The Marie Kondo Method Is Great—Unless You Love Stuff
The Marie Kondo method seems to work for everyone—unless you’re a highly advanced, vintage-collecting, stuff-accreting fashion head.
There’s a lot to like about Marie Kondo. In her new Netflix show, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, the Michael Jordan of housekeeping goes into all sorts of homes and seamlessly makes her subjects clean them up, making their rooms and lives breathe better. She wrote a best-selling book before the show—The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing—and has an illustrated book out too. Much of it is about joy: only keep things in the home that make you happy. Her philosophy goes. Lots of the folks in her new show live in houses full of stuff—they’re not hoarders but their things get in the way of their lives. Even if they don’t notice at first. Lots of the things they own are cheap, of a time, some nice, little of it useful, all of it in the way. Kondo, diminutive, early 30s, radiating good energy, is present, listens to her clients, is their friend, changes their lives. They start with clothes, then books, then papers, then to the kitchen all the way up to sentimental items. Everyone ends up happy. Why wouldn’t they be? It’s television, sure, but Kondo non-judgmentally improves their homes and their lives. Things are cleaner! Nicer! It’s better!
Kondo’s mindfulness is as effective as her method. It’s why she’s struck a chord: her books have sold in the tens of millions, her new show is on the standard Netflix flood-the-zone push; one friend, who hadn’t heard of her Monday, saw Kondo featured six times on Tuesday: targeted ads, Instagram stories, everything. There are a lot of books and shows about cleaning up. But hers is thoughtful: she approaches the material world just short of 10 commandments and is somehow … holistic. Be grateful for your home; thank your shirt for clothing you. In her method, clothes go first: they’re somehow less sentimental than books or papers. In the absence of junk, the pared-down, thoughtful wardrobe is king.
But as I tracked her ascent, I couldn’t stop wondering: is there a way to do clutter correctly? Being strict about clothes is just no fun, and valuing a closet’s space over the transient and occasional joy a piece of clothing brings seems to be hurtful down the line, especially if you’ve put time and effort into building a wardrobe. Is there more value in having space in your closet than having a good one? If we have gratitude for our clothing, and the things they do for us—protecting our chests from ketchup, acting as a shield to the world—doesn’t this utility override a roomy, open closet?
What Kondo’s show gets to is that the more things you own, the less they mean. The things she runs across on the show that have personal meaning—wedding DVDs, say(find)—she mostly lets alone. Being mindful about what you own is a path to inner peace. But worrying about if the next thing is too much makes every purchase high-stakes. Owning a lot of things doesn’t necessarily translate into anxiety, and those items’ emotional carriage won’t spill over into your life or state of affairs just because you have 20 pairs of pants and not four.
Here’s the thing about the Kondo method: It’s nice to only own one pair of really good jeans and to have clean countertops. But it’s better to have a Vitamix and a leftover box of Popeye’s on the counter to go with your two dozen pants of varying cuts and fit. Because why not, especially if you love clothes? Not every item needs to spark specific joy if buying, or collecting, clothes we like does that. And not everything we own—or buy—needs to serve an emotional purpose. That’s why it’s a wardrobe and not a collection of pants. Sometimes something looks good for a while, and then it doesn’t. Sometimes it doesn’t look good right away, and then it does. You bite off something more than you can chew one year, and it works the next. That’s how style grows. To my mind, Kondo’s severe, total purging—she says to discard everything first—feels less solution than surrender, something that assigns more value to items than before. If you only own 10 things, they’re more important. And reducing your wardrobe to a dozen or so items stifles growth, by raising the stakes, making clothing more … uniform. Where’s the fun in that? And where’s the growth?
But Kondo seems lovely, and her method has its disciples, so I went to see her at 92Y on Tuesday. Jamie Oliver was downstairs in the bigger venue and her room was full too. We screened an episode of her show where a young family throws out lots of clothes and old power cords. Kondo makes them express gratitude for their house, and for each piece of clothing as they discard it. In one scene a child folds a tanktop that says Squad Goals on it. Maybe some items aren’t meant to be elevated. I read all over the place that Kondo’s method undercuts fast fashion, something wasteful enough that even the UN has weighed in. Is this explicit? Kondo didn’t mention that term at 92Y, but said it’s a “shock treatment” to get all of one’s clothes together and confront what you own. Kondo’s subtler points seem to have been lost in translation: her holistic approach to material items, and her empathy for the families she attends to, outweigh any soundbites she’s made. Her point, it turns out, says more about how things—and space—make people feel than it is about tidying up.
Watching Kondo’s show reminded me of another documentary, Herb and Dorothy. It’s from 2008 and follows a titular art collecting couple in their retirement as they bequeath a priceless art collection they amassed and kept in a 450-square foot apartment close to the 92nd St. Y. The part I remember is when they arrive at their decision and donate it all to the National Gallery, five full-size moving vans come to take it away their 4,000 paintings.
This seems to me ideal. Before they cleaned out their apartment, it was pretty messy. There was art on the walls, on the floor, behind tables. It was hectic, lived-in, but not Hoarders. It might be that having five Lynda Benglis sculptures behind the kitchen table feels different than old newspapers; clutter and a world-beating art collection are two different things. But sometimes things don’t take over a space. Herb and Dorothy started somewhere: accumulating life’s effects, amassing books and building a wardrobe are not bad things. There are ways to live with accretion and feel fine. Don’t buy what you feel you should, just what you must. Stick to buying the right things, like Herb and Dorothy did. Isn’t building a correct wardrobe—representing yourself in the world as you want to be, through clothing—a sort of art project? You get to be more yourself. Sometimes you can’t see everything you like at once. If you only buy good stuff, you don’t need to throw anything out.
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