When I met Erin Sumwalt 17 years ago she was a fashion editor at InStyle magazine in New York. She struck me as the epitome of je ne sais quoi, the French idea that there’s just something about her. She had — and still has — an unapologetically feminine way of dressing, always in dresses or skirts in ethereal fabrics and patterns. She’s also incredibly warm, zen and funny to boot.
Along with a great sense of style that has an eco-conscious undertone to it, she’s well-qualified to give her input: as former Fashion Director at People StyleWatch and Fashion Market Director at InStyle and current Editorial Styling Director at Stitch Fix (based in San Francisco), I can’t think of anyone more ideal to discuss how to think about your wardrobe in a new way, including developing a signature style and what pieces to add to it as we emerge from lockdown hibernation.
Developing a Signature Style
As a child growing up in San Diego, Sumwalt’s love of fashion began with old movies, magazines and what she saw on television — Lucille Ball’s 1950s shirtdresses on I Love Lucy, mainstream looks on MTV and even CNN.“I never missed an episode of Style with Elsa Klench, where she covered all the fashion shows in N.Y.C, Milan and Paris and I knew I wanted to attend these shows one day.” It was then that her signature style of “feminine and romantic pieces” began to flourish.
Whether you’re drawn to edgy, avant-garde looks or practical, comfortable styles, knowing what you like and developing a signature style will help you focus on items that you’ll actually wear. (Hands up if you buy things that are outside your norm and never wear them.) Not sure what your signature is? What are you drawn to — what makes you stop and look and admire? Then research that style and see how it can work with your lifestyle. Then, when you shop or clean out your closet, buy and keep things that support this style. If you love rocker T-shirts with blazers over the top, then a conservative wrap-dress doesn’t belong in your closet. If athleisure is the name of your game, you probably don’t need pencil skirts. By being strict with yourself, you’ll end up buying less and wearing more of what you feel best in.
Your signature style can extend to your beauty look as well. Sumwalt, for instance, is big on skincare, especially serums, sunscreen and gentle exfoliation. She tends to go minimal on makeup except for the occasional red lip (something from Tom Ford or YSL).
It can take confidence to rock a signature style, but own it: You’ll find people admire this about you. It also means you won’t fall prey to short-lived trends that don’t suit you and drain your bank account. (Yep, it’s time we reevaluate fast fashion and its impact on our environment and our piggy banks.)
Like a true fashion editor, Sumwalt keeps her closet full of things that can pair together effortlessly.
Her staples include a cashmere robe coat, denim jackets (both oversized and fitted), feminine blouses, blazers, crisp button-down shirts, flowing midi-skirts and dresses in prints and lace, and floral-print maxi dresses. “I love wearing pieces that have a dream-like quality to them,” she says, pointing to lace, chiffon and silk. And, “Except for a few pairs of high-waisted Levis, I only wear skirts and dresses. I never wear trousers or shorts. I don’t own any. I love how they look on other women, but they’re just not for me,” she says.
She recommends skipping recognizable prints from a particular season that will look dated in a matter of months. “I would rather spend more money and invest in well-made pieces that will have a lengthy lifespan rather than purchase lots of lower-priced pieces that are not well made.” Think of your closet like a collection, she says, that you’re always adding to, focusing on pieces that “will increase the wearability of things you already own.” Maybe you love a certain pair of trousers but never have the right shoes to wear with them. Invest in a neutral pair of shoes that can work with the trousers as well as other things in your wardrobe.
People often ask Sumwalt what they should invest in. Answer: “Purchase accessories that you could pair with things you already love in your closet.” For example, a structured leather tote bag in a tan shade coordinates with most things and has a timeless quality to it. Buy the best bag you can afford and carry it for years.
Other accessory must-haves for Sumwalt? Belts in various widths, medium and small cross-body bags, ballet flats, leather sneakers, a versatile boot and long printed scarves. “I am never without a scarf,” especially when she travels, as it can “be used on the plane or car for warmth, worn as a sarong or wrapped around shoulders at the beach.”
Look for Inspiration
Movies, TV and magazines served as inspiration for Sumwalt in decades past and now she adds Instagram to that list, with a slew of “wonderfully creative people” to follow for inpso. Some of her faves include designers Alexander McQueen (“I obsess over all the beautiful dresses and corsetry and sleeve details”), Dries van Noten “for all the amazing prints, color and coats,” and Marc Jacobs because “he is always light and fun.”
She follows stylists Karla Welch and Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele — “I always loved working with her.” Other accounts include London-based photographer Agata Pospieszynska, actress Diane Keaton, lingerie-designer-turned-confectioner Maayan Zilberman, Missy Elliott “for her style and dance videos,” @chinatownpretty and @healthy_hair_journey.
She and her son (middle schooler, Hudson), also frequent the library, “checking out stacks and stacks of fashion, photography, architecture and design books” and “watching a lot of fashion-related documentaries.” This has been especially important during the lockdown. “Looking at beautiful images has helped me feel more connected, inspired and happy.”
Sumwalt’s love of vintage shopping began in high school. “I loved hunting for treasures and finding things that no one else would be wearing,” she says. “I didn’t know it, but this was perfect training for becoming a fashion editor, searching designers’ showrooms for the perfect pieces to feature in fashion stories.”
Vintage shopping is not only an excellent way to find quality pieces at a reasonable price and unique items that you won’t see on anyone else, it’s a conscientious way to shop. (Sorry, fast fashion, but we really do need to break up.) And shopping with your signature style in mind makes hunting through racks much easier, and that includes virtual racks. Obviously,is a go-to for hunters, but there are dozens of options like for high-end brand names, for vintage from all over the world, for a huge range of second-hand clothing at reasonable prices, for high-end labels, for women’s, men’s and children’s items, for more modern, fast-fashion clothing and for label lovers. Keep these retailers in mind for selling as well. Cleaning out items that don’t fit with your signature style is less painful if you know you might get a bit of cash for them.
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