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Cleaning up: the peculiar power of Marie Kondo

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Life & Arts

Cleaning up: the peculiar power of Marie Kondo

Not everyone is bewitched by the decluttering guru — but she’s done wonders for my drawers

A scene from the Netflix series 'Tidying Up with Marie Kondo' © Denise Crew/Netflix

How many pairs of jeans should make a person happy? How many pairs of shoes, black sweaters or trenchcoats? It’s a question I’m asked often. Usually by my husband, who makes great display of the fact that he has existed in the same two bobbly cardigans, jeans, woolly socks and Birkenstock sandals for the past five years.

I, on the other hand, require rather more variety. I need 21 pairs of jeans, to be precise. I know this because, having watched one episode of the new Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo last weekend, I immediately embarked on a purge. Or at least, a moderate edit. Kondo-style.

Admittedly, I did not observe all the orthodoxies of her method. I did not start the clear-out, for example, by kneeling on the floor and offering up a devotional message of gratitude to my home for looking after me and my possessions. Nor did I tackle everything in one haul. Kondo advocates creating a clothes mountain on the bed through which to pick through, but this would only have meant my having, first, a nervous breakdown, and second, a broken bed.

However, I did adhere very faithfully to her tripartite folding philosophy, which enables you to stack clothes facing upwards so that you can see them all lined in your drawer. I also obeyed her most fervent mantra: that each item spared should “spark joy” in its owner. Sometimes I struggled with the question. Did those 1970s-style Saint Laurent jeans I bought two sizes too small five summers ago spark joy? Not exactly. But I liked to think that in some future, slimmer, more 1970s-focused summer, they might. When merely holding a garment failed to ignite the spark, I found trying them on helped. Most jeans elicited the “cry of horror”, and into the charity bin they did go.

I wish the show would focus a little more on how one might recycle a collection of 90 Nutcracker decorations

Of course, Kondo has been a colossus in the world of decluttering ever since the 2011 publication of her first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Having sold her books by the million, she has become the mistress of a global tidying movement and a vast army of Kondophiles. Beloved FT columnist Lucy Kellaway was an early devotee, before deciding that Kondo was a fanatic. And over the years, various wide-eyed women (for it is usually women) have loudly praised her methods. But for philistines like myself who can’t be bothered to read, Kondo remained a niche phenomenon until her appearance on television.

A 34-year-old fairy woman with a blunt black fringe and a vast wardrobe of white cardigans, Kondo is an extraordinary creature to behold. Watching her being ferried around as she tries to persuade disorderly Americans to feel the fold, I am continually fascinated by how extremely minuscule she is: the physical manifestation of tidy. She speaks in a teeny space-saving whisper and is extremely economical with words, most of which are delivered via her interpreter. She otherwise expresses herself using a shorthand of facial gestures — the spark of joy gasp, and the “I love mess” smile.

And yet, already, she has unleashed an unruly mess of detractors. People have taken umbrage at her disregard for bookshelves and family ephemera, and they don’t like the implication that cleaning can be a way to heal schisms in one’s domestic life. No surprise that many of her greatest adversaries are men, who worry that couple’s tidying is a plot to scrub out the masculine prerogative to sit in a La-Z-Boy and let the ladies do the work; and intellectual snobs, who like to extol the joys of keeping a well-thumbed copy of Kafka next to the bed. They tend to view Kondo’s stance on books — read them, and then get them out of the house — as cultural heresy.

Jo Ellison's jeans drawer after being reorganised according to the Marie Kondo method © Jo Ellison

I’m on the fence myself. Certainly, the volume of rubbish each show produces unnerves me. No matter how many times one thanks one’s smelly trainers, they will still, most likely, end up on a landfill site, along with the other 84 per cent of our clothing. Obviously, keeping hold of them wouldn’t help, but I wish the show would focus a little more on how one might recycle a collection of 90 Nutcracker decorations, for example, or focus on how best to donate sacks and sacks of unwanted clothes, than simply exalt us getting rid of them. Kondo’s point may be that we should all be more mindful of our purchases to start with, but the Netflix show does also seem to promote a throwaway culture that seems oddly out of step with the environmental issues of today.

Nevertheless, I admire her vigilance, and her advice on how to fold a hoodie. And I agree wholeheartedly about decluttering being good for your relationship. The couple that cleans together, stays together. On which note, my husband recently spent an afternoon clearing out the cellar — a place of horrific disarray and chaos. Everything came out — old paint cans, Christmas trees chopped into kindling, a whole library of ancient DVDs. All the detritus has now been recycled in readiness for its replacement with a post-Brexit stockpile: canned food, potable water, loo roll, and packets of dried peas. I jest of course. Dried peas don’t spark any joy in me at all.

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