Building a Wardrobe :: The Sizzle Pieces

This post is part of a series I'm currently exploring - how to build a wardrobe. I'm slowly learning how to curate the perfect closet to transition from my 20s to 30s and taking you guys on the journey with me. You can catch up here.

So, you've got the basics down. There's plenty in your closet to build a clean palette for almost any outfit. If you were to stop there, you'd be considered a minimalist. Some people look seriously chic in nothing but basics, but what about those of us who want to inject a little more personality into our wardrobes? That's where the sizzle pieces come in.

I wish I had a better word for this. Statement pieces? Personality pieces? Fun stuff?? My biggest problem in the past was buying too many sizzles and not enough basics, so I ended up with an eclectic but ultimately unwearable closet. One can only accumulate so many tribal printed mini skirts before she realizes her current system isn't working.

So today we'll be going over not only what a sizzle piece is, but how to choose and buy them, and how to fit them into your current wardrobe.

When you first start building a wardrobe, it's important that you focus on more timeless, classic pieces and rely on accessories to put personality into your outfits. It's tempting to blow half a month's rent on a Rachel Zoe fur vest just because everyone and their mom is wearing one this fall, but that ties up funds that you probably needed for classic pumps or pants for work. Once you've established a great base to start with, you can start focusing on the fun.

What's a sizzle piece?

I define it as anything that you couldn't wear every day without someone noticing. Some of my recent purchases include my bright red midi skirt or my pink tweed moto jacket. They're both amazing, but I'd never wear them two days in a row. Black pants, on the other hand, I could wear for an entire week and I doubt anyone would bat an eye. Sizzle pieces are the personality of your wardrobe. They're a great way to play with your look and define your style. If you're a jacket person (I definitely am!), you could add bright layers with interesting details as your sizzle pieces. If you love shoes, you could collect unique styles to add a some zing to neutral outfits. Using your wardrobe basics, you can construct an outfit around a stand-out piece fairly easily; the main thing you want to avoid is wearing all of your sizzles together. That's a look that's less chic and more bag lady for 99% of us. I'm not saying it's un-doable, but for the average gal like me and you that doesn't want to look like a crazy person, it's advisable to wear them sparingly.

How do you pick them?

Here's how I choose my sizzle pieces. I wait for things that get my heart racing. Much like buying basics, you have to wait for the right deal and the right piece rather than impulse buying. I mull over my purchases very carefully now, as long as there's no champagne in my system. Just tonight, I kept re-adding a purse into my cart on Gilt to reserve it (probably at least 20 times) while I researched the crap out of it to make up my mind. If you're as discerning with your fun half of your wardrobe as you have been with the basics, you'll curate an enviable closet in no time.

Sizzle pieces don't have to last forever. In fact, it's almost better if your closet is a constant revolving door. Sell or donate things as you grow tired of them to make room for new pieces. This part of your closet can be full of trendy items, bright colors, crazy patterns, and unique shapes. This is also where you'll want to reflect a bit of your style personality. Feeling girly? Put a bow on it. If you want to play with edgier styles, consider adding something studded to your collection. To me, the sizzle is all about having fun with your fashion.

How much should you spend on sizzle pieces?

This depends entirely on A) Your budget and B) How you long you plan on keeping things. Super trendy pieces (currently, things like crop tops, fringe vests, and graphic tees) should be bought on the cheap if possible. I never mind donating a piece from Forever 21 after a year or two of wear once I get tired of it, but if I'd spent a small fortune I'd be hesitant to sell or give away. That's how you end up with a closet stuffed full of stuff you don't even wear! If a trendy or bold piece seems like it'll play out fairly quickly, go cheap. If it's something more timeless (I'd claim my midi skirt applies), it's okay to spend a little and keep it for years to come. You can also spend on bold designer pieces if you have in mind you'll sell them after you start to grow tired of them. Don't go TOO cheap though. Certain fabrics just have a cheap look about them, so choose wisely.

Now add them to your basics.

This should be the easy part. Let's say you just bought the most amazing floral print blazer. Ideally, it would go with most of the bottoms in your closet. Black pants, pencil skirt, dark jeans, or over a simple shift. Next, you pick up some adorable blue and green polka dot pants. Great news! It goes with your classic white button up, looks great with a chic blazer, and works weekends with a slouchy grey tee. You see where I'm going with this? I like to build my outfits around the fun piece 95% of the time. Start with the piece that's hardest to pair and add your basics around it.

Looking at the photo above, every outfit is not only ultra-wearable, but fun. If you already have a closet full of basics you love, adding a piece with a little personality on top should be a piece of cake...with frosting and sprinkles, of course. You just have to do the grown up stuff first before you can have all the fun.

The series continues in a couple of weeks! Next up: lifestyle changes. It's the biggest blow your wardrobe can take, and we're gonna tackle it together.

Building a Wardrobe :: The Basics

This post is part of a series I'm currently exploring - how to build a wardrobe. I'm slowly learning how to curate the perfect closet to transition from my 20s to 30s and taking you guys on the journey with me. You can catch up here.

When I started my wardrobe journey, I was 21. Fresh out of college, starting my first job in a newsroom. My college wardrobe consisted mostly of sweatpants and things I'd collected throughout High School, none of which were appropriate for the "real world". So I started collecting my grown up wardrobe a few pieces at a time.

Most of my work wardrobe came from The Limited, and my weekend wear consisted mostly of Target items or things I'd fished out of a clearance box at Express. About a year into my career, I was promoted to an on-air position and suddenly felt the need to wear something different every single day. My producer and I began a weekly ritual of 2-hour lunch breaks at the mall accompanied by $100 shopping sprees at the newly added (and enormous) Forever 21. That's how I started building a wardrobe of complete and utter randomness. Whether it was something bright and exciting, or just too cheap to pass up, I was stuffing my closet full of whatever crap I could get my hands on.

I'll fast forward through the rest of this journey, but I also had two retail jobs during my early 20s - which meant even more random crap in my wardrobe. At one point, I was hanging items on my balcony of my apartment for extra space. And yet, with a closet full of all sorts of things, I still often found myself with nothing to wear.

So what's the deal? Why am I telling you this? It's all a background to share with you the most important part of wardrobe building - BASICS MATTER. I had to learn this the hard way, but now that I understand it, my buying process has changed.

As someone who loves flashy items, bright colors, and big trends, I amassed a collection of really cool clothes...that really didn't go together. I was frustrated with the fact that I could put on a skirt, wear it around my house in only a bra, give up, and just put on jeans and a t-shirt. None of these pieces WENT together. It was frustrating.

The concept of starting a wardrobe with basics is pretty simple, though - you'll have a closet full of things that go with everything. It's the same concept behind packing. You need to pack a lot of pieces that all go with each other, then sprinkle some fun pieces throughout to give your wardrobe interest.

Think about it. I used to find an amazing shirt, buy it, and then build an entire outfit around it. Not from my closet, but by buying other things until the outfit was complete. Thus, I had an entire closet full of "outfits", but not necessarily full of things that all went together. The first time my eyes were opened to this was my first 30 for 30 challenge. I realized I didn't know how to put clothes together AT ALL if I hadn't bought them in a complete set.

I've since learned a lot. One of the huge reasons I'm working on filling out my closet with basics (based on the Five Piece French Wardrobe) is so I can have fun with my clothes after I've finished. If I have the perfect black pants, skinny jeans, black skirt, and leather pants, I can buy an amazing statement jacket and know it'll go with any of those items.

So before you yell, "But AJ! Basics are boringgggg!", give me a second to rebuttal. A black tank can be basic but still have cool mesh cutouts at the neck. A simple blazer could have a cool detail like an asymmetrical zipper or a bow on the back. A grey tee might have a peplum instead of a slouchy V. The key to buying basics is to find things that YOU love, not that you think you're supposed to love. Of course I have a plain grey tank, a simple white button up, and plain black ankle pants in my closet. But I don't limit myself to just one of each item on the list - I also have a white lace peplum tee, a pair of ankle pants with a shiny tuxedo stripe, and a button up with an embellished collar. The key is to find pieces that go with a lot, but that still have interesting details and personality. That's what'll keep your wardrobe from feeling monotonous.

While I'm currently building a basics wardrobe, I'm still purchasing fun items at the same time. If you don't have the budget for this, you can certainly find ways to fit some of your statement pieces in your wardrobe with your new clean palate. Also try adding bold accessories, like a floral scarf or bright belt to liven things up. Once you've built a nice collection of basics, you'll be able to concentrate on filling it in with "sizzle" pieces.

A few other thoughts on basics : fit is key. Never accept anything less than "I look awesome and love this" when you see yourself in the dressing room mirror. Don't be afraid to consult with a tailor if you have a hard time finding what you want. The other thing you should keep in mind, of course, is quality. While you'll probably have to replace your basics from time to time, you want them to last for years, not just months.

Quality doesn't always mean expense, though. I found one of my favorite black silk tanks (From ABS Platinum!) for $5 at Marshall's. It was probably originally around $80, very well made, and hangs nicely - I just found it at an end of season clearance and got lucky. There will always be tons of options for basics, and you'll always be able to wait for a sale. Take your time and build something you'll be proud of. And don't get too caught up in labels, either. Stores like Everlane have well made blouses and tees for a fraction of the price of designer labels. I enjoy trying new brands and buying nice things, but I try not to make that the sole focus - ie, I only bought this because it was Prada. If it doesn't look good on you, who cares who made it? You won't wear it.

There are plenty of resources for basics every woman needs, but as I mentioned earlier, I like the French Wardrobe Basics as a good place to start. Modify any list you like to your needs and specifications, and have fun with it!

Next up in the series :: buying the sizzle pieces.

Closet Confessions :: Building a Wardrobe

Today's post is half budget, half closet related. Over the past year, I've been working on sorting my budget out (update :: I suck at budgets) and building a closet full of things I love, want to wear, and that will last for years to come. It's a coming of age story of sorts, and you can catch up here.


Since my last post, I've done a lot of soul searching and ACTUAL searching (on Google) to try and discover what my style is. I thought the Uniform Concept was going to be the winner, but after a 30 for 30 challenge of nothing BUT a capsule wardrobe chock full of uniform potential, I've weeded that out as a contender. I crave far too much variety and excitement in my wardrobe to stick to a basic uniform concept. We tried, we failed. Moving on.

I did discover from the uniform concept that I love building outfits out of basics and adding the AJ touch with more interesting and exciting pieces. But I need the balance of the ultra-wearable basics to make the more "fun" pieces re-wearable. Because let's face it - fashion IS fun, but it has to be functional too (I know, I know. Boring). Plus, who wants to buy things that they only wear once? I'll never understand that - I want a closet full of favorites that I can't wait to wear over and over again. I've started taking notes on the pieces I grab the most often to try and determine what it is that makes a piece a "favorite". Is it fabric? Fit? Color? Once I can determine a pattern, I can edit my buying habits to reflect that.

So, I started searching for my next closet experiment fix. I just finished reading Lessons from Madame Chic, a charming little guide to life from a woman who spent a semester in Paris, which led me to start researching French wardrobe concepts. How do they always look so darn chic? Short of picking up the accent, I was going to find out. This is how I stumbled on the 5-Piece French Wardrobe Concept.

I'm unaware of who originated the idea, but the rules are fairly simple. Build a wardrobe of basics that are high quality, classic items, and then splurge each season (Spring/Summer, Fall/Winter) on five pieces to inject some personality and style into your wardrobe. The concept is that you spend more time thoughtfully assessing what your wardrobe is missing, and make calculated purchases each season rather than just wandering the mall picking up random stuff.

The discipline it would require to only add five items (beyond basics, which are always allowed) to my wardrobe each season is something I'm not sure I even have in me, but using the bare bones of this idea, I'm going to construct my buying list and budget around this list.


So rather than basing my budget on a monetary value this year (I do a lot of freelance work, so I rarely know how much or how little I'm going to make) I'm basing my budget on the items in my wardrobe that need replacing, upgrading, and the ones that are missing.

I turn 30 this year, so this is serving kind of as my list of what I think a grown up, sophisticated lady would need. Don't worry, I'm still going to have fun with my wardrobe and buy things that I love, but I think there's a lot of value in building a solid basic wardrobe that you can wear any day, every day, for years to come. I've adapted the original french wardrobe list to accommodate MY lifestyle needs (ie, added shorts) and I'll be keeping track this year of how far I get on this list. If I discover something on this list that won't be worn often or won't fit my wardrobe needs, out it goes! I'll also be continuing to purge old items as well. I plan on doing an update on that in the next month or so, but I'm feeling ruthless after recently discovering how much I appreciate higher quality items. Forever 21 is going to lose a lot of revenue from me. I used to go in there on payday and drop $150 on crap I hardly even wore! Wouldn't it be better to spend $150 on a blouse or two made from gorgeous material that made me feel amazing and beautiful every time I wore it? Duh.


So in January and February, I've already made a bit of a dent in this list. I picked up a black suit from The Limited that I love, and the pants are doubling as my black trousers. Turns out, I adore wearing black ankle pants. They're chic, comfortable, and make almost any top look polished. I ordered sneakers from Kate Spade to replace my sad Converse, which arrived today. I had bought the perfect black skirt at Kate Spade in December that definitely will take my black skirt spot, and finally upgraded my leather jacket during a Dillard's clearance sale last week! I did a semester in Australia when I was in school, and I remember my mother let me borrow her leather jacket for the trip. It was absolutely one of my favorite (and most essential) items I brought on the trip, and I've always wanted to upgrade my many cheap faux jackets to a classic one I could wear for many years to come (I chose one from Kenneth Cole).

I plan on updating you on my latest purge soon, and will continue to run down what items from the list I've added each month, but what I would like to know from you is - are you interested in the monetary value of any items I've accumulated, or rather just what they are? I only ask because I've done budgeting blogging in the past and I DO appreciate the concept of bloggers being up-front with their spending so people don't think it's normal to excessively buy buy buy constantly. While I DO plan on buying higher quality, sometimes designer (and therefore - higher priced) items, I also plan on being smart about it and waiting for sales, coupon codes, and shopping around (or using ebates). So if this is something you guys are interested in (ie, what's the cost of building a wardrobe) I can certainly address that as well.

I really enjoy continuing to explore my style on this blog, and I've loved having you guys along for the ride. My hope is not only that I discover the wardrobe style that's right for me, but that I help other 20 and 30 somethings struggling with the transition from a scattered young adult into a sophisticated one.