Q&A: The Year of No Clothing Purchases

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Since last September, a group of women have been on a fashion fast, refusing to buy any article of clothing for 12 months. What have they learned so far from The Great American Apparel Diet, as the experiment’s called? For one thing, giving up clothes shopping is much easier than giving up wine.

When The Great American Apparel Diet began, 20 women made the commitment to make due with rummaging in their closets for a year. At last check, there were 97 participants from seven countries.

Six of these dieters, including GAAD founder Sally Bjornsen, answered my questions about their experiences thus far. As you’ll see in the Q&A that follows, their reasons for joining the movement vary. For most, it was simply a personal choice to reevaluate shopping habits. Saving thousands of dollars in the process is a bonus.

In no way do these women hold themselves up as models of ideal consumer behavior and restraint. Instead, they’re human beings who struggle with an issue, and who own up to their shortcomings: Four of the six admit here that they have already broken down and bought some piece of clothing that they just had to have.

What made you want to be a part of the Great American Apparel Diet?
Sally Bjornsen: Personally, I found that I was giving clothes away that were hardly worn. It was getting ridiculous, items that when I first bought them I thought that I could not live without were no longer interesting or appropriate. It made me wonder … what do I really wear if I am giving away all these perfectly good clothes? On closer examination the answer to that question was … jeans and a t-shirt. Why then was my annual clothing expenditure so high? Why did I feel like I needed so much? And why was I contributing the incredible waste we Americans create when I knew better? These were the questions that led to The Great American Apparel Diet.

Tricia Young: I was making the ten-hour drive home from my parents after Thanksgiving when I heard about it on an Atlanta radio station. I immediately looked it up when I got home and requested to join in. I’m always up for a challenge and thought this would be a great one. My husband and I are working hard to pay off all debt (mortgage and one vehicle) and I thought this would help towards that. I only buy necessities, and clothes used to fall in that category for me. When I heard others were going cold turkey for a year I knew I could do it too. I agreed to begin January 1 to give myself a month to get my mind around the idea, but after sending Sally the first email I knew I wanted to start right away. Game on!! I haven’t bought anything since the end of November!!

Jenny Broome: I thought this was a great opportunity to practice reuse and wear out of clothes and make due with my reject clothes pile and all the while reduce my global footprint.

Stephanie Greco: Well, when Sally first e-mailed me about it, I had an immediate “Yes” response. No second thoughts. Just flat out “Yes.” I don’t have a shopping problem — actually I don’t even like shopping, but I also know that I buy when there really is no need. It was a question initially of just creating thoughtfulness around this action of shopping, and it has now become MUCH greater.

Here’s why: 7 years ago, my husband and I and our two children (then 11 and 3 years old) decided to move from NYC. It was after my husband had seen the second plane hit the World Trade Center Tower while heading south to a meeting on 5th Ave. This moment forever changed the lives of so many, but for us it became a catalyst for so much more. It took us over a year and a half to make the move. But when my husband was ready, he quit his extremely fruitful and financially stable job, we sold a large 5,000 sq. ft. house (that we had renovated to the max) and everything in it that couldn’t fit in our new rented home in Seattle, and moved. We knew we were either crazy or courageous (that question still hasn’t been answered!). We did this for some simple reasons: We all — as a family and a couple — wanted more time together. We also wanted to pursue work that made us happy and fulfilled instead of just financially well-off. Crazy huh?! Especially now. The rationale was really quality of life for all of us. We had a great house, great jobs, but no time together. Good life by all socially measurable standards, but not for us.

Anyway, the concept of scaling back our lives took us about 5 years to really “get.” Now as we enter our 7th year, and the economy has shifted drastically, it has caused us to have an even greater awareness of what this move has all meant. We have never lived more modestly. We have never had more time together. My husband can fish for days at a time in the summer. I practice yoga regularly and, as a graphic artist, have had the chance to get back to painting, something I love and have not had the time or opportunity to do in 15 years. And most importantly we both have the opportunity to be available for our children.

So long story short: This concept of shopping without need or intention was perfect timing. It is a continuation — philosophically — of exactly what we are trying to do with our lives in every other area.

Stacya Silverman: What got me involved with this apparel diet was Sally, she is a really interesting person, and she was so psyched about the whole project it was contagious. The funny part is, after I joined in, I realized I would really be the oddball of the group — because I actually LOVE clothes and shopping. The fact that we could still buy shoes and accessories really made it easier for me. I noticed that some of the people who joined really had this anti-shopping attitude anyway, or were trying to get away from consumerism. I do think our culture is off the deep end in that regard, but I also don’t think we should give up all together. I love that quote from Helena Rubenstein: “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.” It sounds harsh, but what she means to say is, you don’t have to be born beautiful to have some style. It makes me sad to see women who have not built up their wardrobe give up shopping, because, let’s face it, people do judge you on how you present yourself.

(Read: What I Learned By Not Getting into a Car for a Year.)
Before starting the “diet,” how often did you go shopping for clothes, and roughly how much did you spend in the course of, say, a month or a year?
Rebecca Kotch: My clothes shopping drastically reduced about 4 years ago – after my son was born. Now, as the single mom, I don’t have the “urge” or the time to shop. I did in the past when I needed something sassy for a big business event. And spending up to $800 at a plop was okay. Today, I have no inkling to spend that amount of money nor would I or could I — not based on my newfound freelance income.

Stephanie Greco: I really never “set out” to go shopping. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t really like shopping. I will be out and about and find something I like, try it on and buy it. Even if I knew I didn’t need it necessarily. It was more about just having something new, different, contemporary, etc. Money spent each month: anywhere between $50 and $500, and more along the average of $200.

Jenny Broome: I was a random consumer, what I have found is that I really don’t spend much, maybe $1000 per if that.

Sally Bjornsen: Before the diet you could say that I was always on the “hunt” for the next “perfect thing.” I was completely unconscious about the frequency and pace at which I would buy stuff. If I looked at what I spent annually it would likely be in the $5K range. I am certain that 3/4 of that I did not wear or wore only a few times. There just isn’t enough time in the day or opportunity to wear all the clothes I had, especially when jeans and a t-shirt were my “go-to” items for everyday wear.

Stacya Silverman: It is hard to track my expenses on clothes over the years. One of the department stores I shop at here in the Northwest started this program where they sent you at the end of the year what you spent on a pie chart and also in dollars and cents. And I was shocked!

I actually didn’t want to see the number. I thought, wow, I spent that much? I don’t like to add it up because the money anxiety thing would suck the joy out of living, you know? Plus, I am really into quality over quantity now, and quality can cost more. But, it also lasts longer and looks better longer.

Tricia Young: Before starting the diet, I would browse online daily and occasionally make purchases. I’m a stay-at-home mom, which gives me a lot of time for shopping during the day. I used to frequent the stores within miles of my home. I have never been one to spend $200 on a shirt, but if I could find a deal and get a $200 shirt for $40 I thought I had to have it. This adds up quickly. I would say I used to spend $100 to $200 a month on clothes, shoes, and accessories.

In the past, have you ever tried to give up other things — smoking, alcohol, French fries, or whatever? If so, how do those experiences compare with your current one? What’s harder, and why?
Jenny Broome: I have, and this experience proves easier for me. When it comes to pleasure from food or drink that is much more of difficult habit to break because body enjoys them so much more. The clothes thing is all in the head.

Stephanie Greco: As part of my yoga training, we were asked to look at breaking a habitual behavior, so yes, I’ve tried. But the time frame was very short — 2 weeks max. I have no strong addictions — to food, alcohol, smoking (which I’ve never even tried), etc. so about the only other thing I remember giving up was potato chips at Lent!
Stacya Silverman: I gave up all sugar, including maple syrup, honey, agave, high sugar fruits, etc. for two whole years. I felt amazing. Not sure how the sugar crept back in, but I still consume a lot less than I did before the two-year diet. I keep hoping I will get the will power to do it again. With that diet, it wasn’t as hard after two or three weeks, because everything tasted better after a while. Even a really perfect, ripe tomato tasted sweeter. I felt more energy and I lost weight. I slept better and I was proud of myself for kicking a lifelong addiction (although I am sure it is nothing compared to quitting smoking or other drug addictions).

Tricia Young: I have tried to go on different diets for weight loss and they’ve been impossible. So far this hasn’t been. I think it’s been easier because I can still browse if I want to. Browsing at French fries never works!

Sally Bjornsen: I have cut back on alcohol for months at a time but that’s about it. I find giving up apparel purchases to be much easier. If I don’t choose to go shopping it is “out of sight, out of mind.” With alcohol it is more pervasive throughout my life, at home, socializing, eating out, etc. So much of our social lives are based around alcohol so I find that to be more difficult.
Rebecca Kotch: I have attempted to give up my wine habit. I think I made it 8 days, and then back to the “mommy juice” as I so affectionately call my evening choice of drink. When Sally mentioned going on the wagon for the month of January, I just knew there would be no way I could remove wine from my diet. This clothes thing is a lot easier.

(Read: A Blogger’s Year of Getting Discounts Just By Asking for Them.)
Have there been moments when it is really difficult to stick to the commitment? When, and what happened?
Sally Bjornsen: Right now I would love to buy a new pair of jeans, not that I need them. My favorite jeans are completely worn out and I want a new pair. This forces me to rediscover what jeans I already have in my closet (I have 8 pair). I fell off the wagon when I arrived at the gym to find I had forgotten to pack my workout pants. I had to buy a pair or go home. I had booked a babysitter and made arrangements to go to the gym that I didn’t want to scrap. So instead I bought a pair of lululemon pants and sucked up the guilt.

Jenny Broome: OH you bet. Usually when I am down or my ego had taken a beating. I want something new to infuse confidence. I did cheat once because my tees were worn out and unwearable.

Stephanie Greco: Much to my surprise, it hasn’t been that hard. For sure, there have been moments where I’ve been a bit sad or down and I’d love to buy myself something new to “just make me feel better.” But instead, I’ve had to deal with those emotions in a much different way.

Tricia Young: I found a coat yesterday on Jcrew.com that is a must have. I actually need it, but resisted the urge to buy it. I will regret it next fall and winter when I pay full retail for something similar, but I will not break my commitment. Oh how I want that beautiful coat for $129!

Rebecca Kotch: Yes, I do have a story. It’s my confession, since I have yet to confess to the GAAD gals. In December I had a big surprise birthday to go to, and I just wanted to have a great pair of skinny black jeans. After multiple drive bys (or walk-bys) I finally succumbed to the dressing room at the GAP. Their skinny black jeans, however, were a bit too skinny. So I raced over to Ann Taylor Loft, and lo and behold found the perfect pair of black jeans – and since they were having some ridiculous sale, my total came to $21. That is a steal! Such a steal that I almost felt like they were “free” and I really didn’t actually buy anything -– and so I didn’t really have to confess. Poor logic I know.

I also had to plead to buy pajama bottoms –- that was not part of the deal –- but I really really really needed something for the winter. It does get below 45 degrees in LA! And my second plead was cycling shorts. I think they should be allowed. They are next of kin to the underwear category –- and we ARE ALLOWED to buy underwear during this journey.

Stacya Silverman: It gets harder as I go along, and I have cheated. When I cheated, I felt a rush of energy, like how Ferris Bueller must have felt when they got away with fooling the school and drove off into the city. I did have to confess to the group, and I might have to again. I ordered a coat on Bluefly.com. If it looks great when I take it out of the box I will keep it. And confess again. So the clothes thing is harder for me, even though I didn’t have a “shopping addiction” before this or anything like that. What led me to these moments when I couldn’t stick to the commitment was a situation where something perfect is presented to me, and I have a feeling that if I don’t buy it I will regret it. When I cheated the first time, it was at a private consignment sale, and there was a Missoni turtleneck. I can’t explain it, but I just had to have it and I knew I could wear it for the rest of my life if I took good care of it. So perfect, so well made, such a great price. So I cheated.

(Read: How to Eat on a Dollar a Day.)
Any good tips you’d care to share for putting together outfits without spending a penny?
Rebecca Kotch: Yes: Have a date with your closet and drawers. Clean everything out and purge –- and at the same time, pretend like some of the items you have never seen before. You have to be clever in your quest to make new outfits. Oh, and buy a few scarves: prints, patterns and bold colors make a dull look happy.

Jenny Broome: Accessorize! Scarves, update outfits with new shoes or cool jewelry, new tights! (We can buy accessories.)

Stacya Silverman: Go through your old clothes and see what you can resurrect. Lots of women forget what they have in the closet. It is good to save buttons, because many times we don’t wear something because a single button has fallen off. We put it in the “I will get to this later” pile and never wear a favorite item all because of a chore that would take five minutes and is free, as long as you have the right button. Also, this diet has made me realize how great accessories are.

Sally Bjornsen: Most people have more than enough to wear in their own closets. When you can’t go buy new items just because your “bored with your wardrobe,” it forces you to take another look at things. I find when I spend more time in my closet I discover items that I haven’t worn in a while that can spice things up. It’s about not being lazy and knowing what you own.

Tricia Young: Look at your closet in a different way. I used to think of tops in categories for work, church, play dates, date nights, girls night, etc. I realized a couple weeks in to the diet I could have a new wardrode if I put new things together. I’m loving wearing things I have owned for years and never wore.

What have you learned about yourself, your wardrobe, your shopping habits, and even about your family and friends while taking part in this?
Stephanie Greco: I’ve learned that I NEED very little. I may WANT a lot more, but I certainly don’t need it. I’ve learned that we are used to so much excess we can’t even see it. I wouldn’t have called myself a fashion excessive person, but I’ve got more than I need for sure. In terms of my shopping habits, I’ve learned that I like not having it as an option to pass time. It’s just “off the table.” It’s one less thing to think about and I find it kind of liberating.

Jenny Broome: What I have learned is some serious patience to ride out these resurging needs for instant gratification with regards to buying clothes.

Tricia Young: I have more willpower than I thought! I’m discovering new hobbies instead of shopping during my free time. I now get to the gym 5 mornings a week because I’ve cut a large part of my life out. I don’t miss running out before an event to find something to wear because I head upstairs and find it in my own closet. I’m saving money in other areas as well because I’m avoiding shopping areas. It’s been a great experience. I hope to continue it past August. My friends doubted I’d stick to it, but so far I have! They haven’t jumped on board yet, but I’m sure they think of it when buying something.

Rebecca Kotch: I have learned that I really don’t think I need clothes the way I used to — that no one really NEEDS anything, we just WANT lots of things. You have to change your perspective. And truly, if you look at the world around you, and the only problem you might have is that you can’t buy clothes, well to me, that’s not really a problem at all.

Stacya Silverman: What I have learned from this apparel diet is that a good tailor is so important. Back to the things we don’t wear because of some minor thing, like skirt length: It is so easy to have the hem on things changed, so I have been doing this for my clothes that are too big, too long, lousy buttons, easily repaired tears, or just poor fit. Two of my skirts were so boxy and plain, and made me look like I had no shape. So this great tailor in town, Sarah Harlett, took them both in to fit my shape perfectly. Now they are my favorite items and I wear them all the time, so I feel less wasteful of the money I spent on these things but never wore because of fit.

I also realized that I do believe very strongly that people should have clothes they love. In Seattle, you can live in fleece jackets, sweatpants, and Merrells and fit right in. I think these people would have a much easier time on TGAAD. I am struggling a little. We will see when the coat from Bluefly.com shows up …

Sally Bjornsen: I am not as much of a “shopaholic” as I thought I was. I am relieved to not have to shop. I have a lot more free time to spend searching for other things that interest me. Occasionally I will scan the web to see what’s in style but I don’t spend the hours I used to spend pouring over fashion sites and mapping out my next purchase. It’s a huge relief to know that I can’t buy anything. Also, while accessories are OK to buy while on the diet, I am not even really interested in that. I am no longer beholden or hypnotized by the idea that fashion isn’t good unless it is brand new. Fashion is about personal style and how you wear things.

I have become interested in creative ways to be fashionable without being so “consumptive.” I have begun to follow a few sites that I never would have imagined, eco stiletto and eco fashion world. I am now more interested in where apparel is made and how it is made. I definitely think that at the end of the year I will shop differently.