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The ‘three-word method’ for finding your personal style

Each day it seems there’s a new trending aesthetic, prompting yet another fashion identity crisis. Am I balletcore (think tulle skirts and wrap cardigans) or indiesleaze (neon tights, dark eye make-up, oversized hoodies)? Is my look more clean and minimal or is it soft grunge? And what the hell is clown-core? One might find themselves screaming “Who am I?” into a wardrobe of impulse purchases and boring basics.

Allison Bornstein (left) and Amy Smilovic are advocates of the ‘three word’ method, a strategy for defining your personal style.

Allison Bornstein (left) and Amy Smilovic are advocates of the ‘three word’ method, a strategy for defining your personal style.Credit:TikTok

Thankfully, there are style experts bucking this trend by offering practical advice on TikTok about how to find your personal style. New-York based stylist Allison Bornstein is one of them. She went viral on TikTok with her “three word method”, an elegant and simple strategy designed to help you define your style. Essentially, the process involves analysing the clothes you wear most and finding words to describe them. Adjectives can also be aspirational, like a “North star” to describe your dream look. The words needn’t be coherent either. In fact, they should be dissimilar, she says, because “that’s what makes an interesting style.”

We can see this concept at work by looking at celebrity examples. Fashion influencer Alexa Chung is “preppy, whimsical, edgy,” according to Bornstein. In the below image, her white ruffled dress is whimsical, her sock and heel combo preppy and her chunky chain choker adds the edge. Actor Tracee Ellis Ross is “bold, colourful, and exaggerated.” Princess Diana was “sporty, demure, and opulent.”

Dissecting the style adjectives of celebrities can also help you find your own personal style, says Bornstein. If you like the sporty element of Princess Diana’s style, the boldness of Tracee’s and the edginess of Alexa’s, put those all together.

Alexa Chung’s style is “preppy, whimsical, and edgy” according to Allison Bornstein.

Alexa Chung’s style is “preppy, whimsical, and edgy” according to Allison Bornstein.Credit:Getty Images

Defining your personal style will help you shop with more purpose and reduce wasteful purchases and buyer’s regret – plus save you money in the process.

Amy Smilovic, founder of New York-based label Tibi, started using TikTok a mere five weeks ago. Drawing from more than two decades’ worth of design and styling expertise, her TikToks give tips on layering and ask questions like “what is good style?”

Smilovic is a fan of the three word method (hers are chill, modern and classic) but says the choice of adjectives can tend to be one-dimensional, describing the clothes rather than the person.

“People use words like ‘oversized’, but what does that actually mean? If you interrogate that a little more you might find it means someone has a relaxed outlook.”

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Smilovic cautions against being overly reliant on others’ opinions, but says it can be a helpful starting point. “People I work with will often call friends or family when I ask for their adjectives and ask ‘how would you describe me?’”

Another strategy she uses to help customers dig deeper in describing themselves is by asking for their favourite quote. “Quotes are very revealing, you have a visceral, emotional reaction to them,” Smilovic says.

She cites a Henry Ford quote as one of her favourites: “Don’t find fault, find a remedy; anybody can complain.”

“That quote suggests that I’m pragmatic, and always moving forward, which informs how I dress.”

Zara Wong says her adjectives are classic, unexpected, and graphic.

Zara Wong says her adjectives are classic, unexpected, and graphic. Credit:@zara_wong

While Tibi’s high price point (a pair of pants averages $600) makes it an aspirational brand for most, Smilovic doesn’t see money as a factor in achieving personal style.

“I actually think I was closest to my style core in college because I couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. The more money you have, the fewer filters you have when you’re shopping.”

Zara Wong, formerly of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, produces the weekly newsletter “Screenshot This” where she recently recommended Bornstein and Smilovic’s methods.

“What those two are good at is they have actionable tips,” Wong says. “They’re not talking about what’s trendy, but how to work out what you like. I like how they’re quite technical about it.”

Wong – whose three words are classic, unexpected and graphic – suggests a visual strategy for those struggling to find their adjectives: Throw everything you like onto a mood board, even if it’s not strictly fashion-related. From there, you can find commonalities between each element.

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