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Exclusive: A New Netflix Show Tells the Story of the Clothes We Keep

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

We all know what a closet clean-out looks like. For years, shows like What Not to Wear, Queer Eye, and Tidying Up With Marie Kondo have demonstrated the merits of a “keep” pile and a “toss” pile. But rarely does anyone take a closer look at the former. Why do we hang on to some articles of clothing and not others? What makes them special?

Emily Spivack has made it her mission to ask these questions. In 2010, she began collecting stories and memories connected to clothing, reaching out to people she admired — artists, writers, designers, and chefs — as well as strangers on Craigslist, and asking them about the keepsakes in their closets. Four years later, she’d gathered enough material to publish a book, called Worn Stories, which featured everyone from Marina Abramović to John Hodgman, and went on to be a Times best seller. In 2017, she followed up with Worn in New York. (Not surprisingly, it included some great merch.) And now, she’s brought both books to life with a new Netflix series, which premieres April 1.

Each episode of Worn Stories — there are eight — dives into a different theme: There are the clothes we wear at the beginning of our lives, for example, and then there are the clothes we wear to memorialize those we’ve lost. Below, you can watch the trailer for a sneak peek, and read more about what Spivack has to say about making the series during a pandemic.

When did you start thinking: This could make a great show?

Pretty soon after the second book came out, I started thinking about what it could look like. Jenji Kohan [of Weeds and Orange Is the New Black, who executive produced the show] was in my second book, Worn in New York, and she came to one of the big events for it. She saw how excited people were, and how much they wanted to share their own stories. So she was like, “What if we turn this into a show?” And I was like, “Yes, yes, let’s do that,” because it was something that I had in my mind as well.

Part of the beauty of the book was that you could create an image in your head of the story, and fill in some of the blanks. But at the same time, I wanted to see more, because clothing is just so tactile. I wanted to see the items, and I also wanted to see the people who were telling the stories about them.

When did you start filming?

We started filming in pre-COVID. So, October/November of 2019.

Did you highlight stories from the books, or find new stories? Or both?

It was a combination of both. The books were the main source material that we began with — maybe half of the stories in the show are from the book. Because I did all of the interviews, I knew who I might want to ask more questions, and which stories had strong potential for a visual component. And then we started expanding beyond that.

The series begins with nudist couple. Can you tell me a little bit more about that choice?

It’s a little bit of a surprise, right? Starting a show about clothing with nudity. [Laughs] But what I love about it is that it sets the stage to start thinking about what we say through the clothes that we wear — and also the clothes that we deliberately decide not to wear.

The theme of the next episode is “Lost and Found.” There’s also one about uniforms and another about survival. How did you go about organizing the show?

The themes are pretty universal and up for interpretation. So the “Lost and Found” episode, for example, has different interpretations of what that means. There’s someone who physically lost a garment; there’s Tim Cappello, the saxophonist who wears a codpiece, who lost the ability to perform; there’s someone who lost a son, and who memorializes him with an airbrushed tee. These stories are weaved together, and, somehow, they end up feeling of a piece. We wanted to make connections between stories and subjects who you would not necessarily put in the same place or in the same room. You realize that there are a lot of commonalities.

Obviously, you didn’t see this coming, but we’ve all been stuck with the contents of our closets for a full year now. I’m staring at mine right now. How did the pandemic cast the series in a new light?

I’ve always been interested in the idea that we can look at our closets and see an archive of memories and experiences, and that we pull things out and wear them not necessarily because they’re by such and such brand, or cost a certain amount of money, but because they were given to us by someone, or we got them on a trip, or they reminds us of someone, or an experience that we had. I hope that this is happening a little bit more during this time, because we’re just stuck at home with our clothes, and we’re looking at the things that are around us in a different way — a more heightened way. It’s like, Oh, let me look a little bit closer at the things I’ve glanced over or taken for granted. Do they have a greater significance to me? Not everything will. But I hope that there are some things that will really come to the fore for people, or that have during this time. It’s more about: What’s really important to me? What are the things I want to hold on to?

You talked to such a wide range of people. How did you narrow the subjects, while also keeping it broad?

We wanted to show a cross section of stories that represent who we are and our collective human experience. This was really important to me, because I think that there’s sometimes an assumption that [because the show is about clothing] that we’d look to fashion. I wanted to pull it back into the realm of clothing and the fact that we all put on clothing every day. The juxtapositions are what make it really fun and interesting, and hopefully it’ll prompt you to think about the people, and the stories that are around you that you have no idea about.

Worn Stories premieres April 1 on Netflix.

A New Netflix Show Tells the Story of the Clothes We Keep