What I Learned While Living Abroad (and then quickly forgot when I returned to the U.S.)

Photo by Rob Potvin

After college, I lived in South Korea and then in Paris. In both places, I quickly learned one stark difference between the U.S. and probably the rest of the world: they don’t live with huge closets.  People in other countries simply don’t own as many clothes/accessories/shoes as we Americans do. It’s not uncommon to see a very fashionable person in either Paris or Seoul repeat the same outfit the next week, or even the next day. And it’s not viewed as “ew.” Whereas here in the U.S., I have coworkers who go entire months without repeating the same outfit. That means their clothing inventory is HUGE.

When I first started living in Paris, I was baffled.  How can there be so many beautiful boutiques, and yet none of my French friends were shopaholics?  Even those who had the means to shop their hearts out never did.  Instead, their approach to shopping was methodical.  They would research exactly what they wanted, and it was usually an expensive item that would last for years. And then, when the need or strong desire came up, they would buy it. Their (small) wardrobes contained very high quality items, but in limited numbers. 

I remember there was one glamorous French girl who wore the same Hermès scarf with a lot of her outfits. She was from a wealthy family, so she definitely could afford to buy twenty scarves, but she always wore that one. At first, I thought it was amazing restraint, but then I learned that it’s just the way things were with everyone. In most Paris apartments, built-in closets were rare, even in those posh 18th century Hausmannian buildings. So everyone used wooden wardrobes. With such limited storage, over-shopping was not appealing.

Also, they made their possessions into their beloved signature items. For instance, take perfume. I have American friends who rotate among five to ten different perfumes. For the elegant French lady, there’s only one signature scent, two at most.

So I did as they did. I had one coat for the entire winter I was in Paris, and three sweaters, and that was perfectly fine. I didn’t feel the urge to shop because I was too busy having a blast doing other things, and also, spending hours in a mall just wasn’t part of the culture.

When I returned to the U.S., I quickly forgot everything I learned.  Assailed by sales and ads and friends who loved to shop, I started spending hours at the mall with friends who wanted to go and “just browse.” I shopped to the point where my closet brimmed with clothes I hardly wore.  Consumerism is a huge part of American culture and we’re even urged to shop to “keep the economy afloat.” It’s hard to resist the sales that scream “get an extra 40% off all sale items!!”  But haven’t you noticed that these sales go on all the time?

So you have to put on some armor.  Acquire only items that you need or absolutely love.  And buy the highest quality you can afford, so that you don’t have to constantly replace cheap goods with more cheap goods. Try putting yourself on a shopping moratorium for a month or two. I did. It was really refreshing. 

So for the past few years, I’ve been trying to re-learn what I’d un-learned.  I’ve been busy donating items and selling things I never use or wear, just to get down to the core essence of what I want to be my “signature.” I want to get back to that disciplined approach of consuming only what I need or absolutely love.

I’ll always love a really nicely-made handbag or a buttery silk blouse, but I don’t need twenty of each, and neither do you.

Here’s a photo of panic striking in front of the LV shop in Paris.  If you look closely at the steel dinosaur, he’s surrounded by luxury bags and is even holding a few in his mouth: