I recently culled two-thirds of my wardrobe and gave it to charity. I now have fewer clothes than ever before. The process of getting rid of all that dead weight was therapeutic and has led me to a whole new way of thinking about my wardrobe. This was before I discovered Marie Kondo’s bestseller: The Magic Art of Tidying Up which only stoked my interest in this subject. The impetus for the great closet purge of 2015 was my profession. I’m a qualitative researcher.
I immerse myself deeply in each project I take on. This absorption almost always has a powerful effect on me. I never notice the effect while it’s happening because I’m focused on the work: asking questions, listening and observing.
In May, Rent the Runway, a fashion start-up, enlisted SayWhat to conduct closet ethnographies with women in Los Angeles and New York. I led a small team including myself and a few Rent the Runway executives on a wildly interesting journey into the homes and lives of 20 women. We dove deep into their closets, feelings, behaviors and philosophies about style and fashion.
The research team squeezed into tiny apartment spaces, sitting on beds, listening to story after story about why one outfit kills while another flops. The answer was that the outfit had to be loved and relevant to her NOW. The glut of things in her closet that have no meaning NOW were like noise drowning out her current self. Marie Kondo puts it this way: “The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.”
One big insight from the Rent the Runway conversations was that a voluminous wardrobe does not equal abundance. Au contraire, a crammed closet only obscures our ability to see the things that reflect who we are right now, and it can set up the dreaded “what was I thinking” outfit.
While we were in field, I remembered a recurring dream I had when I was a little girl. I climb out of bed in the middle of the night and go into my closet. I see a faint glow near the top. I find a way to climb up and discover a passageway into an attic space where a pale green dress glows on a dress form. I am filled with joy and excitement to find this extra special place in my closet because I realize I have so much more than I thought. And it was there all along. The pale green dress symbolizes abundance to me. The dream always has the same feeling of exhilaration, abundance and discovery: an experience that is both deeply compelling and important to Rent the Runway’s business.
As I was culling my closet, I noticed there were levels of letting go. It was easy to toss things I hadn’t worn for years but was holding on to the hope that maybe I’d wear them again. I could reckon with that denial and easily admit those items had no future for me.
Harder was letting go of stuff I had worn recently, but that I didn’t really love. I came to realize that those unloved items represent a false belief that having a full closet makes for better choices. It does not. A closet jammed with unloved apparel only obscures our ability to recognize the things we really love.
The most difficult level involved the clothes that had a sentimental charge. And stuffing those pieces into black plastic bags felt sacrilegious to me. But I knew they were not me anymore. I realized these “things” were like pictures in a family album: physical proof of feelings I had once felt; experiences I had once had.
One of the key themes that emerged from the ethnographies was captured by one participant who said: “what you wear is a story you tell the world about yourself.” The editorial choices we make vis-a-vis our wardrobe are how we tell that story. An overflowing closet holds you back from telling your story. I realized the purge was empowering me to be more aware and in control of the conversation I was having with the world.
I did have one moment of panic. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about a double breasted crepe blazer I bought in Paris in the late 1990s. Thankfully I had not taken the bags to the Community Thrift yet. I bolted out of bed at 3:00 am and dug the once beloved jacket out and put it on over my pajamas. I lingered over its beautiful silhouette and remembered why I had loved it. Then I noticed the stitching was worn and I thought about how fun it would be to look for a contemporary blazer that would also have a beautiful silhouette.
The insights we gleaned went well beyond the general ones I’ve shared here, but they are proprietary to Rent the Runway. Do you have questions about how your customers think and feel about your brand and/or your products? Would immersing in your customers’ thoughts, feelings, behaviors and beliefs address some of the business questions that keep you awake at night? We can help. Contact us to have a conversation about qualitative research.