Building a Men’s Capsule Wardrobe From Scratch

Last updated: September 5, 2022

You did it. You took the leap.

At some point in every man’s life, he will decide he must dress better.

Whether it’s your mom, your SO, or even your boss (an OfficeTeam survey revealed that 80% of executives believe an employee’s clothing choices affect their chances of promotion) providing the motivation, you will approach the same exciting if foreboding choice: “do I keep my familiar old wardrobe, or reach out towards something more?”

This guide is for those who aspire.

For most 18-35 year old males, “building” a versatile, style-conscious capsule wardrobe comes off more like “renovation.”

Nudists excluded, we all currently wear clothes – some of those clothes you already own are bound to fit certain archetypes we’ll develop as wardrobe foundations (ex. dark jeans, plain white t-shirt).

The worn-out tee from last year’s corporate retreat, however, will likely have to go.

With that in mind, much of this guide will discuss general archetypes that make up a smart casual wardrobe.

It’ll also include color and quantity suggestions with an eye towards maximizing versatility.

While these suggestions may seem limited or “just not your style”, please note that many of the pieces we’ll discuss have been perceived as “stylish” by the world at large for centuries.

In summary, treat the following like a cookbook: a well-built wardrobe is a collection of outfits (recipes) containing ingredients (pieces) that are flavorful on their own, but when assembled certain ways, combine individual strengths to create something more.

If you have already have onions from the store, don’t buy more just because the recipe says so.

Building a wardrobe from scratch isn’t about chasing Buzzfeed food trends – it’s about maximizing the ingredients you have to create something worth chasing.

Here’s how to do just that.

Capsule Wardrobe Outfits

If you’re opting for a capsule wardrobe, the kind of outfits you’re going to create are inherently going to be very simple and minimalistic. The following outfits are a few examples of what can be done with a limited wardrobe.

Capsule Wardrobe Checklist

The capsule wardrobe essentially has 3 stages, the foundation, the building blocks and the seasonal staples. The foundation will provide the essential items you’d need for literally every wardrobe you’re building, it’s basically the skeleton of your closet.

The building blocks are bigger more expensive pieces we’re adding for a more versatile wardrobe. Finally the seasonal staples are clothing items you need during certain seasons, eg: shorts for summer and a heavy jacket for winter.

The foundation:

  • T-Shirt
  • Sweatshirt
  • Denim jeans
  • Oxford shirt

The building blocks:

  • Overcoat
  • Chinos
  • Sweater
  • Overshirt

The seasonal staples:

  • Shorts
  • Linen Shirt
  • Heavy Knit
  • Heavy Jacket
  • Washed denim
  • Light Jacket

Start with the shoes.

White low-top sneakers: Oliver Cabell Low 1 White

Leather work boots: Thorogood 6” Moc Toe

Dress oxfords: Cole Haan Harrison Grand Derby Oxfords

Athletic trainers: JAK – S03 Sky

Shoes make the man.

Or, more precisely, they provide that man’s context.

While shoes may not take up the same real estate as a shirt, they punch well above their weight in terms of projecting the vibe of an outfit.

Just think about it: the guy wearing sneakers with a suit is 90% Italian wool, 10% canvas and rubber.

Yet, it’s that 10% that says “All of me breaks from the majority.”

In short: shoes define your entire outfit. That’s why we put them first.

In 2022, a versatile wardrobe can rest on but four pairs: white low-top sneakers, leather work boots, dress oxfords, and athletic trainers.

While much of the casual heavy lifting will fall on your sneakers and boots, these four, in combination, cover the entire spectrum.

From the office to the bar, the gym to date night, you’ll be stylish in any setting. Check out our recommendations below:

Avoid public indecency.

Three pairs of chinos: Uniqlo Slim Fit Chinos

One pair of dark wash jeans: EDWIN Slim Tapered Jeans

Wearing pants: it’s not just a wardrobe foundation – it’s the law.

For many men, shopping for well-fitting pants represents pure frustration. Ergo, they only do it once. There’s a reason Levi’s changing their sizing makes the news – most guys get their size once, then reflexively rebuy that same size and style when necessary. Most guys also don’t take the leap into building a better wardrobe. 

Let’s be thankful we’re not most guys.  

Before you buy pants, take an honest moment to evaluate whether the pants you already own fit. If they’re excessively baggy (you can’t see your shoes) or excessively tight (you can see your veins), you need to resize. If the pants’ rise (how far up on your waist it’s designed to sit) isn’t sitting as intended, you need to resize. No matter how much money you spend to buy it, pants only look as good as they fit. 

Now, on to business.

Even if you wear jeans three days out of seven, a stylish, versatile wardrobe is built on cotton chinos. We recommend buying three pairs of chinos (in grey, navy, and olive), as well as one pair of dark wash indigo jeans. These colors all pair well with the shirts we’ll recommend later, while leaving room for the dark jeans to cover an entire side of the brightness scale. Plus, since jeans don’t need to be washed as often as chinos, these four selections should be more than enough to get you through at least one week of outfits.

As for recommendations: in terms of stylish, versatile, value-per-dollar, it’s hard to beat Uniqlo. The Japanese brand’s devotion to “LifeWear” (accessible, high-quality basics) is our “cookbook” approach to a T. What’s more, they even offer free hemming if you buy your new pants in store. Fit? Check.

On to the shirts.

Three short-sleeve tees: CDLP Midweight T-Shirts

One long-sleeve Henley: Wahts Pique Henley Shirt

Two OCBD’s: Uniqlo Slim-Fit Oxford

It’s about to get torso.

Men’s shirting is a simple business: for casualwear, choose a short-sleeve tee, long-sleeve Henley, or oxford cloth button-down (OCBD). That simple. 

In reality, the shirt is just a vessel for the context you’ve built with your shoes and pants. T-shirt with jeans and sneakers? Street style cool. T-shirt with chinos and boots? Elevated casual. T-shirt with chinos and dress shoes? You get the idea. 

Just like with pants, our shirting recommendations will focus on colors and brands that maximize versatility. To build a stylish smart casual wardrobe from scratch, we suggest three tees (white, black, and navy), one Henley (grey), and two OCBD’s (white and light blue) from the following:

End with outerwear.

Ah, outerwear: big, durable, and notoriously expensive. 

Best of all, stylish, versatile outerwear means different things entirely dependent on your distance from the Equator. Unlike every category above, the mere purchase of most coats is region-dependent. So, rather than callously dictate which pieces you “need”, we’ll paint three types of outerwear in the same broad archetypes above, but include a three-point temperature scale to personalize your wardrobe based on, you know, where you live. The style and versatility, however, is universal.

For this part of the guide, just choose what you believe you need. For pure convenience, it’s hard to go wrong with one from each category. As for colors: stick with dark neutrals all around. These pieces will go on the outside of everything you own, and honestly, most things just look good next to black. Save the “safety red” for Antarctica.

Insulation layers: these keep you warm. Pair them with a weather-resistant layer for an effective, customizable outerwear system.

Cold: Uniqlo Ultralight Down Jacket

Moderate: H&M Bomber Jacket          

Hot: Neem Flannel Overshirt

Weather-resistant layers: these keep you dry. While many are un-insulated, some do a better job than others at keeping out snow and sleet.

Cold: The North Face Drzzyle Jacket

Moderate: Uniqlo BlockTech Parka

Hot: UO Coach Jacket

All-in-ones: these do both, but cost a bit more. Get you a coat that can do both.

Cold: Canada Goose Parka

Moderate: The North Face Thermoball Triclimate

Hot: Alpha Industries MA-1 Flight Jacket

Capsule Wardrobe Brands

There are actually brands that offer full of capsule wardrobes if you don’t want to bother with ordering from a million different places. There are also brands that specialize in high quality basics that make the process easier. Check out some of our favorite capsule wardrobe brands: