Overwhelmed and crowded out by mass consumption, women everywhere are trading up the quality of their lives by downsizing their wardrobes. Jamie Huckbody explores the sartorial shift from having to being.

“It’s the same at the beginning of every new year, isn’t it? We all spring clean our wardrobes and threaten to stop buying so much stuff. Well, I’m calling upon all women to buy smarter in 2019! Environmentally speaking, there’s no time to lose.” So declares Rita Britton, the legendary retailer-cum-designer who is busy with a gaggle of new customers keen to tap into her wisdom and reform their wayward fashion habits. “Being chic today is not about quantity but about quality, and knowing exactly where your clothes were made.”

Britton knows a thing or two when it comes to contemporary luxe. Having been a champion of international avant-garde fashion for over four decades, the Yorkshire-based septuagenarian has spent the last few years distilling everything she knows down to the essentials. “Since giving Nomad Atelier all my attention, I have become less and less excited by seasonal trends and following the fashion industry,” says Britton of the clothing label that she established 20 years ago as a collection of basics to supplement the designer labels she once stocked at Pollyanna. “I’m designing garments in exquisite fabrics that somebody is going to love wearing for years and years; just like I do. I love putting our clothes on in a morning. I love the feel of the fabrics.” 

More often than not, those fabrics are crafted in local mills who fuse time-honoured tradition with the latest technology: lightweight wools from Huddersfield, silks digitally printed in Macclesfield and cashmere milled in Dewsbury. “Our cashmere sweaters, crafted in beautiful shapes, are some of our best sellers,” says Britton tugging at her black ribbed cashmere jumper, cut like an elongated rectangle so that it gently drapes at the sides, that she has paired with a thick grey cashmere ‘Egg’ skirt. “I could go straight out to dinner after work wearing this. I haven’t got time to go home and change into something else. Our wardrobes need to be as simple as possible so that we can concentrate on what’s important and live our lives to the full. Isn’t that the whole point of Feminism?”

Britton is just one of many intelligent women the world over who have tuned into the changing way that women relate to fashion right now; a change that includes ‘simplifying’ and ‘getting rid of clothes’ that belong to ‘previous lives’ (“when I was thinner and didn’t have kids”) and of the financial/spatial havoc wreaked by 2am online shopping sprees (“I couldn’t sleep again the other night so I ended up buying a sequinned evening dress from Net-a-Porter just because it was in the sale. Where the hell am I gonna wear that?”). Some closet clear-outs have been so monumental that they became headline-grabbing events. Take that of Anna Dello Russo, the extrovert Italian fashion editor whose collection of clothes had become so big that it needed its own apartment: it ended with a celeb-studded charity auction gala. Then came that of Jenna Lyons, former president of J.Crew, who sold 175 pieces from her closet on consignment specialist The RealReal. Both women talked of giving space to their lives, of the importance of recycling clothes and of the “karmic” effect of “letting go”; things that we can all relate to as we deal with the environmental/financial/emotional/mental consequences of our collective fashion addiction, driven by an industry at full throttle, easy credit and selfie-obsessed social media. 

“I think social media is partly responsible for the dumbing down of fashion design and the sheer amount of consumption,” says Britton referring to the fact that fashion has felt the pressure to be selfie-friendly as opposed to avant-garde, and that people now don’t want to be documented wearing the same thing more than once. “It’s interfered with the capacity for a great proportion of young women — and men — to learn about our most important creatives. For example, when I was a mill girl we were all reading [D. H. Lawrence’s] Lady Chatterley’s Lover and going to jazz concerts in Sheffield because that was progressive. Young girls don’t want to do things like that now; it’s all Ex on the Beach and Keeping Up with the Kardashians but these kinds of things have no educational quality. There’s no learning or history involved.” 

Forgoing ‘reality’ TV, disciples of this new minimalism have found a heroine in Sara Berman, a Greenwich Village-based Jewish émigré whose cupboard of all-white clothes (she had purged her wardrobe of every other colour after her divorce) was exhibited as a tiny installation in the Met in New York. Sara Berman’s Closet, with its neatly-folded piles of laundered basics, was incredible not only because of its poignant frugality (cue a wave of shame and guilt about our collective consumer excesses) but also for its intimacy. “Berman’s closet was so powerful that it haunted me,” says Dr. Natalie McCreesh, a Sheffield-based fashion academic and curator who has worked with The British Museum and The Shoe Collection, Northampton Museum & Art Gallery. “It made me realise that I was curating my own fashion past but for all the wrong reasons. Clothes not worn for over a decade were stored in boxes like precious museum artefacts to the point where I was debating yet another house move because the two rooms dedicated to my clothing were still not enough.” 

“It inspired me to have a massive clear out,” continues McCreesh. “What was left was just two rails of clothes (mainly black) and one stack of shoes (mainly flat). Within that edit I saw my true reflection as a woman in her thirties and not the skinny 20-year-old fashion addict of my youth; the memory of whom had been cluttering up my shelves with her towering heels, hot pants and corsets for far too long. Carrying around the clothes of these past versions of ourselves is exhausting.” 

Britton nods, gleeful that some women are finally beginning to find more in less. “You’re either in the club and you understand what we do or you don’t. And it is a club: a group of women defined by their shared mentality as opposed to their age. The ones who are in our camp know that fashion is one of the world’s biggest environmental polluters — second only to the oil industry — and understand that they have to start and make informed choices. If you speak to the average fashion consumer, not only do they not know the damage that fast fashion is doing but they also don’t care. It all starts with education and so children should be taught at a young age that every time they purchase a cheap T-shirt or pair of trainers the likelihood is it’s been made by a 10-year-old in Bangladesh. And that education should start on the shop floor.” 

So what’s Rita’s advice for beginners? “Start with what you need and what suits you. Our waterproof black wool parkas are becoming really popular because they’re both functional and look really cool. You can throw them on over anything and they don’t take up any room in your luggage if you’re travelling,” says Britton. “A lot of our clients from the US and Bermuda stick to the same styles but change the fabrics as and when the climate changes. They can have the same dress in Irish linen for summer or rich devoré velvet for winter. And I’d be willing to bet you my last dollar that those dresses won’t be thrown out in next year’s spring clean.”