In 2021, We Finally Have the Words to Talk about Personal Style

These two tastemakers have developed a new vocabulary for the subject.

personal style
The crack that 2020 put in the fashion system challenged a number of barriers—within companies, along hierarchies, and even between consumer and seller. With that newfound accessibility for the masses came transparency and a more fluid exchange of knowledge—stylists and designers started speaking directly with their audiences, establishing a line of communication that hadn’t previously existed. Because they broke the mold of tailoring their message to a solely fashion-minded audience, these tastemakers had to find a way to translate what so many of us within the industry find intuitive.

Amy Smilovic, the woman behind Tibi, has been engaging with her Instagram following this past year to further explain the thought process behind her innovative approach to getting dressed. “Anytime you understand people better, understand what underlies their point of view, it makes the whole process of communication better,” she explains. She’s not simply conveying how to wear things, but why she selected the items. The creative director details the tricky logic behind each of her pairings in hopes to better equip you with the knowledge to then do it yourself.

In a similar vein, stylist Allison Bornstein developed a closet-editing system that evolved into a comprehensive guide to personal style. She champions a new way to better engage with your closet, eliminate unnecessary items, and discover new ways to wear what you already own. She reveals it’s all about self-evaluation. Similar to Smilovic’s thought stream, if you can understand why you selected certain items in the first place, you can then create a sort of roadmap for future ensembles, shopping, etc. When it comes to fashion, specifically, building an outfit is much less straightforward than building something like a shelving unit. There’s no instruction manual. So the question then becomes how do you put an aesthetically driven feeling into words?

Bornstien and Smilovic don’t seem to have much aesthetically in common at first glance, but their approaches overlap greatly. It proves they didn’t invent the system, but instead put words to something seemingly challenging to explain. They’ve identified the mechanisms that operate in a stylish person’s mind and broken them down into digestible tidbits we can all utilize. Each has evolved her Instagram into a platform for discussion—elevating the notion of personal style to an educated debate versus a materialistic quip. While each is an abundant wealth of information, we’ve broken down the basic components of their approaches. A mere glimpse into their wisdom, we highly recommend following both of them for a proliferation of more specific styling tips.


Categorize What You Own

Start with your go-tos. What Smilovic refers to as Without-Fails, or WOFs, Bornstein calls your Regulars. In essence, they are the same thing: items that you are wholeheartedly comfortable in. What do you wear the most? What do you purchase multiples of? Those are the pieces they are referring to. “They’re not always the things that you love the most,” explains Bornstein in one of her videos. Be honest with yourself. “If it’s sweats, it’s sweats.” And forget everything fashion media has told you, because they don’t have to be basic—a notion Smilovic repeatedly underscores. If you happen to wear a balloon pant cut in an oversized silhouette, it can still qualify.

On the opposite side of Smilovic’s spectrum you’ll find Had-to-Haves, which are exactly what they sound like—items that spoke to you, that you felt an emotional connection with. On Bornstein’s, the How?s are pieces you truly love but aren’t sure how to wear. Both are often statement pieces characterized by louder hues or patterns that don’t fit into your wardrobe in a day-to-day manner.

The space in between is composed of Smilovic’s In-and-Outs, which are your trendier items that work for a specific moment in time but don’t foster the same timeless connection you find in your WOFs. Bornstein’s middle ground, or Neutrals, occupies a less defined category but helps to fill in the gaps in your closet. Though these two systems are slightly different, they outline the same basics for success.
personal stylePhoto: Courtesy of Tibi

Let Your WOFs or Regulars Guide You

In Smilovic’s proposed closet breakdown, you’ll find that the WOFs occupy a bulk of the space because they define your style. “When you buy something new, they should always go back to [your WOFs] seamlessly,” Smilovic explains in an Instagram story highlight. They are the connective tissue in your closet, so allow them to inform your stylistic choices and shopping habits. Bornstein encourages clients to use their Regulars to ground their Hows, to think outside of obvious pairings, and to let items you are comfortable in lessen the intimidation factor of a louder piece. This is how you make those tricky pieces that push the boundaries of your personal style still feel distinctly like you. The stylist suggests playing around with these combinations, photographing strong pairings as you do so, all of which will ease the process of getting dressed in the future.

Identify Your Adjectives

“How do you find something if you don’t even know what it is that you are looking for?” questions Smilovic. This is where Smilovic’s Creative Pragmatic style persona comes into play, which she likens to a delicate balance between innovation and functionality. To define your own adjectives, Smilovic recommends taking a trip down a sartorial memory lane through old photos of either your own outfits or ensembles of those you admire to identify the commonalities of what drew you in.

Bornstein’s also a fan of invoking your adjectives and specifically identifies her own as ’70s, classic, and polished, but she simply uses those as an example. Unlike Smilovic, whose entire ethos stems from her own designs, Bornstein’s job as a stylist is to cater to an array of clientele, so she delves into many different stylistic choices. Both are quick to emphasize that there is no wrong set of adjectives. The only error is in the lack thereof.

Create Formulas That Work For You

This is where it gets interesting. Once you understand the unifying adjectives of your closet, you can then create a formula for your outfits. Think in more general terms than something so simple as blazer + t-shirt + jeans. Smilovic swears by her 1:1 ratio of Chill, Modern, Classic. For example, a blazer in a classic cut needs a dose of chill, which could be found in an oversized t-shirt, and modernity in a quirky pair of jeans cut in an interesting silhouette, but the formula could apply to pretty much any outfit regardless of the number of pieces. Big, Slim, Skin is another one. A slim tank that shows off a bit of skin should be juxtaposed with an oversize or big pair of cargo pants. In combinations all referenced from what the team refers to as a Tibictionary, this is how you transition from stuff to style.

Bornstein’s is even less specific and applies to all different styles. As previously mentioned, it’s simply using Regulars to mix in more fun pieces and experiment. “If you go through all my looks from past weeks, they are really all similar and follow a sort of formula,” she explains. “Don’t be afraid to repeat or restyle. Challenge yourself to use what you have in a unique way.”

So What’s the Point?

Besides its capacity as an art form, clothing is also a tool of communication, of expression. Like it or not, what we choose to wear says something about who we are—even the act of choosing not to care sends a message. Those of us for whom the ability to put together an outfit that reflects our personal style comes naturally often take that power for granted. It’s hard to figure out your personal style, or at least it used to be. “Being able to express visually who you are to yourself and to others is a great feeling. It’s frustrating to be misinterpreted, and it’s frustrating to not feel the way you want to feel,” explains Smilovic, who has built her style framework on open communication with her customers.

Beyond that, it makes your life easier—simple as that. These style mavens are helping their followers to develop deeper relationships with their own closets, generating refreshing ways of re-examining what you already own. “I don’t want [my clients and followers] to feel like they need me. I want them to feel like, ‘OK, I can do this. This is easy. Now I have the confidence I need.’” From there, you become a better shopper and eliminate wasteful items that gather dust and take up space. Perhaps this emphasis on personal style even spurs a more sustainable way of dressing? “It’s really not up for debate about whether or not it is a good thing to have personal style. It simply is, and that goes well beyond clothing,” finishes Smilovic.

Top photo: Courtesy of Tibi 

Want more stories like this?

Can Loving Fashion Actually Be an Asset in the Fight for Sustainability
3 Designers on Operating a Fashion Business in the Time of COVID-19
Inside the New Realm of Virtual Styling

More From the series Fashion
You May Also Like