Stacy Smallwood is passionate about fashion. As owner and head buyer of Hampden Clothing, an upscale women's boutique in Charleston, S.C., Smallwood travels regularly to Paris, New York, Milan and London, where she buys the most up-to-date stylish clothing and accessories not only for her store but also herself. Over time — call it an occupational hazard — she has acquired a lot of clothes.
As a result, her home closet — an extra bedroom she had transformed into a large walk-in — was a disaster, nothing like the sleek, well-edited and organized shelves and displays in her fashionable King Street shop. Clothes, shoes and bags were jumbled together; she had never bothered to edit out older or unworn items. And she spent years rationalizing keeping dresses and bags by saying, "I love it and might wear it again."
But most mornings she would wake up, stare blankly at her closet, and then, like many women, gravitate to the same pieces over and over again. "Despite being in fashion, I was struggling to get dressed every morning," Smallwood said, "so I would often start my day in a bad mood."
'Sick of the mess'
Then one day she hit a wall. "I looked around and was sick of the mess, and I knew the only way for me to get clarity of my mind was to start with my environment."
Smallwood enlisted the help of professional organizer Julia Pinsky, founder of Pinsky Project. Pinsky, who had a long career in fashion and merchandising before beginning her organizing business, specializes, as she says, "in making a home look minimal, yet maximized."
Pinsky began tackling Smallwood's closet as she does all projects: by sorting all of the items in one place. "You have to take everything out to see what you actually own," Pinsky said. This means sorting by category, not by location. Take shoes, for example: Women often keep dressy shoes in their bedroom closet, boots in a coat closet and everyday shoes in a mudroom. But when organizing, you want to see all of your shoes in one place so that you can edit out those items that you don't need. "Do not put anything back until you have completed the entire sorting process," Pinsky warned.
When it came to editing, Smallwood followed (and still follows) Pinsky's rule: If you haven't worn it in a year, sell or donate it. Most items Smallwood was able to sell on the Real Real, an online luxury consignment shop. Pinsky also recommends selling items on the website Tradesy and donating to local thrift shops.
After editing, Pinsky assessed the remaining items, grouping clothes that needed to hang together and those that needed to be folded or stacked together. She then set about reworking and maximizing Smallwood's space. "We got rid of all existing shelving and built a new system that used the full height and width of the room." For a cost-friendly option, Pinsky recommended using Ikea's Pax system. By creating an efficiently designed framework that included hanging space, shelves, drawers and bins, Smallwood even ended up having enough room for a vanity area.
Once the closet architecture was in place, Pinsky and Smallwood organized the items by category: tops, dresses, jackets, pants, skirts, shoes and bags were each given their designated area and within each grouping, the items were arranged by color. Pinsky says if you make sure every item has a place, then you have no excuse not to put it back.
For hanging items, Smallwood invested in new coordinating hangers, which help create visual order and symmetry within the closet. "It's crazy how much easier it is to get dressed in the morning when you start your day with a sense of calm," she said. "I am no longer frustrated by not knowing where to start."
As for Pinsky's parting words to Smallwood, she thinks they were, "Do not bring anything into your house that you do not need, love or will have no use for, even if it was free, a good deal or a gift."
The exercise had a profound effect on Smallwood: "I think we often don't realize how much our environment plays such a big role on our mood, our self-esteem and even our style and the way we dress. By organizing my closet, I can now create looks I had never put together before and I don't dread that moment every day of deciding what to wear."
Pinsky added, "When you are organized, everything in your life begins to feel more efficient." But, she cautioned, "you have to be ready to make the change. You have to be ready to let go of things."
Elizabeth Mayhew, a "Today" show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of "Flip! for Decorating."