As busy professionals, you’ve got a lot to juggle: your job, your boss, co-workers and employees, your home, family, and finally your image. Clothes, shopping, image…who has the time to think about it, not to mention the money? Good News! There’s a great wardrobe technique you should know about called clustering. It’s a concept all smart professionals can use. It saves time and money and helps you create a personal image that will enhance your professional image.
A cluster is a small group of coordinated clothes. You may be thinking, “She must be talking about mix and match. I know all about that.” Clustering goes beyond mix and match and allows you to build a complete wardrobe that will last for years. A well- planned cluster includes enough garments for a variety of looks to fit all of your needs. The technique not only saves you the headaches of figuring out what to wear, it also saves you time, because you’ll know what to look for when shopping…pieces that work with your cluster! Another benefit of clustering is that you can build your wardrobe as quickly or as slowly as your time and budget allow.
The strategy is easy and works for everyone, no matter what your age, lifestyle or budget.
The following are specific guidelines that will help you begin to build your cluster. You have some flexibility with the guidelines, but the more closely you follow the guidelines, the more outfits and flexibility you’ll have.
1. Find a pattern, print, stripe or plaid to inspire the color scheme of your cluster. Your print can be in a blouse, shirt, pants, skirt or even an accessory item such as a scarf. A great place to start is with something from your own closet. Chances are good that if you bought it, you like it.
If you prefer a wardrobe of solids, simply go shopping, browse the prints, and choose your color scheme without buying the print.
For maximum versatility, choose a color scheme that includes at least three hues. Two of the colors should be wardrobe neutrals, and at least one should be an accent color. Keep in mind that “neutral” doesn’t have to mean boring. A wardrobe neutral is simply a muted shade of practically any hue. And accent colors are just like they sound, lighter and brighter. They create an accent in your wardrobe.
For example, you might find a blouse with a print in red, camel, black and white. Camel, black and white are the neutrals, and red is your accent. On the other hand, you might prefer teal, burgundy and charcoal. A third example might be French blue, navy, white and tan for a great spring/summer cluster. The possibilities are endless!
Be careful not to choose a print that’s too trendy, or you’ll chance having one of your core pieces going out of style not long after you’ve started the cluster. Also on this note, try to stick with fairly traditional colors. You don’t want to tire of your color scheme! Plus, as you add on to your cluster over time, you want to be able to find the colors.
2. Plan for five to eight pieces of clothing—top and bottom pieces. Five pieces might include three tops and two bottoms. Believe it or not, these pieces can be combined to form as many as 12 different looking outfits. This may be enough pieces for many people depending on your needs. (Keep in mind, you may have several beginning pieces already in your closet.)
An eight-piece cluster goes even further. When you finally build to a 12-piece cluster, you can create 48 to 72 different outfits! An example of a 12-piece cluster might be two jackets, three skirts and/or slacks, five blouses or shirts, one cardigan sweater and one pullover sweater, vest or knit shirt. Remember, these are just guidelines. If the pieces listed don’t appeal to you, go ahead and substitute. For example, instead of the cardigan, you might choose a suede jacket or simply another knit top. Just make sure that knit top is distinctly different than the other. (Ooh, I smell a guideline. I’ll talk more about this later.)
A great tactic is to employ a couple of suits in your cluster, since a matched suit is a mainstay for many business people. This strategy provides you with the ability to wear the pieces of the suits together or to break them up and create a variety of looks.
More than likely, over time, you’ll want a few clusters in your closet for the greatest variety of color. Yet another option is to acquire several smaller clusters. When you’re planning additional clusters, a smart plan is to “steal” one color from a cluster to start the next. For example, you might start with a cluster of white, black, and coral. Simply lift the coral, and combine it with cream and mocha to form a second cluster.
3. Select pieces that are basic—simple in styles lines and shape. Basics are clothes that are simple and somewhat plain in design without much detail or decoration. Think of a pair of flat front black pants made of lightweight wool. The possibilities are virtually endless. Paired with a jacket for day, they’re business appropriate. Paired with a dressy blouse, the pants work for more formal, evening events.
When clothes are simple in line and shape, not only can they can be combined for a variety of looks, but the entire mood of an outfit can change with the change of accessories. Another way of looking at this is that the interest doesn’t come from each individual garment but in the way you combine the clothes and accessories. Another advantage of dressing in basic clothing styles is that they’re often classics and stay in style longer than trendy pieces.
4. Select pieces that will go together and will work with at least two other pieces. This is how you build to those 48 to 72 different looks! Initially, all or most pieces in a cluster should work together. They should coordinate in terms of line, shape, color, texture and pattern. When you get past 12 pieces in a cluster, allow yourself to buy something you love that doesn’t go with many other items. These items are fun and give you that sense of fashion freedom.
5. Select pieces that are distinctly different from one another—no two pieces alike. This guideline is crucial to creating many various looks and feeling with your clothes. If you have five polo shirts or three pencil skirts in a cluster, you’ll not only be limiting your flexibility, but you may start to feel like you’re wearing a uniform! The “uniform strategy” may sound appealing to some, but it truly won’t allow you to fill all of your needs as a business professional. Also keep in mind, similar styled clothes can go out of style all at once, suddenly leaving you with a large gap in your wardrobe.
6. Select accessories that go with the clothes, starting with basic accessories. Let’s say you’re building a cluster in black, white and red. If you don’t already have a pair of black shoes, you’d be smartest to buy black shoes before you move on to red shoes. Additionally, it’s always nice to have basic gold or silver earrings before you invest in colored jewelry. As your clusters grow and the color schemes strengthen, feel free to invest in more varied accessories, such as red leather pumps, turquoise earrings or a plum colored handbag. Knowing you have many outfits to wear these accessories with takes away the guilt factor, and by this point you deserve it!
7. Gradually expand your cluster(s) to meet all of your wardrobe needs. Obviously, the simple pieces mentioned, such as pants, shirts, and skirts, can’t meet all of your wardrobe needs. You may need formal evening wear or work out wear. Depending on your lifestyle, you may even want to start specific clusters, for example, evening wear clusters, or travel clusters. If you travel often and perhaps unexpectedly for business, you may want to reserve a cluster just for travel and have it ready to go at any time. What a stress buster!
Even though there seem to be a lot of “rules,” clustering isn’t meant to make everyone look the same. On the contrary, clustering provides everyone with the ability to create dozens of looks all their own. Just as no one’s career is exactly the same, nobody wears their clothes exactly the same way.
Clustering’s simplicity, cost effectiveness and variety will allow you to build a wardrobe that has you looking great all the time, and allows you to create an image that will help support you in all of your endeavors, both personally and professionally.