Are Capsule Wardrobes the Future of Fashion?
In 1985, American designer Donna Karan made a name for herself by debuting a simple yet poignant collection of seven essential pieces rendered in an all-black color scheme: a bodysuit, sheer black tights, wrap skirt, loose-fitting trousers, tailored jacket, cashmere sweater and white dress shirt. Her runway show featured models assembling a variety of outfits that interchanged these pieces. While it can be argued that the items were already stalwarts in the American woman’s closet, it was Karan’s emphasis on them as the only pieces one needed to build an efficient wardrobe that made them fresh. Particularly during a time when women’s roles were expanding in the workplace, Karan’s method was seen as a power move. Business of Fashion describes it as a “conceptual shift in fashion.” By highlighting these pieces as buildable in nature and easy to wear, Karan shifted the function of a wardrobe from one that women worked to fit within, into one that worked with their lives.
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Karan’s version of a simplified wardrobe is but one example of the “capsule” collection. The term is often used to describe an abbreviated, intentional selection of essential items that can be worn from season to season without interruption. The basis of a capsule wardrobe represents functionality and sustainability, while speaking to our human need for order. We are constantly inundated with occasions where we need to dress and “look the part,” but that can often be time consuming and lead to unnecessary chaos in our lives. The appeal of Karan’s work lay in its ease; the simplicity of her seven pieces highlighted an instinctual reaction to getting dressed. The variety showcased through the interchanging looks continued to reveal a hidden truth: while the capsule wardrobe embraces a “one size fits all” solution in its approach, its bare bones nature also serves as an opportunity for personalization through style.
The term “capsule” was first reported to be used by London-based shop owner
Susie Faux in the 1970s. She coined it in an effort to promote timeless dressing; she wanted her clients to recognize the power in buying a few well-made pieces versus utilizing countless resources to stay on trend in clothing that would not be relevant beyond the season. Designer Sandra Garratt agrees with this thinking, stating, “You don’t have to have different wardrobes for each occasion or life change.” Garratt knows this firsthand through the creation of her innovative modular design brands Multiples and Units, which launched in 1981 and went on to make her a household name. The pieces were a variety of separate items that coordinated together seamlessly, heavily building on circular shapes that were easy to replicate each season. Her collections were carried in department stores across the country as an accessible style that worked for all body types and occupations. Styles were crafted in a cotton interlock knit that gave them the ability to be worn multiple ways, like a tube skirt that could triple as a belted sash or top.
The start of the modern capsule can be attributed to the rise of American ready-to-wear. The esteemed craft of clothes making in Europe was halted in 1940 due to World War II, which set a stage upon which American style could shine. Designers in the United States developed a distinctive language that favored practicality and utility, which many took as a show of support for the war effort. Fifth Avenue department store Lord and Taylor heavily promoted patriotism through what they dubbed “The American Look” by spotlighting homegrown talent. Designer Claire McCardell became the face of this movement; she was well versed in dressmaking through her time studying the craft in Paris during the late 1920s, but brought a new energy to America by utilizing her skillset to make beautiful clothing that allowed the wearer freedom of movement. It wasn’t occasion wear, but instead these pieces transitioned easily between whatever priorities arose on a given day. McCardell even championed a wardrobe system based on mix and match separates in the late 30s; it was not well received at that moment, but was certainly forward-thinking. Her dedication to the functionality of clothing, without losing any of its glamorous appeal, became an imperative source of inspiration for many who came after her.
The rush of women entering the corporate workforce in the 60s and 70s furthered the capsule’s appeal. Designer Anne Klein’s “fully coordinated closet” concept became popular for its ability to be matched into a variety of ensembles that effortlessly complimented a woman’s modern lifestyle. Her work was a starting point for a young Donna Karan who, while pregnant, assisted Klein during the infamous Battle of Versailles in Paris in 1973 and completed Klein’s final collection upon her passing. Another American ingenue, Liz Claiborne, similarly banked on her prediction that women would want easy, feminine pieces to wear to work instead of trying to fit into a more buttoned-up uniform. Claiborne’s take was a huge success in the mass market, continuing to make the case for American sportswear as a viable style.
In the present, the idea of a capsule wardrobe continues to be upheld by many in the apparel industry and beyond as a practical way of exercising sustainable living- countless social media challenges and a documentary film reveal how “minimalist” now describes both a design aesthetic and a lifestyle. The capsule also coincides with a shift in a luxury market that is experiencing major growing pains. While the novelty of labels like Alessandro Michele’s Gucci or Jeremy Scott’s Moschino continue to hold significant appeal in its intricacy and quirkiness, there are several labels that are focusing their attention on developing essential items supremely well and making a name for themselves while doing so. Consider emerging label Wardrobe.NYC; started by Vogue Australia Fashion Director Christine Centenera and Australian designer Josh Goot in 2016, the label produces a needs-based wardrobe that can be purchased as full sets of either five or ten pieces. Their work caters to a void in the industry for intentional design, fulfilling those seeking an urban-minded uniform that works with an active lifestyle.
The foundation of a capsule is rooted in practical design—it builds on the original function of a wardrobe to simply clothe and protect. In sticking to the basics, it forces us to consider what we really need and then allows us to evolve from there. That proved to be the starting point for Goot and Centenera as they developed their first collection. The co-founders have described their pieces as a way to reduce the excess in our lives: “By having great quality essentials in one’s wardrobe, it means you aren’t constantly searching for something that you might not have. It alleviates the need to have so much stuff.” Each capsule that they produce is based around a singular theme: Collection one focused largely on tailoring while collection two, Sport, tackled the athleisure trend and included an exclusive footwear collaboration with Adidas. The color palette for both collections is primarily black and white, allowing everything to coordinate seamlessly. In an interview with Office Magazine in 2017, Goot referred to Wardrobe.NYC’s offerings as “modern ensemble dressing;” the idea being that consumers are technically purchasing full looks that are being shown in pieces. It’s an interesting take when contrasted against our longstanding attraction to the “it” item.
The work of California based artist Andrea Zittel provided incredible insight for Centenera and Goot’s efforts. Zittel is known for exercising an art practice that she deliberately lives within and that explores what we need to survive through the creation of furniture, clothes, housing units, and more. Apartamento Magazine makes her ambitions clear in that she “sets out to improve the way we live.” By focusing almost exclusively on how to solve the conundrum of doing more with less, Zittel’s experiments have helped to shape ideas that she has continued to live out herself. She notably has her own version of a capsule wardrobe that she creates each season and sticks to strictly, as a way of minimizing the attention paid to getting dressed, without infringing upon our desire to express ourselves outwardly. Zittel’s work is a study in refinement and, as Goot additionally notes in the Office Magazine feature, speaks to our changing views on both living and consumption. Our habits are continuing to evolve which has led to a broadened definition of affluence. It’s not so much about the amount we can buy or which “drop” our pieces are from; value is now placed on the efficiency of what is purchased.
So while the idea of a capsule wardrobe is far from a new concept, it feels particularly suited in this moment because it cuts through some of the noise we’ve created with the race of fashion. Designers are now given opportunities through the direct to consumer model to create and experiment in their own way, without the need for approval from corporate backers (as was the case with McCardell’s version of the capsule.) And as the fashion system becomes less traditional each year, the capsule seems to harken back to a time when there was a sense of order with the apparel that was created. Garratt, who has watched the industry transition through her own label and while having worked under the likes of Halston and Ossie Clark, sees 1992 as the final year of fashion as we knew it. This was a time that included “a set number of collections for each year” and a general rule that under 20% of the collections would be “devoted to novelty items.” Demand for fresh product has increasingly risen beyond that, leading to the creation of costly specialty items that are swiftly copied by fast fashion manufacturers.
Wardrobe.NYC is partly centered around the idea of making luxury accessible-their pieces use materials sourced in Italy, yet are only available through their website, which eliminates retail margins and allows a range of consumers to attain a full wardrobe for the price of a designer bag. Their view is one that sees a “conscious and liberated model for the future of luxury.” Garratt also continues to sell her modular designs through her own website, under an e-commerce model that she coins the “SDGBox.” Box is a retail term for store, and Garratt’s site offers a variety of “boxes” including the ModBox, which houses her signature pieces, and the EuwBox that contains utilitarian urban outerwear and accessories. Her take on the capsule focuses on the use of natural and organic materials in her designs that are offered at a moderate price point. While her work includes quality tailoring and details, it is created with the purpose of being useful in our everyday lives, regardless of where that may take us. Garratt reminds us that we cannot underestimate the mundane: “We have more everyday [moments] than we do special occasions.”
A personal manifesto written by Zittel in 2005 speaks to the core appeal of the capsule: “What makes us feel liberated is not total freedom, but rather living in a set of limitations that we have created and prescribed for ourselves.” In paring down our wardrobes, we assert a form of control that creates liberty. The difference between a capsule and say, a school uniform, is that the wearer is the one deciding on the rules to follow. Garratt considers the capsule to be “just like legos; it can be anything.” It’s ability to be tackled from a variety of touchpoints including price and fabrication ensure that there is an option for everyone. This kind of wardrobe is one that insists upon creating solutions to our problems in getting dressed, instead of providing more “stuff” for us to marvel at. In an era where everything is fair game and trends are constantly in motion, those who choose to dress from a smaller collection of pieces stand out, even when trendier pieces are added for variety. Instead of chasing that which is of the moment, one remains ever relevant, not easily placed in a certain time or defined by a specific style. The capsule wardrobe proposes that refinement, as it helps us to preserve time and resources, is a luxury.