• Navmalika Sidhu

The anatomy of a sustainable wardrobe

Updated: Jun 2

Have you ever felt the more clothes you have, the more muddled your styling choices become? Well, I certainly do. When I look back to a time when I had fewer clothes, I realise was able to make quicker and better styling choices—choices that reflected my personal style better. Over the years, though, I’ve accumulated more than I need, and have often found myself struggle to put a look together. And this, in spite of having a fairly well-organised wardrobe. And so, lately, I’ve been trying to re-examine my wardrobe and simplify it—build a capsule wardrobe, if you may. These are the biggest questions I ran into, as I’m sure, will anyone else looking to make their closet more sustainable, while keeping it fashionable:

How can I make better buying decisions?

How can I better organise my closet, so all my clothes actually get worn?

How can I declutter my closet sustainably?

If you’re in the same boat as me, I did the research—and some extra homework—so you won’t have to!


Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

Pick quality over quantity: The mutual consensus seems to be, when an item of clothing holds a higher price value, we tend to care for it more, extending its life and, hence, making it more sustainable. Shelina Jokhiya, founder of DeCluttr Me, a UAE-based professional organizing service, and author of Can You Find It in Five Seconds?, believes luxury clothing items make for a more sustainable wardrobe, due to their superior material. Style coach Silke Ahlden recommends buying an item only when you can think of at least three ways to style it. “Be sure it’ll make a great addition to your existing wardrobe,” she elaborates.

Borrow or rent: A sustainable wardrobe is built of smart buying decisions, which are also easy on the pocket. Be open to sharing clothes with friends or family members—frequently, but especially for important events. That new dress is not a necessity. Next time you’re tempted to buy something new for an occasion, ask yourself: Will I be able to fully utilise this dress, or will it just sit in my cupboard afterwards? Ahlden, who recently moved to Dubai, reveals that when she needed a dress for Eid, she simply borrowed it from a friend. “Something like that would have just sat in my closet for a long time, without being used,” she says. “Borrowing was the smart thing to do!”

Photo by George Bakos on Unsplash

Go shopping alone: Shopping alone can seem mundane and even pointless. But as someone who’s tried it, I can assure you, that’s not the case. A couple years ago, I was living in another country and didn’t have a lot of friends, so I went shopping alone and, truth be told, I found it refreshing. I purchased only what I loved, ended up buying way lesser and felt more content. Ahlden, who also helps clients make better shopping choices, says shopping with friends can sometimes push you to buy more, often things you had no intention of buying otherwise or are unlikely to wear. “Friends can have a biased view, encouraging decisions you may not otherwise be inclined towards,” she elaborates. There are also differences in taste that may end up leaving you confused and dissatisfied. Consider the whys while buying something. “Refrain from emotional shopping, or retail therapy,” Ahlden adds. “It’s less therapeutic and more cluttering!”


Categorise your clothes: One of the first wardrobe organising hacks I picked up, along the way, was to segregate clothes by category… tops, jeans, shirts etc. Many, like our design head Rishika Goyal, prefer to sub-categorise their clothes into home clothes, party clothes, office clothes, and so on. “It saves me so much time in the mornings,” she says. Ahlden recommends turning the hanger around to indicate clothes you’ve already worn, like our business associate, Ridhima Singh, who stacks her worn clothes separately, so she can go through all her clothes without repetition!

Arrange them by colour: Jokhiya recommends organising by colour gradients, moving from from white to yellow, orange, all the way to black. “It makes it easy for my clients to see their clothes and also understand what colours they use the most,” she explains. For prints and heavier clothes, she suggests taking the base colour into consideration. “I do also then sub-organise based on the main print colour, but that is just me being pedantic,” she adds. “Though that does work better if your eye naturally catches the print colour rather than the base colour. The key is to organise so you can put your look together in under five seconds!”

Photo by piotr szulawski on Unsplash

Make them stand out: If you have enough hanging space, put the full outfit on one hanger and hang it so you can see it easily and quickly. “The items you wear often should be easily accessible,” Jokhiya guides. “Hanging them helps with that. If that’s not possible, fold and store them on the lower shelves.” Work around space limitations by storing your occasion wear and heavily embellished items in saree/kurta bags (available online as well as at local stores, on higher shelves. “Label these bags so you know what is inside and can access them quickly and easily,” Johiya says. Editor Prerna Singh Butalia, a proud owner of numerous handcrafted sarees, prefers to split up her ethnic wear, storing her sarees and blouses separately. “It makes it so much easier to mix and match and experiment and update your look,” she says. “I roll up my blouses and keep them standing in a drawer, so I can see them all at one glance, and decide which will work best with the saree I have at hand.”

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Store them right: Stack your clothes as per the season. “Put the items that are more in use, at the time, on the lower, easier to access shelves and store the other items at the top,” says Jokhiya. “Swap the arrangement when the weather turns.” You can use boxes to store items you don’t use often. “But woollen items must always be folded to ensure they retain their shape,” Jokhiya instructs.


Be your own person: “Our personal style is constantly evolving—we carefully curate our image, from time to time,” says Ahlden. Regardless, most of us can agree we often fall prey to trends dictated by the media, which only serves to separate us from our personal style. Take jeans, for example. “Jeans are a classic, having survived the test of time, and finding pride of place in every wardrobe,” states Ahlden. And yet, from time to time, we’ve been told how we should wear ours—skinny, straight, distressed, bootcut... But at the end of the day, jeans are jeans. So, step up, own and wear them however you’re comfortable.

“Jeans are a classic, having survived the test of time, and finding pride of place in every wardrobe,” states Ahlden
Photo by Lucas Lenzi on Unsplash

Be a proud repeater: For far too long now, popular culture has dictated that once an outfit finds its way into the public eye or onto social media, it cannot be repeated. But take a leaf out of the books of celebs like Jane Fonda, Joaquin Phoenix and, more recently, Rickey Kej, and repeat your outfits with panache. For weddings, Ahlden recommends borrowing an outfit for at least one of the functions. “The only caveat is, you have to be convinced it’s the positive thing to do,” Ahlden says.

Don’t be afraid to experiment: “Break it up, mix and match, elevate that casual look,” Silkhe says is the secret to developing a new look. With ethnic wear, too, don’t stick to buying in sets—tap into that creativity and navigate your style with your buying choices.


Pick your essentials: Capsule wardrobe is limited to choice and a personal style, says Ahlden. If you find yourself reaching out for the same set of clothes, time and again, those might be your capsule wardrobe. “Pick any 10 items out of your wardrobe that you’d pick if you were going for a trip or say a fire broke out,” she adds, on how to choose your capsule wardrobe effectively. It can be an extremely emotional process as we might have to part with some memories, too. “Kiss your clothes goodbye and part with them,” she suggests.

Share, donate or resell: Marie Kondo and The Minimalists may have popularised decluttering, but the how of it is critical to sustainability. Ahlden, who has collaborated with sustainable and slow fashion designers, believes; So, what do we do with the rest? You can swap or share them with your family members (make sure to ask them first), give to your domestic help and even donate to charity—only as long as they’re in wearable condition. A swap party with your friends or colleagues is a great idea! With thrift shops gaining momentum, you can also resell your clothes.

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Trash sensibly: While there’s enough and more you can do with clothes that are in great condition, what do you do with clothes that have been worn till their end of life? If they’re made of natural fibres, composting them is best. For the rest, Karthik Natarajan, who works with Bengaluru-based Hasiru Dala, an organisation that engages with sanitation workers and ragpickers, emphasises quality waste segregation. “You can give the clothes to your waste picker, and they will handle the rest,” he says. “But segregation is key. Your garment waste cannot be mixed with your wet waste. Make a separate bag and make sure to tell your garbage picker what the contents are. Waste clothing is mostly used as scrap for felting, or is converted into carpets.”