5 years ago, Shannon Briffa ditched fast fashion in favour of a slower and more sustainable approach towards clothing. Her dedication to sustainability is not only evident in how she chooses to shop and dress herself - she is an active member of Fashion Revolution Malta and started her own project @needlemeetsthread in order to inspire and empower others who are interested in knowing and doing more in this regard. She also runs The Thrift Shop, selling good quality pre-owned clothes at The Farmoury’s monthly flea market in Manikata.
As Shannon (virtually) walked me through her wardrobe, we spoke about how to edit and build one’s personal collection, the joy of thrifting those special pieces, and how every dress can be worn again, including your wedding dress! By picking out some of her favourite items, she demonstrated how a little creativity, commitment and decision-making can go a long way in saving your pocket, your mental health and the planet, without compromising your style. It was helpful to learn all her tips and tricks about identifying my individual style, making the most out of what I already own and making sure that what I buy in the future will be worth the purchase.
Shannon’s journey started with a good old wardrobe clearout and a resolution to make every piece count. Everything in her wardrobe shows that there are so many simple things all of us can do, in order to “buy less, choose well, make it last,” as Dame Vivienne Westwood would say.
Pause buying, start (and never stop) editing
“I used to be a recreational shopper. You know the type; ‘I’ve got some spare money, let me go spend it in the shops.’ Until I realised that the fuller my wardrobe got, mostly with cheap clothes, the unhappier I became and the more I felt like I had ‘nothing’ to wear,” said Shannon as soon as we started our video conversation. Many of you are probably familiar with that curious phenomenon of having too many clothes but ‘nothing’ to wear. Shannon managed to reverse that scenario completely and now owns very few clothes but always has a new outfit put together. How did she do it?
“Clearing out your wardrobe can be a good starting point. The first time, I took everything out and only the stuff I really liked went back in. Everyone’s heard of Marie Kondo by now - I followed her process. You have to edit brutally and I can’t stress this enough. If I hadn’t worn something over the last 2 years, it needed to go, even if I’d been holding on to it because of its sentimental value. It’s something I still do periodically. Editing is an ongoing process and the smaller my wardrobe gets, the less stressed out I am.”
What about those pieces that you are torn over getting rid of? “I fold them and put them away in another room. If I completely forget about them for a whole year, it means I don't need them. But sometimes I'll be like, ‘Where's that top?,’ bring it out, wear it, and know I still have a use for it.”
For Shannon, editing isn’t just about removing clothes from her wardrobe. It’s a mindset that she applies to other areas of her life too. “Alongside my wardrobe ‘purge’, I went on a social media spring clean and unfollowed every unhelpful, joy-robbing influencer. I didn’t want to be constantly exposing myself to visual narratives of unattainable perfection that made me feel like no matter how hard I tried, I’d always be missing the mark. I wanted to be kind to myself and go slow.”
“I looked at what I was left with after the initial ‘purge’ and tried to find similarities in shapes and colour tones. Ask yourself, ‘What am I fundamentally drawn to?’ That starts to form the basis of your personal style and what makes you feel great. Paired with some essential basics, for example, your version of the perfect pair of jeans, the layering combinations become endless. That’s how I dress something up or down.” Go on, I’m taking notes.
“The dress I’m wearing is a good example. This is my version of the perfect black dress. It’s plain, fits me well and there are so many ways I can style it with different jewellery, jackets or shoes. Then I would do my hair and make-up to suit the occasion. It’s a versatile piece to me, and that’s what you have to aim for - finding those items that you can build on and that make you feel great every time you wear them.”
Having the right basics frees you to wear all your clothes again without repeating outfits, I learned. “I even bought my wedding dress with the idea of wearing it again. I bought it in a shape that I liked - figure-hugging and very simple. After my wedding, I got it hemmed, because it had a long train. That turned it into a straight maxi dress.”
About those items that you decide to let go of, Shannon said, “If the garment has served its purpose and you’re ready to let it go, you can give it to someone else, donate it to charity, exchange it at a swap event, or sell it on a second hand platform.”
Build up your wardrobe (sustainably)
How do you know, when acquiring a new piece, that it definitely belongs in your wardrobe? Shannon once again had her answer ready. “The aim is to get to a place where you know exactly what you own. If your wardrobe is so big that you forget you already have three items just like the one you're buying, you'll bring it home and go, ‘Why did I buy another one?’”
“Everything I own can be combined with other items from my wardrobe and worn to multiple occasions, being it work, date night, or a day out. When I decided to downsize my wardrobe, I also decided to stop buying fast fashion. I’m not saying that you should boycott fast fashion, but it was easier for me to commit to a full stop in order to avoid the temptation of super cheap prices and the pressure of keeping up with ever-changing collections. Instead, I started spending more time working with what I already had, continuing my editing process and finding more sustainable ways of introducing new pieces to my closet.”
While you don’t have to boycott big brands in order to improve your buying habits, if you’re interested in alternatives, there are plenty you can look into.
“I would really urge you to speak to your mum, your nanna, any relative or friend who might have items. I’ve gotten my hands on some exquisite vintage pieces in this way, including one of my favourite work suits.”
In the same way that you never know what treasure piece you might get handed down, you never know when you might find it in a thrift store. “I love shopping vintage and taking the time to look for items that speak to me. I go to bazaars and charity sales. Before I travel, I look up vintage and thrift shops in that city. I find it to be a much nicer experience than hitting the high street.”
“I have a thrifted blazer and pencil skirt ensemble that fits me perfectly and that I wear to work, either together or I’ll combine the blazer, say, with a pair of jeans. I found the suit at a bazaar in Malta and it cost me €15.” Cheap, good quality, well-fitting and sustainable. Surely that’s an offer none of us can refuse!
Swap events are another great way of finding pre-loved items. In Malta we have Gazed, Vogue Exchange and Tiffany's, among others. “People are starting to see the environmental and monetary benefits of trading clothes. It’s fun, costs nothing and you never know what gems you might find!”
Further along that note, I find that we almost never think about the possibility of borrowing an outfit from a friend with a similar style and size. It might not be so practical in everyday life, but definitely doable on specific occasions for which we plan ahead. Last year, Shannon wore a ‘borrowed, not bought’ outfit to a Malta Fashion Week event. Everything she had on, she’d borrowed from someone she knew. Fab!
I wanted to know which item had lived the longest in Shannon’s wardrobe. Without hesitation, “This pair of shorts that I’ve owned for 10 years. I've gone to great lengths to keep it. It’s ripped in every place at some point, but I keep repairing it because it’s my favourite one.”
“There are many simple repair tricks, like fixing a tear, restitching, or sewing a button, that are easy to learn and make your clothes last longer. I recently made tutorial videos for Fashion Revolution Week about these. There’s so much learning material out there. If you don’t want to or can’t do it yourself, you can employ a seamstress or tailor instead.”
“When you upcycle, you’re changing the shape or appearance of an item in a way that it almost becomes a new piece. Upcycling should be fun and creative. I had a stain on a top that I didn’t know how to cover, so I gave it to an artist friend of mine (Emilia Iulia) and she painted beautiful leaves all over it. It not only covered up the stain but virtually transformed the top with no sewing involved.”
“When you're tailoring a garment, you’re altering its fit. It sounds complex, but you can do most of it with a needle and thread. I tailored the sleeves on this blazer that I was given, by folding them in and adding some rough stitches all around on the inside to hold them firmly in place. I love wearing it - it’s my power jacket and the alteration was so simple to do.”
We often make the mistake of valuing an item on the basis of its price. How about trying the other way round? “I’ve spent good money on some quality second hand pieces. One of them is this black sweater I got recently. I paid €45 for it, which might sound expensive for a pre-owned, plain sweater, but it was still in mint condition and was exactly what I needed this winter.”
As soon as we hung up, I started eyeing my wardrobe. I knew I’d been putting off for a long time the clearout that Shannon suggested, primarily because I didn’t know how to go about it and quite frankly, felt a little anxious about unpacking all my belongings. Speaking with Shannon, I realised that I needed to pay more attention to getting my basics right because I tend to buy statement pieces without thinking about what to pair them with. On top of that, I welcomed the opportunity to revise my style and get to know myself a little more.
“What matters is that your journey is about continuous improvement. If you’re not sure how to get started, start by identifying what’s valuable to you. Is it the environment? Is it saving money? Is it rummaging through the racks? I'm open to people messaging me on Instagram @needlemeetsthread. I'm willing to help as long as people are prepared to take a hands-on approach. It’s important to not get overwhelmed by looking at complicated projects and thinking, ‘That’s so far off from what I can see myself doing,’ but keeping it attainable. One step at a time."
And finally, “Don't underestimate how much happier you can be. We live in a world that’s always telling us that more, more, more is better. But it’s really not.” Amen.
Story by Manuela Zammit. Insights by Shannon Briffa.
I’m a contemporary art curator and storyteller who studied in Manchester, researched in Venice, trained in Amsterdam and worked in Malta. I’m passionate about the stories told by art, people and places. Call me a hipster, but I proudly own and use a typewriter(s). Follow me on @textpresso to find out what I can do with these fantastic writing machines.