Photo: kadirdemir/iStock

So What's An Outfit Formula—and How Does It Work?
Working with outfit formulas is one of my favorite techniques for building a mixable, versatile wardrobe (and the third strategy that you can use to map out your ideal closet).

What's an outfit formula? It's a recipe for a specific combination of items that you can wear in lots of different versions. If you like, you can also wear an outfit formula like a uniform, with very little variation. If you're into the idea of having a set uniform, you're in good company—some of the biggest style icons of our time wear a version of their uniform over and over again, from US Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour (sunglasses, a patterned knee-length dress, heels, and a chunky necklace) to fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld (slim-fitting black slacks, a black blazer, a white shirt with a high collar, a tie, and gloves).

Here are some examples:

  • Flared jeans + simple camisole + cardigan + flat sandals
  • Pencil skirt + knit sweater + blazer + heels

    The idea is that you choose a few outfit formulas that reflect your style and which you feel confident wearing and then curate several different pieces that you can mix and match for each ingredient of your outfit formulas. For example, if one of your outfit formulas is A-line mini skirt + button-down shirt + slip-on mules, you could stock your wardrobe with two A-line skirts, three button-down shirts, and two pairs of mules, all in different but mixable colors, patterns, and materials.

    That's only seven pieces in total—but those seven pieces give you twelve different outfit combinations to choose from! And that's only for one single outfit formula. Imagine if you had three outfit formulas hanging in your closet. Not only would you have three times twelve distinct outfits to choose from, you could also mix them all with each other, style them up with accessories... et voilà: you've got a wardrobe that's packed with different outfit options that all fit your style.

    Of course, not everything in your closet needs to be a part of one of your formulas. Think of your outfit formula as your style staples. You can wear them as per recipe but you can also modify them and mix them with the rest of your wardrobe, perhaps add an extra layer like a jacket, and then top everything off with accessories, hair, and makeup.

  • Photo: Milenko Bokan/iStock

    Figure Out Your Fashion Go-Tos
    Complete these next three steps in your style file!

    Step 1: Look at what outfit formulas you're already wearing.
    Even if you hadn't heard of the concept before, it's likely that you already have at least one or two outfit formulas in rotation at the moment. Do you tend to wear some type of slacks or chinos with a looser-fitting shirt and ballet flats for work? That's an outfit formula right there! And your go-to mini dress + ankle boots + coat combo? That's another one!

    Go back over the last two weeks' worth of outfits you've worn and list every combination that comes up at least three times. Then take a moment to think about why you keep wearing each particular formula and cross out any that you are not wearing for a good reason. Good reasons would be that it makes you feel confident, it's super comfortable, or you simply love the look of it. Repeatedly wearing a formula because you are stuck in a rut, want to cover up, or couldn't think of anything else to wear, however, would be bad reasons.

    Step 2: Find outfit formulas that reflect your ideal style.
    Just like every other aspect of your wardrobe, your outfit formulas should above all reflect your personal style. So once you've made a list of all the outfit formulas you are already wearing, take a few minutes to look through your style profile and mood board and figure out which outfit formulas would best reflect the overall look you want to go for. Essentially, an outfit formula is a specific combination of silhouettes, so pay special attention to any inspiration you collected on cuts and silhouettes and also all information you gathered during your fieldwork stage about how you like things to fit. Add your favorites to the list of outfit formulas you are already wearing and liking.

    Step 3: Choose your favorite outfit formula to get started.
    From your list of contenders, choose the two to four outfit formulas that you (1) consider to best reflect your style in terms of the silhouettes you like and (2) would feel super comfortable and confident in. If you have to wear very different types of clothes for work, you could split these up and choose two formulas for work and two for evenings and weekends. For now, choose only your absolute favorites; you can always add more later if you need to.

    Photo: IPGGutenbergUKLtd/iStock

    Put Your Formulas to Work
    To implement your outfit formulas, start by going through your closet and pick out anything that could work as an ingredient. Then, see where you stand and identify where your biggest gaps are.

    As a general rule, it's a good idea to first make sure you have at least two versions for all formula ingredients. That way you can start wearing and mixing pieces within your formulas sooner rather than later. Once you've curated those two first pieces per ingredient, you can gradually add more if you want to, and as your budget allows.

    When it comes to choosing pieces, aim for variety! If you need five tank tops, don't just grab a stack of basic ones in different shades of gray. One or two basics in neutral colors is fine, but make the other tank tops key or statement pieces and pick different necklines, patterns, and details. Your goal is to cover as big of a range within each little group of ingredients as possible. Using that approach will allow you to express many different facets of your personal style, even with a smaller number of pieces.Time for another list! For each one of your chosen outfit formulas, write down a quick description of every piece you already own by ingredient. Next, think about how many pieces are still missing per ingredient and write down any first ideas about what type of pieces you may want to buy. All this information will come in handy once you are ready to overhaul your wardrobe and are trying to decide what pieces to put on your shopping list.

    Here are examples for a warm-weather climate.

    Photo: KhongkitWiriyachan/iStock

    When in Doubt, Follow This Sample Plan
    To show you a concrete example of how outfit formulas can be used in action, here are two weeks' worth of outfits, all created from only two outfit formulas, each of which contains two or three pieces.

    The Curated Closet

    Reprinted with permission from The Curated Closet, copyright 2016 by Anuschka Rees. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

    Want more stories like this delivered to your inbox? Sign up for the Style Newsletter!