets. Do you think that that's true?
GIVHAN: Well, personally, I know that I wear a significantly larger portion of the clothes in my closet because I'm notorious for spring cleaning, but I have seen my friends' closets and I would say yeah, that's probably true.
MARTIN: And why? Why do you think that is?
GIVHAN: Well, because I think that, you know, as I was saying earlier, you know, we have equated consumption with reward, and so we often will go out and try to reward ourselves by buying something trendy, buying something that we don't necessarily need, but just strikes our fancy at that moment.
I think it's also because department stores have gone from stocking their stores based on aesthetics and stocking them based on numbers and data and psychology and so stores are better at convincing us that we have to have something as soon as we walk through the door.
And, as for disposable fashion, I think we do buy it because it's cheap, but we don't dispose of it.
MARTIN: Gail, what do you think? And I want to note here that you work as a life coach across spheres, that you also work with people on professional development and not just kind of closet clutter, per se, so I'm interested in what you've observed.
BLANKE: Well, I think, to Robin's point - I think, if we consume too much stuff, it ends up consuming us. You know, I call it life plaque. The thing is that we - you know, in the end, we are what we think about, and a lot of what we think about is what we see around ourselves, you know, what we pack around ourselves, this life plaque.
And it can stultify us, so you know, it's spring. It's the time to weed and trim away all the debris, all the dead stuff. The little green things are trying to come up out there and they're trying to come up in our lives, so this is time to clear away anything that would weigh us down, hold us back, curb our enthusiasm, make us less than who we really are, sap our energy. And so this is the time to let go. That's why I ask everybody to throw out 50 things.
MARTIN: Well, we'll talk about that in a minute, but I want to hear more about the why of it and, Danielle, I'm going to turn to you on this. You're our, if I may say kind of gently, our young person.
MARTIN: And, since a lot of fast fashion is, in fact, kind of aimed at young people who are presumed to be very interested in keeping up with trends and things of that sort, I just wanted to ask. For you, do you see with yourself, with your friends - do you feel that there's - you know, why do you think - do you think, first of all, it is true that we're only wearing a fraction of the stuff that we have? Why do you think that is?
BELTON: I agree with the wearing a fraction of what we have, because I would say that I definitely probably only wear about 20 percent of what I own, but there's a specific reason for that. I am in my 30s. I moved to Washington, D.C. a few years ago and I went to a lot of events for my job and so what ends up happening is there's so much pressure for you to look a certain way, to dress a certain way, to have these certain types of outfits, so you just end up amassing them. You just end up amassing dresses. You end up amassing gowns for these particular events because you can't, you know, wear something more than two or three times. People start to talk about you. And I felt a lot of pressure to do that.
And so once I wasn't working daily in an office anymore, once I wasn't going to as many events, I have a closet just full of gorgeous dresses that just sit there. You know, I moved back home to St. Louis where, you know, people wear sweatpants to the grocery store, and I'm like, you know, in this giant sundress and people are looking at me like I have a problem...
BELTON: ...because I'm overdressed for everything.
MARTIN: Well, Danielle, can I ask you this though? Particularly when you're at the stage when you're building your career, do you think there's something inherently satisfying in looking at a closet full of clothes? Because it kind of says to you, I've made it.
BELTON: Oh, most definitely, there is a feeling of success in knowing that, you know, if I need a certain type of outfit, I already have it, it's there. The dangerous part of it is when you have like five different versions of the same shirt and you really only wear two of them, like you just bought it because you could.
BLANKE: Well, can you give it away? I mean couldn't you give it to somebody who could wear it right this minute?
BELTON: Oh, most definitely.
MARTIN: Well, OK. We're going to get to that in a minute. But Robin, I still want to get into, because you spend a lot of time in Europe going to the shows.
MARTIN: And what of the things that I've always been intrigued by is that, you know, I see that retailers there advertise - at least they used to advertise things very differently. I'm thinking of particularly of places that say things like: Don't buy too much. We'll just help you choose just the right thing.
MARTIN: Do you feel that there is a fundamentally different kind of attitude in the United States versus some other countries? And the reason I'm asking that is a lot of these retailers are transnational. I mean they operate in both countries. Do you think that we have a different feeling about stuff in the U.S. than maybe people in other countries do?
GIVHAN: Yeah. I mean I sort of made a scrunchy face at the idea of wearing, you know, being talked about if you were something more than once or twice, because clearly people must be talking about me constantly, because if I have a favorite dress I will wear it twice in a given week. So it is a very different attitude. I mean in Europe there is this assumption that not only will you wear things more than once or twice, you will wear them until they sort of start to fray and fall apart. And one of the possible reasons why people are more comfortable with that is because of the way that they shop. When you go into a retailer, for instance in Italy, and you meet a salesperson, that is your salesperson. That person will help you select the a wardrobe, select the shoes, select the bag, select the dress, and only work with you. If someone else comes in, that other person has to wait, because your salesperson is working with you. Versus the way that help and sales help has changed in the States, where you come into a store and you're kind of on your own. And I think to some degree that causes people not to necessarily feel like they've made the best choices. They haven't been sort of educated on the shopping experience and educated on how to put a wardrobe together that they can wear over and over.
MARTIN: We're talking with our Beauty Shop roundtable about clearing out the unworn clutter, clothes and other clutter in our lives. So, Gail, obviously you wrote your book. We talked about it previously on the program, "Throw Out 50 Things: Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life." You wrote that for a reason. Why do you think that's so important to throw out 50 things?
BLANKE: I think, well, number one, 50 is a good number because if you go around, you can go into your medicine chest, you can go into that drawer in the kitchen, certainly into your closet, you can go just about anywhere, and if you just start throwing stuff out or giving it away, or recycling it, whatever, but once you hit 50 things, a mindset comes over you and you become the kind of person who edits her life, you know, edits out, clarifies your life. And boy, is that important right now. And it, you know, as we'll probably talk about, it leads you into the really good stuff - which is the emotional and mental clutter.
MARTIN: Well, talk about that, Gail. Why don't you just go right there?
MARTIN: Why do you think that that does lead to that because some people might say, what does throwing out extra shirts have to do with emotional clarity?
BLANKE: Well, you feel so good when you, you know, clear out that drawer or that drawer in the kitchen. There's - you get energy from it and you kind of think to yourself, hey, if I could do that, what else can I do? And you start looking at things that you can edit out of your life. And once you get going, you think, hey, you know what, what about the old grudges? What about the old regrets, you know, that time I messed up - the guilt I feel for packing my closet full of stuff that I'll never wear? You know, what about thinking that I have to be perfect - which is, boy, an awful lot of the women whom I work with right now have this, they put so much pressure on themselves thinking they have to be good at everything, perfect at everything, do everything. And it's just exhausting. Maybe this is the time for me to clarify my life in terms of, you know, what do I love? What don't I? Who am I? Who am I not?
MARTIN: What about the memories, though? I mean I think Danielle, she's talking about a lot of the dresses that are in her closet. And obviously she's living in a different city where there is a different scene. But those are a lot of memories in those outfits that she acquired, accumulated.
BLANKE: And if they're good memories, then keep 'em, you know?
BELTON: It's a good thing to surround ourselves with positive stuff. If it's a good memory, if it makes you feel happy to look at it and remember that moment, and you know, hey, maybe you will wear it again now that Robin's convincing us that it's OK.
BLANKE: But then keep it. It's the stuff that makes you feel bad, the stuff that makes you feel somehow small, and that's the stuff we've got to get rid of or give away.
MARTIN: We're focusing a lot on women here. Well, we are, we happen to all be women here, but I think things may apply to men as well.
BLANKE: Guys have the same stuff.
MARTIN: Danielle, what about you? Final thought from you on this? You going to part with any of those dresses?
BELTON: Oh, well, probably not the dresses, because I do love the dresses. I do have a lot of fond memories of them. Usually what I end up getting rid of and giving away to like the Goodwill and charities are the abundance of the same shirt, because I - a lot of like staples, like white T-shirts and long-sleeved T-shirts, things like that that I just have tons of that I end up every spring, you know, dumping off somewhere.
MARTIN: Well, let me just say, I personally salute you for wearing a sundress to the grocery store.
BELTON: Thank you.
MARTIN: I absolutely have no problem with it. I think you are brightening someone's day. I think you should certainly continue.
MARTIN: Robin, a final thought from you? I mean do you have a word of wisdom here, as kind of our fashion maven, about how you would want people to think about this issue going forward?
BLANKE: Well, I mean the idea of clarity and simplicity and control and power, those are all the things that we want to get from fashion. I mean we want fashion to imbue us with those things. And the best-dressed people that I know - particularly in the fashion industry - are the ones who have the smallest wardrobe. They have honed it down to a few things that really work for them and that look fantastic on them. And the other thing I would say is that, you know, really it's a cliche, but take a lesson from sort of that European mindset about shopping, which is that you want things that become a part of you. You don't want to just sort of churn through a lot of clothes because not only is it cluttering, it takes up a lot of money.
MARTIN: What we really want is Robin Givhan to go with us next time we shop, don't we?
MARTIN: I know that's not your job. Robin Givhan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and contributor to The Washington Post, with us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Gail Blanke is a life coach and author of the book "Throw Out 50 Things: Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life." Danielle Belton is the editor-at-large for Clutch Magazine online, creator of BlackSnob.com. They both joined us from our bureau in New York. Ladies, thank you all so much.
BELTON: Thank you.
BLANKE: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.