The Purge: KonMari

Decluttering with DC’s only licensed KonMari consultant

Nina Kanakarajavelu


Welcome to the jungle

It would be hard to miss the rise of Marie Kondo’s decluttering empire over the past few years (her book, the Netflix show, the many, many, think pieces), but I’ve always remained immune to the buzz. This is not that surprising to anyone who knows me — I don’t fetishize minimalism, or find cleaning relaxing in any sense, and I’ve definitely never set foot inside of a Container store. But when I was offered the chance to apply the famed Marie Kondo organizing method to my own anarchic closet with the help of DC’s only certified Konmari consultant, I knew I couldn’t refuse.

It’s 11am on a Sunday, an hour before my appointment with the consultant, and I’m staring at a decade’s worth of clothing and belongings. This insane amount of stuff has traveled with me through ten moves in four different cities after college and now sits crammed away in various corners of my tiny studio apartment.

How did I get here? There are a few culprits. Gifts of all kinds, though particularly unisex clothing in sizes I have never worn, are my parents’ chosen love language. Then there is my weakness for salvaging sidewalk furniture of dubious quality (e.g. a chest of drawers missing a critical element (namely, drawers) which quickly turn into catchalls for the clothes I don’t have time to put away during the week. I’m also more sentimental than I care to admit — I have planners going back ten years with a rough summary of what I did every day, which should come in handy if I’m ever stricken with some kind of Memento-type disease. Any attempts at straightening up are usually triggered by some event, like an impending visit from my parents, or just a sudden, disquieting sense that my apartment clutter was rapidly approaching the “buried alive” stage. Of course, even when I indulged these bouts of organizational fervor, I never actually got rid of anything.

This…wasn’t great, I know. But I’d also watched enough episodes of Hoarders in grad school to know my situation wasn’t dire enough to require an intervention. I mean, of course I could be neater, but I also wasn’t in imminent danger of discovering the fossilized remains of my cat under my sofa.

At some point though, the rationalizations fall away. Maybe I’m just getting older and tired of inadvertently triggering an avalanche when trying to find something in the catacombs of my closet, but I knew it was time for a change. Having no organizational method in place to begin with, I came into this decluttering project with a modest goal — find a sustainable way to keep my clothing chaos at bay with minimal hassle. Enter Jenny Albertini, the brave soul who gamely offered to take me on as a pro-bono decluttering case and teach me the ways of Kondo-ing.

Jenny started out in the decluttering game by helping her expat friends consolidate their stuff, eventually going on to take Marie Kondo’s training course in 2016, and becoming DC’s only certified Konmari consultant. For the uninitiated, the Konmari approach to decluttering is centered on the idea that people tend to be happier and less stressed in tidy environments, surrounded only by those items that actively bring meaning and joy to their lives. On a more basic level, the method boils down to just two actions — thoughtfully discarding and organizing your belongings, in that order. The categories of stuff are ordered from the items most people find easiest to part with (clothes) to the ones they often struggle to let go of (books, or exercise equipment, as is the case for many of Jenny’s fitness-minded DC clients).

According to Jenny, the move to declutter can be triggered by anything from major life events like a divorce or preparing a home for a new baby, to just feeling the twinge of seasonal ennui. Her clientele is diverse, though the majority are women in their thirties who are able to afford her decluttering services. Jenny is quick to emphasize, however, that anyone can easily apply the Konmari method without dropping lots of money.

“Is there anything I should do to prepare?” I inquire delicately during my pre-consultation call, wondering if there was some way to spare this innocent the dark horrors of my closet with its mysterious plastic bins full of fast fashion detritus. Jenny assured me that all we really needed were some trash bags and leftover cardboard boxes. Okay, then.

Step 1: Take inventory

Naturally, I ignored Jenny’s advice and attempted to do a quick pre-clean of my apartment before she arrived. My mom would have murdered me if I’d let a stranger actually see how I lived. Sadly, it was a wasted effort since there wasn’t anywhere I could hide my stuff in a studio apartment and Jenny is a consummate professional who is utterly unwilling to judge my humble abode.

After pleasantries, we dove right in to the heart of darkness. We stripped all of the overstuffed hangers in my closet, emptied out every duffel bag, every random plastic storage container, dragging clothes out in armfuls and dumping them on the bed. Each item of clothing was then sorted into piles according to subcategory — pants, shirts, dresses, socks, pajamas, cardigans, etc. Just as we had fully excavated my closet, Jenny unearthed yet another duffel bag under my bed, stuffed with roughly a dozen pairs of Indian pajama bottoms and not one, but two belly dancing belts. To be clear, I don’t belly dance.

Exhibit A: Chair, strangled by clothing, yearning to breathe free

Step 2: Start discarding

One thing I learned from the inventory process was that I had no idea what I actually owned, and now, unfortunately, I did. Jenny seems unfazed at the small landfill’s worth of clothing in front of her. I, however, feel slightly queasy, grimly surveying the clothing dotting every available surface in my apartment. Once we finished creating piles for the various subcategories, it was time to start the hard work of making decisions about each item of clothing. Antsy to begin the purge, I started with a towering pile of cardigans on the edge of the bed. I held one up to the light and attempted to gauge its value.

At first it feels a bit goofy to evaluate clothing that carefully; thinking through the last time you wore it, whether it fit, if you actually liked it, or were just holding on to it out of nostalgia or laziness. After a five-second mental evaluation, I handed it to Jenny who, nodding approvingly, threw it into a new garbage bag. One down. Roughly 300 to go.

When you discard an item, Marie Kondo advises saying a few words of gratitude for the role it has played in your life. I couldn’t even remember how I came to acquire that many cardigans, nor could I summon many tears for the next pile — a drawer full of orphaned socks — which I gleefully shoved into the open trash bag next to me. Luckily, Jenny assured me that a blanket thank you per pile would work just fine in lieu of a long meditative gratitude ritual for each individual item. An hour into discarding, I fell into a good groove, efficiently speeding through piles of ugly, tragic, mid-aughts fashion. Eventually though, I hit a snag. The sorting process is not always logical — some items are obviously marked for death while others seem to trigger a dormant defensive instinct.

When a white cardigan that had seen me through many travels suddenly, traumatically, found itself on the discard pile, I seized it, preemptively launching into a passionate defense of what was basically a white rag with arm holes. Eventually, sanity prevailed and I let it go, albeit reluctantly.

Jenny, to her credit, remains extraordinarily patient and nonjudgmental through the entire discarding process. She will never tell you point blank to get rid of something, but will push back firmly against instinctive or thoughtless hoarding. Her line of questioning either puts you on the defensive or leads you towards some real revelations about your belongings.

“How many times did you wear this?” Jenny asked innocently, holding up a soccer jersey. I immediately felt myself grow weirdly protective.

“Just once, for a Halloween party last year” I admitted, preparing my defense. “But I mean, I could use it for working out or… a soccer game.”

Jenny looks at me meaningfully. “But are you going to use it to work out or play soccer?” Busted.

“No,” I concede grumpily.

“So, it’s really more of a sentimental jersey,” Jenny clarifies gently, putting it aside.

Jesus. I’m now someone who owns a “sentimental jersey.”

And that’s actually fine. The jersey survived the purge and was put away in a small duffel bag with other “sentimental clothing” (this is my thing, I guess). As we worked through the various piles, I realized that this process wasn’t just a clothing battle royale for a coveted spot in my closet. I could still keep things, but I needed to let go of all the clothes I pretended I would one day iron, or repair, or theoretically wear to some extremely niche costume party in the distant future. Sentimentality has its place in the Marie Kondo method, but it should not override everything.

It is important to note that Kondo-ing is actually pretty tiring. To stay faithful to the method, you’re supposed to do one category at a time. Jenny notes that her decluttering sessions are usually scheduled in 4-hour blocks because clients can’t really make thoughtful decisions past that point. After three hours of discarding, decision fatigue was setting in and my reserves of sentimentality were running low. I powered through anyway, mostly out of a desire not to waste Jenny’s time, and because there wasn’t really space to sit down. I briefly contemplated just buying five identical black dresses to wear and burning the rest of my stuff. The feeling passed.

At last, things were looking up. As Jenny and I worked through the last pile, it was clear we had made progress. I was pleased to see that the other piles of clothing I had chosen to keep now fit comfortably on the surface of my bed. I inexplicably still had ten cardigans, which is insane if you think about it — but it was still progress.

At the end of the discarding process, you should only have left the items that you use regularly, value, and that “spark joy.” That last phrase is perhaps the most seized upon sentiment in the coverage of Marie Kondo’s method, but you can easily substitute a less new agey sounding phrase to evaluate your clothing and fire up the decluttering instinct.

Why are you here?” I asked incredulously of a pair of Hammer pants I bought on a trip to Jordan last year. Sometimes there are just no easy answers.

Step 3: Folding

Jenny is quick to distinguish the Konmari method from the work of a traditional organizer, noting that at this point a professional organizer would likely come in with a tape measure, install some sexy Swedish shelves, and box up all my stuff. Tempting, but where is the fun in that?

It was now time to learn the famed Konmari method of folding. I curiously found this step to be the most tiresome — perhaps after the high of purging roughly half my wardrobe, carefully folding socks into thirds was bound to be a letdown. Nevertheless, with Jenny’s help, I soldiered on until I was able to do a somewhat respectable approximation of the Kondo fold, grouping my t-shirts into a repurposed cardboard box. Success!

Shirts thriving in delicate Kondo ecosystem

Since Jenny is a big proponent of making do with what you have, my lack of functional storage containers actually saved me from having to do more folding beyond the socks and shirts. I decided I was more of a hanger girl anyway. Jenny takes the lead in hanging up the rest of my clothes, grouping everything by type (sleeveless dresses, sweater dresses, coats, shirts, etc.) in my closet, which now felt positively cavernous. If done right, you should be able to see where all of your clothing is and easily access the items you use regularly. The adorable box of my folded t-shirts was placed carefully on the top shelf. I’m feeling somewhat elated at the amount of open space in my closet now.

Step 4: Figure out where your discarded items are going

Judgement time: four hours of backbreaking Kondo power organizing with Jenny had produced five gigantic trash bags full of discarded clothing and shoes. We both paused to take it in — the bags, exploding with decades of stuff from every epoch of my life — struggling student, regular student, DC working gal! Damn it, I was getting sentimental again. There was no time for that now, not with the bags taking up every inch of my floor space and effectively blocking the door. Where would all my crap go?

Jenny notes that DC is often a tough market for consignment. In a city full of so many professionals, the clothing that is donated tends to be fairly pristine and high-end. I really could not imagine any of my wrinkled H&M castoffs leading to a heated bidding war at Buffalo Exchange. Jenny, kind and diplomatic as always, agreed: “Your clothes are…well loved.” Goodwill, it is.

From the perspective of someone who likes to spend as little time as humanly possible engaged in domestic tasks, the Konmari method has a lot going for it. If you invest the time to go through all of your belongings, even if it takes a few months, and don’t immediately go on a shopping binge to replace everything, it’s a very useable organizational system. The focus on discarding and thinking meaningfully about what you own is also refreshingly anti-consumerist. There’s nothing quite like the tedium of evaluating every item of clothing, down to your oldest sports bra, to keep the purchasing impulse at bay.

There is also genuine comfort in reminding yourself of what your stuff means to you and giving yourself permission to put some of those things out to pasture (lovingly, of course). Maybe I didn’t need a coffee-stained t-shirt of Subcomandante Marcos to remind myself I was in Mexico in 2007. Jenny emphasizes that just because something has been with us forever, doesn’t mean we need to keep carrying it along with us long after it has served its purpose in our lives. She also notes that the Konmari decluttering method could easily apply to other areas of life: finances, a soul-deadening job, even your personal life. Word.

There was of course more work to be done at the end of our session— specifically the remaining four categories Jenny had assigned me as homework to finish on my own. But it suddenly felt doable. I was crazy tired, covered in lint, but also giddy over the fact that I could actually see open space under my bed now. It was time to think big.

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Tips & Tricks:

● The Konmari categories (in order): Clothes first, then books, papers, komono (miscellany), and lastly, mementos.

● Break a category into subcategories as necessary.

● Try to focus on taking better care of the items you do have instead of running out to buy replacements

● Have a plan to get rid of your discarded clothing as soon as possible (trash, consignment, Goodwill, etc.), so you’re not tempted to go diving back in to reclaim anything

● This doesn’t have to be an expensive process — just say no to fancy storage containers.

● If you’d like to go with a professional, you can check out Jenny Albertini’s consulting services at DeclutterDC

● And if organizing isn’t your thing and and you just want to grab some bargains from other people’s Kondo purges, here are the best thrift stores and consignment shops in DC to go hunting!