How to Build a Minimal, Essential Wardrobe

Minimal Essential Wardrobe

Whether you're a hardcore minimalist or a total clothes horse, you've probably asked yourself the following question:

How much clothing do I actually need?

It's a good question. I mean, is it really possible to build a “complete” wardrobe? Can you actually get to the point where you're done shopping forever?

According to two of my favorite menswear experts, the answer is yes. But you have to embrace the principle of interchangeability.

Men's Style Lab logoThis article is made possible by Men's Style Lab, who helps you build a versatile wardrobe by delivering personally selected, high quality (and reasonably priced) clothes to your door. The best part is that you only pay for what you keep. Learn more right here.

Barron Cuadro, founder of EffortlessGent, popularized the concept of the lean wardrobe. It's a mindset and way of living in which you own the minimum number of clothing items needed for your lifestyle.

While it's okay to experiment with trends, maintaining a lean wardrobe requires you to pare down aggressively.

Antonio Centeno, the man behind RealMenRealStyle, helps men put this idea into practice by teaching his readers how to buy versatile clothing.

Antonio believes that everything in your closet should work together. He goes so far to claim that, if you play your cards right, 14 clothing items can be used to create 120 different outfits.

RMRS One Week Outfit Plan

Graphic courtesy of RMRS

Sounds pretty sweet, right? I mean, who wouldn't want that kind of versatility built into their wardrobe?

While this all sounds great, the obvious question becomes: “What should I buy?”

This post outlines exactly what you need for a lean, versatile wardrobe. If you've been looking for a list of essential wardrobe items, look no further. You've found it!

Basic Business Casual Outfit

Typical Business Casual Outfit

But here's the thing: every man is different. We all have different preferences and lifestyles, so one man's essential wardrobe is different from the next.

For example, a college student doesn't need the exact same clothes as a business executive. And the business executive doesn't need the same wardrobe as a factory worker or a computer programmer.

For simplicity, I'll assume the following about your lifestyle:

  1. You wear business/smart casual outfits during the week.
  2. You wear casual outfits on the weekends.
  3. You wear a suit several times each year.
  4. You live in a temperate climate (no extreme weather).

You might be thinking, “That's not me!” But before you stop reading, hear me out: not everyone fits perfectly into this criteria, and that's okay.

This essential wardrobe list isn't one size fits all. It's meant to be used as a starting point that works for most men.

It's your job to make adjustments as needed, accordingly to your lifestyle and situation (climate, daily routine, age, etc.).

Got it? Okay, let's start with the absolute essentials:

14 Essential Wardrobe Items

Staple Wardrobe Colors

Staple wardrobe colors

Note: This is the bare minimum. Undergarments, activewear, etc. are not included. 

  • Navy or grey two piece suit (1)
  • Grey wool trousers (1 pair)
  • Dark wash jeans (1 pair)
  • Tan chinos (1 pair)
  • White dress shirt (2)
  • Solid color button up shirt (1)
  • Solid color t-shirt (2)
  • Solid color sweater (1)
  • Leather dress shoes (1 pair)
  • Classic white sneakers (1 pair)
  • Necktie (1)
  • Leather belt (1)

This won't get you to the finish line, but if you could only choose 14 items, these are your best bet.

If you don't currently own one of these items, it should be on the top of your list of things to buy soon.

FAQs About These Items

“Navy or grey suit?”

Either is fine. Navy makes you look younger. Medium-dark grey is a very safe bet.

“But what about a blazer or sports jacket?”

You can wear your suit jacket as a blazer, so you don't really need both.

“V-neck or crew neck t-shirts?”

Whichever you prefer! Same goes for sweaters.

“What about polo shirts?”

They serve the same purpose as t-shirts. Feel free to replace the tees with polos.

“What color should the tie be?”

Grey or navy is a safe bet. If you're only going to own one, stick with a solid color.

“Black or brown Oxfords?”

Black is technically more versatile (and necessary for formal events like funerals).

“Black or brown belt?”

Just make sure it matches your go-to shoes.

“Leather or canvas sneakers?”

Either is fine. Stick with plain designs (no logos). Grey or off white are okay too.

Of course, you're going to need more than this. Let's round out this essential wardrobe with a few more items.

The Extended Essential Men's Wardrobe

Secondary Wardrobe Colors

Continue using neutral colors (left), and choose richer, brighter colors (right) sparingly.

  • Navy or grey two-piece suit (1)
  • Neutral sport coat or navy blazer (1)
  • Dark wash jeans (1 pair)
  • Light wash jeans (1 pair)
  • Tan chinos (1 pair)
  • Navy or grey chinos (1 pair)
  • Grey wool trousers (1 pair)
  • White dress shirt (2)
  • Light blue dress shirt (1)
  • Pattern dress shirt (1)
  • Solid color casual button up shirt (1)
  • Pattern casual button up shirt (1)
  • Solid color t-shirt (3)
  • Solid color cotton crew neck sweater (1)
  • Solid color wool v-neck sweater (1)
  • Black Oxfords (1 pair)
  • Brown brogues (1 pair)
  • Brown leather boots (1 pair)
  • Leather loafers (1 pair)
  • Classic white sneakers (1 pair)
  • Necktie (2)
  • Brown leather belt (1)
  • Black leather belt (1)
  • Brown leather strap watch (1)
  • Sunglasses (1 pair)
  • Lightweight casual jacket (1)
  • Topcoat or peacoat (1)
  • Cold weather jacket (1)

Notice that there's lot of wiggle room with color. If you want to play it safe, stick with navy, grey, black, white, tan and charcoal.

If you want to mix it up, add some basic “extension” colors like brown, maroon, dark green, olive, oatmeal and pink.

You don't need a ton of different colors in your wardrobe. One pop of color per outfit is plenty for most men, especially if you're relatively new to the style game.

If you're about to buy something in a new color, ask yourself: “Does this go with stuff I already own?”

If it doesn't, don't buy it! It won't add to the versatility and interchangeability of your collection.

How to Build Your Wardrobe

The first step is to figure out what you need. Use the above lists to do that, then take an honest look at your budget.

How much can you spend per month to build out your wardrobe? $200? $500?

After you decide how much you can spend upfront and per month, consider whether or not you like shopping. If you do, make it a goal to purchase one essential wardrobe item per month.

If you hate shopping, consider using a service like Men's Style Lab to round out your wardrobe quickly.

About Men's Style Lab

Like other clothing delivery services, MSL matches you with a personal stylist who learns about your build, lifestyle, preferences and needs, then sends you a box of clothes to try on.

Seems awesome, right? The problem is, this model doesn't always work for shorter men (just look at my Trunk Club review…).

Men's Style Lab seems to understand the shorter man's needs, probably because their founder is actually a modest man himself.

One TMM reader had this to say about his recent experience with MSL:

Jimmy's MSL outfit

Jimmy's MSL outfit

Knowing that most off the rack clothes don't fit me, I still decided to give Men's Style Lab a fair shot anyways.

I inputted my sizing data, and explained to them my “modest” situation. Within a few weeks I received my first box, and to my surprise, a couple items fit like a charm.

With this information, and other noted style feedback from me, the products that they handpick for me in the future can only get better.


MSL is also interested in the minimal, versatile wardrobe, as many of their blog posts are centered around this idea:

5 Items You Can Wear w/ Anything

Spring Wardrobe Essentials

5 Ways to Wear the Polo

If you think Men's Style Lab might be a good fit for you, go check them out!

Did I miss any “must have” essential wardrobe items? Leave a comment!

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  1. Kanchan Purohit says:

    Useful tips in this article.. Could one pair of shoes be Black instead of both Brown ?

  2. Joe Carter says:

    You mentioned this wardrobe is geared toward a temperate climate. I guess Phoenix, AZ is more “temp” than temperate, because you didn’t include any shorts. I would have to include two pair, 1 casual, such as light weight denim or cotton cargo shorts, and 1 a little dressier. I liked the rest of your choices, and actually developed a similar wardrobe philosophy years ago. As an elementary school teacher, I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on clothes and developed a basic wardrobe that didn’t cost a lot. I did invest in additional pairs of chinos In different colors and sport shirts since those were my “go to” work outfits and could easily be dressed up with a sport coat and tie.

  3. Adam Berkley says:

    Great article. I’ve copied and printed the extended list to work from. I’m not big on v-necks or button-down collars. Persuade me. You asked if you left anything out. What about hats? They can really set the tone. Also, do you have any recommended shoe store for the wingtip?

  4. This is a great article! Really useful information and it makes me seriously consider downsizing my own wardrobe. Thanks for the info!

  5. Hey Brock, what shoes are you wearing in your picture? Thanks

  6. I’ve gotten into the whole socks thing. I used to have the boring ones you can buy. Now I have bright colours (notice the Canadian spelling). I match my socks to my shirt colour or sometimes I don’t. Today I’m wearing a grey button up shirt and I have a argyle sock with bright colours. I always get comments about my socks, particularly from women.

    I’m hoping you have a section about belts. My question is where to find a good quality belt that doesn’t break the bank so to speak. I find the stuff that’s $40 splits and falls apart. Also, I am a 31″ waist. What size do I buy for a belt?

    • Joseph Yim says:

      You should check Anson belts out.Their belts are micro adjustable so you won’t have to punch holes in your belt.I hope that this should help.

    • Where do you get interesting socks that fit well? (I’m a size 6.5US shoe).

  7. Don Renollet says:

    Just saw this link via Facebook. Thanks Brock, a great “compass”, some great essential guidance. Cheers……

  8. At age 53, I am leaving a small town with a VERY casual dress code (embarrassingly so if I’m honest). I’ve accepted a great job in a major metropolitan area and have to revamp my wardrobe. I had no idea where to start until I read this article. Thank you!

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