Category Archives: personal style

how to shop smarter this fall

Even if you’re not technically going back to school, this time of year is still about starting fresh! You might be eyeing your closet right now with a mind to update, but without having an idea of how to go about such a thing…here’s some ideas to get the most out of your “back to school” shopping!

The bottom line is, remember that practical does not mean plain. Next time you go shopping, walk right past the plain, “neutral” basics and try these three strategies instead:


shop for interesting textures


the cassandra tote with an embroidered top and dark blue jeans


The easiest way to escape from the trap of plain is to look for interesting textures when you go shopping. You might find this easier and less intimidating shopping for bold prints or bright colors. In fact, you can be totally monochromatic with an interesting texture, and you’ll still probably be the best dressed in the room!

The outfit above assumes you already have a pair of jeans you love, and cute booties to wear with them. Instead of shopping for a new, plain top to wear with them, how about something with embroidery, applique, beading, lace, or some other kind of surface design? A top with more visual interest will instantly elevate anything you wear with it, and will coordinate with more things in your closet than a plain version ever could.

I love the effect of an interesting texture, which is why I designed my latest handbags with high-relief quilting. The cassandra 517 tote is shown above, featuring my favorite chevron wave motif stitched in black thread on natural canvas. Click here to see more details on the cassandra tote, and think about what plain thing from your closet you could replace with a textured version!


shop for your colors

the persephone tote with navy trousers and a printed blouse

You probably already have navy pants, and a pair of “nude” pumps from a few years ago when everyone insisted you must own a pair. When you’re out shopping for a way to update them, think about color instead of more plain. What colors do you like to wear? Which colors look great on you? What colors make you feel happy and confident?

If you’re afraid of bright colors, an accessory is a great way to experiment. I would totally feel comfortable wearing the outfit above with a bright red blouse, but maybe that’s scary to you! A bag like the persephone tote is easier to wear than clothing in the same colors. If wearing red makes you happy, now you have an awesome bag to carry everyday that will get much more use than a plain black bag. See how that works?


shop for interesting silhouettes


the sofia tote with a black bell sleeved dress


I can hear some of y’all complaining but Valerie I love wearing all black that’s ~my thing~ and you can’t make me stop! Good news my friend, I am not going to tell you to stop wearing black!

But next time you go shopping, how about looking for new and interesting silhouettes?

The bell-sleeved dress in this outfit is an excellent example. Dramatic sleeves have been a thing for a while now, and I don’t think they’ll be going away anytime soon. This same dress with plain sleeves would be absolutely nothing to write home about, and not a way to make yourself feel happy and confident when you get dressed in the morning! The interesting sleeves make all the difference.

This is what I was thinking when I designed the 517 totes…I wanted a simple tote design that was nevertheless dramatic and interesting, and worthy of being your new favorite bag. One of the ways I chose to do that was to make them a slightly unusual shape: they are slightly taller than usual, and have gentle curves where most totes are built on straight lines.

You can do the same thing with your fall shopping! Just remember that practical does not mean plain, and you’ll end up with a new wardrobe that will make you much happier than anything basic ever could!



three style experiments to try right now

Have you looked in your (giant, over-flowing) closet lately and thought “I have nothing to wear”?

It might be time for a little re-mixing, a little experimenting. Here are three ways you can experiment with your personal style right now. Try something new and elevate your everyday look!
experiment #1: crown yourself

Wearing a flower in your hair is an easy way to escape from the ordinary. It’s an unusual accessory outside of special occasions, which makes it a perfect experiment for elevating the everyday. I always get smiles and compliments from strangers when I wear my flower hair clips or headbands!

flower bobby pins from Maria Louise High

I bet you’ve even bought a flower clip or headband before and have been afraid to wear it, or have been waiting for the “right” occasion. Well guess what, TODAY is the right occasion!

The gorgeous bobby pins above are from an artist in Baltimore, Maria Louise High. A single bobby pin is easy to add to nearly any hairstyle, or you could wear a set of them if you want a bit more drama.

If you’re at work and you feel like something fancy in your hair is too much, put the flower on your lapel instead!

experiment #2: try a new neutral

I know you’re used to buying your wardrobe staples in neutral colors, because then they’ll “go with everything”, right?

Well…you’re not wrong. It is indeed true that “going with everything” is what makes something a “neutral,” but it is NOT true that those things have to be black, brown, or navy (or gray or beige or…you get my drift).


outfits featuring purple, green, and red instead of navy, brown, and black


Let’s say you start with a classic white shirt, which you pair with your favorite jeans. Awesome! Now, instead of your trusty pair of loafers (or flats or ankle boots or whatever…) in brown, what about the same classic style of shoe in a gorgeous bottle green instead?

Now let’s say you want to dress up your outfit a bit, so you want a blazer. Instead of a plain navy one (so boring), why not purple?

This particular blazer is more lavender, but a dark aubergine purple can do anything that navy can do, only it won’t bore you to tears (OR make you blend into the background).


new neutrals blend without being boring
The gold and jade jewelry, purple-tinted sunglasses, and the red scarf and belt go with all three outfits. They also easily mix and match with all the black, brown, and navy you already own!


What if you want to wear a skirt instead? Step away from the rows of black skirts (seriously, how many of those do you already have?) and pick out a red one instead! Add some great accessories, and you have an outfit that is interesting and stylish with zero effort.

Dark green, purple, or red can look good on anyone with any coloring. Next time you’re shopping for something “neutral,” think about whether one of those colors will be a better choice for you than the usual black, brown, or navy!


experiment #3: mix it up

Friends, there is a big difference between matching and coordinating. Elements of your outfits can work together beautifully without actually being the same color/print/style. It’s true!

I can already hear some of you telling me to go jump in a lake…but trust me, give it a try: just say no to matchy-matchy. Try putting together an outfit where nothing matches. Every item is a different color or pattern. I’m not even going to tell you to leave out your trusty “neutrals”!


denim skirt, striped top, and mult-colored accessories


The outfit above is built on a denim skirt and a simple striped top. Then I added a bunch of color. You could do it backwards – start with a brightly colored top, for example, and add more subtle items to compliment (not match!) it.

Mixing it up like this not only adds interest, it ensures you won’t look like a clone of the person next to you. When everyone is focused on matching and wearing “neutrals,” nobody stands out and everybody just looks ordinary.

Have I inspired you to give any of these experiments a try? Send me pictures of what you come up with!




the story of my perfect tote bag

So, I have this tote bag. I’m not going to post a picture, because it’s not much to look at: it’s navy blue, with navy blue straps. It’s big, it holds lots of stuff, and it is one of the first things I ever made for myself…therefore I carried it whenever I needed the space. Lately, that meant anytime I went to the studio to teach.

But it was making me sad. It was so plain.

plain black tote bags


My dissatisfaction with this bag made me think: why should something be plain just because I plan on using it every day?

(I know that was my thinking when I picked out that plain fabric way back in 2003…I was afraid of prints back then, if you can believe it.)

I decided I would make myself a new tote bag, one that was perfect for me. It would embody all the things I love, and therefore I would love using it every day, not like the sad navy blue thing I had been suffering lately.

chevron patchwork from the wrong side


The front is a chevron patchwork of bold prints, and the back is purple velveteen (one of my recent acquisitions). The straps are dark blue denim with gold sparkly leather, and the lining is bright red. There are four massive pockets, all lined in contrasting fabrics.

As you well know (unless you’re new here), those are pretty much all of my favorite things! I’ve been working on it for a while, but I finished it this week, and I couldn’t be more in love!

Valerie's custom chevron patchwork tote bag


Now clearly, this bag is not for everyone. But it is perfect for me, and that’s what matters.

(the best part is that each fabric in the patchwork reminds me of a specific time or place…better than a scrapbook or a photo album!)

It occurred to me, while I was walking down the street, smugly toting my perfect tote, that this is exactly how you pinpoint your personal style. What makes you happy? What do you feel good in? What do you reach for without thinking about it?

Or conversely: what is wrong with that thing you have that doesn’t make you happy?

zip pouch in progress

I’ve known that I don’t like to wear plain things for a while now, ever since the end of my office job meant the end of “business casual.” Over the years I’ve changed out the stuff I use for more interesting versions, as well: my wallet is purple (surprise!), my makeup bag is gold leather, my keychain is an art deco print, my luggage is bright orange, and my rain boots are leopard print…you get the idea.

Why should your everyday items (like the gold and red zip pouch in progress above) be plain just because you plan on using them everyday?

Since when does versatile or practical have to mean plain?


zip pouch with hand drawn details and velveteen


I think those words mean something different: whatever it is that makes you the happiest. That’s what you’ll use the most often, and what you’ll turn to time after time. Why would I ever use the plain navy bag again, when I have my perfect tote? I wouldn’t – that plain navy thing is now completely impractical.

The things you use the most and surround yourself with should be the things you love the most. If plain navy thrills you, then by all means, go for it. But if you require a bit more stimulation, figure out what makes you smile, and then seek it out!




the difference between matching and coordinating

You hear it all the time – don’t be too matchy-matchy. Magazines and style bloggers and Nina Garcia and everyone and their mother (and me, too) are always telling you to mix it up.

So what’s the big deal? Matching is boring, for one thing. It takes all the joy out of fashion. Matching is only about clothes, and never about style. Matching is for uniforms (which is fine if “flight attendant” is the look you’re going for). Matching is for newborn twins, when it’s time to pose for cutesy pictures for grandma. Matching is not for you!

the ganges classic handbag, from Holland Cox

You might look at the ganges classic handbag here (from my fall 2011 collection), and think you can only wear it with certain things.

You might think that your outfit had better have royal blue or bright purple in it. Or, you might not have anything that matches exactly, and therefore think you have to wear all gray and black.

Not true, my friends!

everyday style


For this look, I didn’t try to “match” the handbag. The girl wearing this outfit carries the ganges classic handbag every day, not just when she’s wearing blue or purple.

The scarf works with the handbag (even though the blues don’t match and there’s no purple at all in the scarf) because they have the same clean lines…bold blocks of color on the bag, sleek stripes on the scarf.

The pink accessories work (even though there’s only a tiny bit of pink in the scarf and nowhere else) because they share the same style as the other items…soft and feminine like the scarf, ladylike and classy like the little jacket.

See what I mean? Think about something colorful that you already own. (If you don’t have anything colorful, I think you know that I can help you out with that.) What else in your closet can coordinate with it? What else do you have that is similar in style or in the details, but not necessarily in color? Think about putting them together, and let me know how it turns out!



how to wear a purple envelope clutch

What does the word “versatile” mean to you?

I’m willing to bet when you think “versatile” in terms of clothing or accessories, you think neutral colors and plain styling.

It doesn’t have to be that way!

the zambezi envelope clutch

Something does not have to be plain and black to get lots of wear out of it.

The most versatile items you can own are those that are in the colors that look best on you, and styles that flatter you. So what are these things?

I’ll give you a hint… “plain and black” is not the answer. For anybody.

First of all, despite conventional wisdom, black does not look awesome on everybody. For some people, their dark neutral should really be navy blue, charcoal gray, or even chocolate brown.

And while black does look good on lots of people, it isn’t anybody’s BEST color. So when you pick that wardrobe staple with no interesting styling and in plain black, you are selling yourself (and your personal style) short.

the zambezi envelope clutch from Holland Cox

So for example: if you like purple, then you can wear the zambezi envelope clutch (from my fall 2011 collection) everyday. Even if you only sort-of like purple, but LOVE red, you can wear this clutch everyday, because purple looks awesome with red. So you look really fantastic in gray, and want a little color to punch it up? Zambezi clutch to the rescue. See what I’m saying?

So I will leave you with a little challenge…next time you’re at the store, and you find something you like, don’t buy the black (or white or khaki) one. Get the one in color. Trust me!


tragic brown cardigan refashioned into something wearable

My new year’s resolution is to finally have the wardrobe of my dreams in 2012. I don’t plan on doing much shopping though…I’m going to refashion what I’ve got into fabulousness, and sew the rest from scratch!

tragic brown cardigan: before

This chocolate brown cardigan is a perfect candidate. How unspeakably dull is this thing? Why would I want to dress like Mr. Rogers (who is definitely a role model in a non-fashion way, though)? What could I have been thinking when I bought something so plain and verging on ugly?

I’ll tell you what I was thinking: I need something versatile. I say it all the time now, and I’m going to keep saying it: basic does not have to be boring.

Obviously, there was a time I did not know this. I mistakenly equated versatile with plain. It was during these dark times that I purchased this tragic and dull cardigan sweater.

Good thing I’ve seen the light, and now I can fix it!

tragic brown cardigan: hideous original buttons

Seriously, what is with these buttons? Not only are they absurdly large, they are a foul mud color! Not even the same chocolately brown as the sweater! Not nice.

Obviously the first step in this refashion is to ditch the fug buttons. I found these pretty golden ones at my local fabric store, and thought they would do nicely:

pretty gold buttons

After cutting off the old buttons, I noticed that their extreme size had stretched out the button holes on the sweater. I didn’t want them to gape open over my new (smaller) buttons, so I knew my next step was to doctor the button holes.

I simply put a few stitches in the top of each button hole from the back side, using matching thread, to make each one about 1/4″ smaller.

cardigan button holes, before and after surgery

Just changing out the buttons made such a big difference; I could have stopped there. But the cardigan still felt unfinished to me. It was still too dull to be something I would want to wear on purpose.

So I asked myself: what would “versatile” really look like? Not in the abstract, but in terms of what I actually wear or what I want to wear?

Well, it turns out I wear an awful lot of purple, red, and bright apple green. Those are the color shirts I’m most likely to be wearing under this cardigan, so why not add those colors to the cardigan itself?

hand spun yarn

I found this pretty hand spun yarn in my stash, which I believe I purchased from some local knitter at Crafty Bastards two years ago.

I had no idea what I was going to do with it when I bought it, but that’s almost always how it is with me. I decided to sew it onto the button placket and neckline of my cardigan in two long lines.

I used a very long and very narrow zig zag stitch to sew the yarn in place. I also put a new, blunt-nosed needle (especially for knits) in my machine. Sharper needles meant for woven fabrics can snag your knit fabrics; it’s especially important to avoid that when you’re topstitching on knits, like I did here.

cardigan with new yarn accents

Tragedy averted! My finished cardigan is interesting, colorful, versatile, and most importantly, something I actually want to wear, rather than something I just throw on because I don’t have anything else.

Shouldn’t every item in your wardrobe be like that?

brown cardigan: tragedy averted!

I wore this sweater yesterday with a purple shirt underneath it, and got lots of compliments! More importantly, I felt really great in it…like myself. Before, it felt purely utilitarian – just another layer to put on because it was a bit cold outside. Now it’s something I want to wear, and feel good wearing.

That feeling is the difference between just wearing clothes, having a style all your own.

The whole process took me about an hour. What do you have in your closet that only needs a bit of attention to turn into something you love?


the most practical bag in your closet

I’m sure you agree that an envelope clutch is a perfect evening accessory. But have you ever thought about using one every day?

I can hear your gasps of outrage from here…But Valerie! You exclaim. I could never fit all my stuff in a clutch! They’re just too impractical!

Settle down, my loves, and let me prove it to you. To illustrate, I will be using the verdandi envelope clutch from my spring 2011 collection.

the verdandi envelope clutch from Holland Cox

First of all you need to ask yourself: are you really using ALL of that stuff in your bag every minute of every day? I’m guessing a very high percentage of the gear in the giant bag you’re carrying is of the “just in case” variety.

I know, because I’ve done the same thing. When you have a huge bag, there is no editing process. You dump in everything you can think of that you might need, because you have the room so why not?

Only back pain, sore shoulders, and sloppy outfits lie down that road, my friends. Just say no.

Luckily Holland Cox envelope clutches are roomier than they look, so you can fit quite a few more essentials inside than you probably think you can.

But that’s the key word: essentials.

the verdandi envelope clutch


Use your envelope clutch to hold the essentialswallet, phone, keys, compact, tissues, business cards, pen, lip gloss, whatever…(this is my own list, by the way).

Then everything is in one place when you really do need a bigger bag. Like when you’re going to the gym, carrying your laptop for work, hauling your baby’s gear around, or shopping at the farmer’s market. Just drop your clutch inside your big bag, and you’re good to go!

Check out the outfits above. The yellow dress and the sassy bronze accessories on the left are the typical evening look you probably associate with an envelope clutch. But did you ever think one could work with a practical, work-appropriate outfit like the one on the right?

The great thing about my envelope clutches? Big enough to fit all the necessities, but small enough to fit inside your briefcase. What could be more practical than that?

Do you have any outfits that you’d never thought to wear with an envelope clutch? Have I convinced you to give it a try?


how to get the most out of your trendy accessories

So, you’ve caved to the latest trend. You fell in love and just couldn’t say no. You’ve worn it three times already and have loved every minute of it! You have no regrets!

Sadly, you’ve worn it exactly the same way all three times. It’s time to branch out, love! Time for a restyling.

To illustrate, I will use one of the pretties from my 2011 spring/summer collection, the morrigan envelope clutch.

the morrigan envelope clutch from Holland Cox

Envelope clutches are very trendy right now, so it’s very likely you’ve seen one or two that have tempted you. You may have resisted so far, thinking a clutch can only be worn with so many things. Not true!

Large scale ruffles, pale colors, and a curved silhouette give the morrigan clutch a very feminine look. You might be tempted to always wear something like this with flouncy skirts and low-cut tops. It definitely lends itself to super girly looks!

But what if you want to try something different? Forget about trying to “match” your new clutch. Instead, try thinking of it as a balance for the rest of your outfit.


the morrigan envelope clutch


Everybody has a pair of jeans and a black shirt they love to wear. Why can’t you wear your fancy new envelope clutch with that?

For the rest of the outfit, instead of dwelling on the super-femme look of morrigan, go for the opposite. Tough looking boots and bold, edgy jewelry create an awesome look for the morrigan clutch…but probably not the first one you imagined, am I right?

Is there something in your closet you wear the same way every time? Have you passed up something you love because you could only think of one way to wear it?

Think of your accessories (and clothing!) in a new light. Is there a way you can restyle some of your favorites to get even more wear out of them?




this top would be perfect, if only…

You know those garments you have that you like, but that you could LOVE if only…that one thing about it could be changed? Those little pretties are ripe for refashion. Here’s my latest.

printed sleeveless tank: before

before: cute top, dull tie.
When I still had an office job, this sleeveless top spent most of its time underneath jackets and cardigan sweaters when I wore it to the office. I really liked the colors and the small-scale geometric print.

I wasn’t so much a fan of the little tie. It’s okay, but not really “me”. However, back then I wasn’t that concerned with making my outfits “me,” I was more concerned with the office dress code. So I never did anything about it (my mistake).

top with tie removed from neckline removed strap a165space


step one: remove the tie
To make this top more “me,” I decided to turn the bland tie into a cute little ruffle. I love me some ruffles! So I took a seam ripper to the tie and removed it from the neckline of the tank top.

I was left with two raw edges – one along the neckline, the other on the tie, where it was attached to the neckline. I finished the neckline by just turning the raw edge under once, and stitching it down with a narrow zig zag stitch.

hole left in tie hole closed with blind stitcha165space

step two: close the hole
For my plan to work, I needed finished edges all around the tie. So I turned it inside-out, and sewed the raw edge closed (using a zig zag stitch – my serger is in my closet and stays there), where it used to be attached to the neckline.

I left a small hole so I could turn it right-side out again, and then closed that hole with a blind stitch (see? invisible!).

double line of basting stitches down the center finished ruffle a165space

step three: make the ruffle
Now to turn the tie into a ruffle! I ran two long basting stitches right down the center of the tie, and then gathered them to create a full, tight ruffle.

My plan was to stitch it along the neckline, right down the center like a tuxedo ruffle. But naturally, after gathering into a ruffle, the tie wasn’t long enough to reach all the way around the neckline…what to do?

finished back collar

step four: applying the ruffle
I decided I really only needed the ruffle to go along the front V of the neckline.

With a little bit of time with my tape measure, I figured out how much of the tie needed to be flat to lay against the back neckline, and how much needed to be ruffled to decorate the front V neck.

Then I pinned and sewed the ruffle to the neckline, using a narrow zig zag stitch right down the center of the ruffle. Along the neckline, the flattened tie folded over to form a narrow little collar. Adorable!

finished top with new ruffled neckline

after: cute top with ruffled neckline!
The finished shirt is so much cuter, and something I’m much happier to wear, because it feels so much more like me! And it was super easy to do…I didn’t even need any additional fabric or notions.

Do you have anything in your closet that you sort of like, but that you know you could LOVE? That would be absolutely perfect and fun to wear, if only…?


how to wear the zaria envelope clutch

Sometimes people tell me they love Holland Cox handbags, but don’t know how to wear them. Here’s two takes on styling the zaria envelope clutch from my spring 2011 collection:


the zaria envelope clutch


The zaria clutch is adorned with handmade flowers on the flap, so it lends itself easily to a pretty, feminine look like the one on the left, centered around a soft, flowy skirt.

The purple skirt and enameled jewelry echo the details on the clutch without being too matchy-matchy. Jeweled flats and a long, gold necklace complete this very girly look.


But zaria can just as easily work with a more aggressively trendy and sexy look, like the outfit on the right. Anyone will tell you that brightly colored pants are big for this fall, and of course I had to choose orange!

A neutral top provides a background for the more attention-grabbing parts of the outfit: bright skinny jeans, peep-toe booties, and (a perpetual favorite of mine), a nice statement necklace!

zaria envelope clutch from Holland Cox

Think about clutches as more than just a nighttime accessory. There’s no law that says you can’t carry a cute little bag like this during the day! Don’t let feminine details like flowers or ruffles limit your styling options, either.

Do you have something in your closet that you can restyle in a similar way? Something that can work with both a “hard” and “soft” look?

Like all the handbags, the zaria envelope clutch is one-of-a-kind, and won’t be available forever. The new collection is out in about a month, and then she will be gone for good!