Fashion contradictions are palpable every September and October, when 80-degree days collide with 50-degree fronts and sandals bump boots on the morning commute.
But irony hangs even heavier in the air this year, with the approach of a second round of what started as a double dare between Kenosha native Heidi Hackemer, who works in advertising in New York, and colleague Tamsin Davies. Through Twitter and Facebook banter, the two became intrigued by the notion of a uniform — as a means of enhancing creativity.
"My friend and I got into a conversation about how much superfluous time we spend on what we wear," Hackemer, 31, said. "We were looking at Tom Ford and Steve Jobs, who have these uniforms that remove that stress from their life. Tamsin Davies said, 'Do you want to wear one outfit for a year?' I said, 'Are you crazy? No!'"
Reasoning their way to six items or less, Hackemer and Davies pledged themselves to that number of garments for 31 days. Exceptions and exclusions applied, including undergarments, pajamas, workout clothes — "items we wear out of necessity," Hackemer said — as well as that pillar of personal style, accessories (including shoes).
Launching sixitemsorless.com, they invited others to join the exercise.
Although austerity and advertising wouldn't seem to go hand in hand, many of their colleagues at other agencies elected to participate. So did non-advertising disciples as far-flung as Mumbai and Seoul, who posted "pain points" and paradoxes of wearing the same garments day in and day out.
On the positive side, some said they looked more polished because of an added brooch or belt to distinguish Monday's attire from Tuesday's. Among the pitfalls was trading one kind of hassle/consumption (clothing purchases) for another (frequent laundering/water usage).
"Six items or less was something we could wrap our heads around but would still test us," said Hackemer, who alternated among a black dress, black jeggings, black tank top, black blazer, gray skirt and gray cutoff jean shorts for the first cycle.
It ended in July, to some initial relief — "the dress I got sick of, even though it's a great dress," Hackemer said. But what resonated in the aftermath were testimonials of Zen-like enlightenment, expressed by the 100 or so "Sixers," as they came to call themselves.
"Probably my biggest takeaway so far is the concept of wanting what you have versus having what you want," said Stephen Riley, a 34-year-old creative director at the Leo Burnett ad agency in Chicago, who participated in the first round.
On the prosaic side, Riley said clothing quality and durability — or lack thereof — became more obvious. "This stuff isn't made to be worn this much," Riley said. "T-shirts, especially, and my poor button-up shirt are beginning to get messed up."
Jeans, however, withstood frequent use. "A lot of us found that we only wear one or two pairs of jeans total," which makes for an obvious purging prospect, along with "tons of shirts" that he already has donated to charity. "It taught me I need far less than I have or think I need."
He and Hackemer said no one even noticed they were on a fashion diet, "which I think was a common thing, which I think was funny," Riley said.
"If anything, this improved my personal appearance," he added. "I probably spent a little more time with upkeep. Sometimes I ironed. I tried to keep things fairly sharp."
Within the first week of the experiment, Hackemer said, "one thing I experienced was how much calmer my entire day was."
Now that she's back to a closet full of dilemmas, "I'm really getting annoyed with myself," Hackemer said.
Mid-September is the target kickoff for the second cycle. More than 1,000 people have pledged participation, with a variety of agendas and backgrounds.
"The thing that's funny is neither Tamsin nor I are modern hippies by any stretch. We're not into recycling our shower water," Hackemer said. "We made a very conscious point not to make this a finger-wagging exercise. Because of that, it's effected more change than if we had a 'consumption-is-bad' appeal. It gives everyone the freedom to bring their own motivation to the table. That's where change starts happening."
The spirit of 6
On sixitemsorless.com, "Sixers" such as Chicagoan Stephen Riley (above) shared what they learned in the first round.
ATX, a male participant from Austin …
• "Grooming is a key part of presentation. No amount of clothing or brands can hide lackluster grooming habits."
• "I am now hyper-aware of my 'total' presentation to people and make better eye contact and communicate better. I think this is a byproduct of wanting to make a more memorable impression from the inside rather than outside."
Wanderblah, a female participant from Mumbai …
• "Leggings are awesomely comfortable. And they hang-dry way quicker than jeans."
• "People aren't always watching you and noting what you wear."
• "If you're comfortable and OK, it's all OK."
Thekheshirekat, a female participant from Brooklyn, N.Y. …
• "I finally understood what quality was. I go discount shopping at Marshalls and C21 (Century 21 in New York), and I ran into this beautiful Theory shirt (for) $35, original suggested price $200. … The shirt was beautiful, and I could tell it would last a while. I looked down at my $6 gray T-shirt I got from Target and how it was starting to wear down. It hit me, I UNDERSTOOD WHAT QUALITY MEANT cause I was looking at it."
Co-founder Heidi Hackemer, aka Uberblond …
• "An article in the New York Times awhile ago talked about how discipline is a muscle in the brain that can be activated and strengthened. Maybe some of us are activating our discipline part of the brain or the conscious consumption part of the brain. … You read through the posts and several people are changing more than just their clothes."
Six Items or Less co-founder Heidi Hackemer is planning to open registration for a second round in mid-September and start the challenge soon after. People can sign up on the site. So how will she apply what she learned in Round 1? "The trick for me is one piece that is a decidedly dressier/more-put-together option, like a blazer, and an item that is decidedly a dressed-down option, like a schlubby pair of shorts. And then I work the other options around it. I might make it harder on myself and choose something that's more distinctive or has a pattern just to drive myself nuts. Wouldn't that be fun?"
Tips for smooth transitions
Whether you're ready to accept the Six Items or Less challenge, you can simplify and stay out of sartorial hot water as the weather cools. In Style fashion director Hal Rubenstein offers tips on transitional fashion — whether the transition is seasonal, day to night, age-related or philosophical, as in going from a broad closet to a tightly edited one.
Pay attention to fabric weight. A pair of white jeans — yes, white, not cream (see the WhiteOuts on skinnyjeans.com) can be worn well into fall and winter if the denim isn't paper-thin. "So much of it has to do with fabric weight," less about the specific style, color or silhouette. That's not to say that you switch to heavy fabrics starting Sept. 7. Synthetic "techno" fabrics as well as silk hold in heat, which is great for winter but no so much for fickle fall.
"Offices are either 180 degrees or freezing, so wear light layers. One of the things you can do is wear something that's fun and filmy underneath, a camisole or strapless dress, then a lightweight cardigan on top of it."
Wear clothing you can move in, that grazes rather than hugs the body. "Tight clothing in transitional temps feels ooky — o-o-k-y. What's so beautiful about clothes in stores now is there's a real kind of maturity — I don't mean old. There's a level of urbanity, of dressing actually like a grown-up. It's more about sensuality not sexuality, looking like someone who's got it all together rather than someone who's putting it all out there."
Drop the flip-flops. "What flip-flops tend to do, they promote lazy walking. People drop their shoulders. … You should walk down the street looking like you own the universe." A more solid shoe, such as a rocker bootie or an open-toed shoe with a stacked heel, can go from summer to fall. "Whether you're going to wear a mini in the summertime or dress shorts, or a tailored pant, all of these clothes look really great with a grounded shoe. A great, comfortable shoe and a smart tailored skirt you can walk in are going to be two of your best assets. If you walk like you're successful, people think you're successful."
Look in the mirror and be honest with yourself. "People think that if you're being honest with yourself you're being critical of yourself — women tend to approach dressing … to cover flaws rather than to highlight assets. If you're 40 and you're rocking out and you've taken care of yourself and you're proud of yourself and your body's good, I'm not saying you should wear a mini and a pair of spikes, what I'm saying is look in the mirror and if you really like it, give it a shot."
Stephen Riley, a Chicago participant
What he had to say on sixitemsorless.com:
• "Accessories totally help keep a degree of creativity among all your repetition. While (women) have quite a bit more options than I do, there are ways to keep things fun for an average guy. First is hats — today I went with a Pandora military hat."
• "Doing this has inspired me to do a couple of things that are putting me in some pain currently. … First is to cut out coffee (which I used to drink a lot of) and get back in shape. Funny how good things build."
Stephen's six items were: Brown pin-striped pants; dark wash jeans; camouflage cargo shorts; red Blackhawks T-shirt; a gray T-shirt; and a black button-down shirt.