This Japanese closet clean-out method is going to change your life

When I first moved to New York, I, like many college freshmen, had to fit all my worldly possessions into a single closet—maybe an arm's width of space—and a couple of drawers built into my extra-long twin bed. The hanging shoe rack I installed sagged with the weight of sneakers jammed in there two-to-a-shelf; my Bed, Bath & Beyond hangers snapped regularly in defiance (though the adjacent clothes were so tightly packed that it would sometimes take weeks for me to notice); the drawers were so crammed with American Apparel that opening them was often more effort than it was worth. It all fit, but barely.

Meanwhile, maybe two feet away, my roommate's space was immaculate. Her drawers were functional, her clean clothes hung neatly on hangers with honest-to-god space between them and her sheets were so straight they may as well have been ironed (seriously, the one time a friend of mine sat on her bed while she was out, she left me a passive-aggressive Post-it note.)

I've never quite understood how she managed it, but in my recent quest to turn my apartment into a clutter-free haven—a New Year's resolution I'm determined to stick to—I've begun to get some ideas. My main source of inspiration is a book called The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up by Japanese organizational guru Marie Kondo. The English translation just came out in the fall, but already the book has inspired international fervor, selling two million copies worldwide and turning Kondo into something of a celebrity in her home country, where she's appeared on talk shows, magazines and even a TV movie inspired by her life.

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The KonMari method, as Kondo has coined her system, is simple: keep the belongings that "spark joy," and get rid of those that don't. That overpriced cocktail dress you always feel guilty for never wearing? Gone. Those sad laundry-day tights with the holey toes and stretched-out waistband? Sayonara. The system leaves precious little room for excuses: nomaybe-I'll-wear-it-somedays or but-I-got-it-as-a-gifts or I'll-just-wear-it-to-beds.

And while this may sound cold and unsentimental, Kondo's earnest enthusiasm gets you into the headspace to look at the massive pile of clothing on your floor as an opportunity for self-reflection, rather than a surefire trigger for an anxiety attack. The "tidying festival," as she calls it, begins with emptying your wardrobe—all of it—into one place. In my case, it was the living room, and by the time I was done that it was already 2 a.m. (which reminds me: leave out a joy-sparking outfit if you have to be anywhere the next day, or else you'll spend half the morning foraging for it.)

Once your apartment looks like a department store threw up all over it (with all the shame that act implies), then you go through and hold each and every item in your hands to determine whether or not it gives you pleasure. If it doesn't, then Kondo suggests thanking it for the role it played in your life and letting it go. Clothing, in her view, has energy, and handling it is a crucial step; just as in the traditional Japanese practice of Reiki promotes healing through energy and human touch, holding clothes can impart them with strength or tell you when something is wrong. It's the same reason she encourages folding practically everything versus hanging it up.

So I went through pile after pile, trying to figure out what exactly "sparking joy" meant: A pair of velvet platform sandals wasn't exactly practical—they broke the first time I wore them on Fashion's Night Out (RIP...ish.)—but, on the other hand, they are categorically awesome. Keep. A cross-body Lauren Merkin bag had several summers of memories attached to it, but the strap was worn to within an inch of its life, and looking at it made me sad for its former self. Say thanks, then toss.

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Obviously, nostalgia is a powerful factor when it comes to holding on to relics from the past, but how to explain the old pieces I never really wore in the first place? Much of the excess, I came to realize as I stuffed the eighth garbage bag marked "Donate", was the result of different personas I've tried on, or at least aspired to, throughout the years. I may have once harbored fantasies of being a fabulously bohemian artiste à la Jemima Kirke or one of the ladies from Advanced Style, or else envisioned myself as an executive-type with a rotating collection of pencil skirts and stiletto heels, but part of growing up is accepting that I'm not, and that's okay. As we figure out who we are, it's only natural that we accumulate stuff that doesn't suit who we end up being. But keeping it around is dead weight. Who needs more anxiety about the people we could have been, had things gone a little differently?

Keeping pieces you love right now—not the ones you loved then, and not the ones you mightlove at some hypothetical time in the future—is a kind of radical self-acceptance. It's also a far better way to ensure that what you do buy lasts a long time. The number of vintage dresses with dropped hems, silk blouses with mysterious stains and shoes with worn-through soles that I pulled out of my closet was eye-opening. Lost in a crowd of other so-so items, I was never compelled to get them fixed. But amid a collection of only the best, most smile-inducing pieces in my wardrobe, keeping everything in prime condition seems both easier and more important.

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Kondo claims she's never had a client lapse back into messiness once they've fully cleansed their space, and while that seems like an awfully pristine track record, it's not hard to see why her devotees commit to this state of household utopia. I may never be as ascetically-inclined as that freshman year roommate of mine, but at least now my wardrobe gets me a little bit closer to being my best self. If you know your own taste and appreciate what you have, getting dressed can be one of the happiest, or at least easiest, parts of your day. Plus, look how neat everything looks now that it's all folded up!


UPDATE: And now the closet! So much joy. Joy and sparkles. And my friend Kate Moss, of course.


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