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How I Somehow Saved Money When I Started Spending More On Clothes

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Photos by Leslie Kirchhoff

I have worked as a fashion and celebrity stylist for over a decade, which is a fancy way to say that I find clothes for people to wear. It involves so much more than that, though -- tons of traveling, attending shows and presentations for weeks on end, poring over spreadsheets, hauling enormous trunks, missing flights, losing sleep, forgetting meals, and washing other people's clothing (and sometimes underwear). Between the stories of triumph and tragedy, I shop -- and that's what most people ask me about.

But the truth is, for quite a while, I hadn't perfected my own shopping habits. My closet had always contained a measured mix of designer and fast-fashion pieces; I would regularly feel guilty after my expensive designer purchases, and would compensate by purchasing high street brands to get a shopping fix without feeling the stress on my wallet at the register. I was sure this high-low strategy was the way to guarantee maximum style within a budget, but it was actually just draining my funds.

This all began to change three years ago, when I was introduced to the designer of Amour Vert, Linda Balti, whose brand produces sustainable basics. Balti is a stylish French woman with an enviable je ne sais quoi, and she's been committed to shopping mindfully since starting her brand, buying only from companies with ethical practices. I was impressed by her commitment to ethical shopping -- but not so much to adopt it for my own. I loved this concept the way I love the idea of a 5 a.m. workout: I wanted to be there, I just didn't want to have to get there.

I thought that to shop ethically meant that I would have to compromise my personal style in the process. As someone who wasn't able to afford a closet full of Stella McCartney vegan separates, how could I make this work?

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I decided to challenge myself to shop ethically for one year. What began as a self-imposed styling test has now become a new way of life: It's been passion-igniting, and has seeped into other areas of my life. I've also saved at least a few thousand dollars, and my wardrobe has never looked better.

I approached my ethical styling challenge like I would a new client. Before making any purchases, I had to assess the current state of my wardrobe. I picked through my closet, asking myself: Was I happy with my wardrobe as a whole? Was it cohesive? Did it represent my aesthetic and lifestyle? Would my clothing stand the test of time? Ruefully, I admitted the answer to many of these questions was "no." My wardrobe did not represent a chic, sophisticated stylist from New York with a strong social conscience. Instead, I saw a woman with no sense of color or her own identity who also maybe owns a time machine.

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With brutal honesty I divided my clothing into three categories:

1. The home-run pile: the most trusted items I've worn a ton and still love.

2. The treat yo'self pile: special-occasion pieces I'll need later on.

3. The nope pile: anything I have never worn or wish I hadn't.

By examining my stuff using these categories, I could identify the styles that were the most successful for me and those that were not -- like my glittery Alexander Wang pants from four years ago that look amazing on the hanger but terrible on my butt. As well as the most popular styles, I wanted to know which pieces gave me the most value for my money. I determined the price-per-wear of each item by dividing its cost by how many times I've worn it: The more frequently something is worn, the cheaper its price-per-wear would be.

The first thing I recognized was that my most trusted pieces were overwhelmingly the simplest and highest in quality. They were well designed with exceptional fit, which meant they were worn quite often. Last summer, for example, I bought a pair of navy Céline culottes. They cost $1,200 and I felt extremely guilty when I bought them; in fact, I considered returning them several times. But, I couldn't bear to give them up. Using the price-per-wear model, I counted the 20 times that I had already worn them, giving them a price-per-wear result of $60. Not to mention the huge number of compliments I receive every time I wore them. As the weather warms, and they get added back into my rotation (though I even managed to style them for a few winter looks), this number will continue to lower. But my love for the pants only grows.

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Comparatively, sitting in my trash pile, waiting to be donated to charity, were five skirts and two pairs of pants (both from Zara), with a total value of $890. Most of these items were bought in either a moment of panic, when I was seeking a fashion fix, or out of boredom. Of this $890, I've worn two of the pieces once, and regretted it both times. I couldn't even put a price tag on the cheap items in my nope pile that completely changed shape after the first wash and became un-wearable. The most shocking part of this exercise was I had spent almost as much money on my collection of cheap clothing as I had on my favorites. For the price of my inexpensive fashion fixes, I could have had an entire second selection of gorgeous, high-quality pieces.

What I learned was that I was so seduced by the allure of a cheap runway knock-off and so addicted to the idea that I needed a constant supply of new clothing, that I was throwing money away. While my favorites pile was smaller than I wanted my wardrobe to be, it contained many fantastic styling options. Had I always shopped slowly and mindfully, I could have doubled this selection by now and had an enviable collection of stylish designer clothing with endless outfit choices.

This is not to say that the only way to shop is to buy new designer clothing -- that's far from the truth. I have a pair of vintage Yves Saint Laurent boots that I picked up for $90 and a Gap denim dress I bought on eBay for $20. Both have been worn to death season after season. In fact, I've noticed that ever since I've started buying clothes