How to Fake a Custom Closet Without a Major Renovation

You don't need to break the bank to score your dream closet.

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I'll be the first to tell you that a custom closet system is worth every precious penny. My first apartment, which clocked in at just 225-square feet, had a relatively luxurious amount of closet space. However, inside the closet there was just a single hanging rod and one shelf. Wanting to make the most of my storage space, which was a significant percentage of my tiny apartment, I called up a custom closet company to design out the space. I can truly say it was the best money I have ever spent on my home, but goodness, it was expensive.

In the nearly twenty years in four different homes since then, I have never been able to carve out the budget for another custom closet. Knowing a custom closet is out of reach for myself and so many others, I called on professional organizers and an interior designer to ask: How can I get the look of a custom closet without any major costs or renovation? These pros shared a whole host of ideas that will transform the most humble closet into something more like that dream closet you’ve been ogling on Pinterest.

Start fresh

The experts emphasized the importance of the bones of the closet itself. A deep cleaning and a coat of matte white paint can go a long way towards improving the overall look and feel of your closet, says interior designer Matthew Kowles. Since closet floors are often neglected design-wise, he suggests investing in a small woven seagrass or sisal rug that is slightly larger than the closet itself. “If it's latex backed, it won’t fray, so you can cut and install it wall-to-wall in a closet,” he says.

Edit first, style second

The fastest way to make your closet look more polished is to thin out what is stored within, says Shira Gill, the author of Minimalista and the forthcoming Organized Living. “My number one styling tip is always [keep] less,” she says. “Just by paring down and removing items, you create more spaciousness and breathing room.” Even if you’re not ready to do a full-on wardrobe edit at this time, do a sweep for anything you can instantly ID to donate. If there are seasonal clothes hogging up a bunch of real estate, consider if there’s a way to rotate what you store in your closet throughout the year.

Add extra shelves

If you’ve got the kind of closet with only one shelf and a single hanging bar, adding more shelves can make a world of difference. If you have a track-based closet system, like Elfa or ClosetMaid, you may just be able to buy additional brackets and shelves, but even if you don’t, Gill says that adding a simple plywood shelf is a simple DIY or affordable task to outsource. Paint the plywood the same white as the walls for a more streamlined look.

Expand your hanging space

Pia Thompson, the New York City home organizer behind loves a simple double hang rod. “It’s a game changer," she says. "You take it out of the box and—boom—you have double hanging.” She notes that once shorter hanging items, like blouses and sweaters, are spread out in double the space, it allows her clients to really see things.

Take advantage of the below

“Unless you have a closet full of floor-length ball gowns, there’s quite a bit of space between the bottom of what is being hung and the floor,” says organizer Elise Hay, the founder of Organized Sanctuaries in Seattle. Hay and Thompson both recommend Elfa’s stand-alone drawer units for this often under-utilized space, and another option is a small vintage dresser. 

Maximize your shelves

Up top, you can streamline the look of your folded clothing and contain unruly piles with shelf dividers, a product recommended by all three organizers I spoke with. “I like the acrylic shelf dividers," Thompson says. "Since they're clear, you just see the piles of sweaters or jeans."

Curate your hangers

You’ve probably heard the wisdom that a set of matching hangers can instantly make your closet look more polished—and it's true. But if you don’t want to go out and buy everything new, Gill says you can elevate the look just by bunching similar hangers together. Edit out the outliers, like a random purple plastic hanger (return any wire hanger to the dry cleaner to be reused), then arrange the rest by type. For example, all the wooden ones can live on the left side and all the velvet ones can live on the right. If you do buy new, Gill suggests skipping the velvet hangers. “Wooden [hangers] take up a bit more space, but they’re more sustainable and they never break," she says. "You can buy one set for a lifetime."

Coordinate your containers

The experts say bins and baskets are especially useful for sorting difficult-to-fold items, like workout wear or tights—but they’ve got to match. “Uniformity is a big part of making your closet look custom,” says Thompson, who notes that, like matching hangers, coordinated baskets and bins will elevate the look of your space. Gill recommends buying a set of about six to eight matching bins for the closet, adding that a mishmash of different containers can be “overstimulating” to the eye. 

Use the door as a last resort

The experts surprised me by saying that they only use the closet door space as a last resort. “I find most of the things that are sold for the back of the door don’t feel like good quality,” Thompson says. But, in a small space where you need to maximize every inch, Thompson and Hay both recommend Elfa’s over-the-door racks, which can even be mounted to a hollow core door. Gill takes advantage of her back-of-the-door space with a double hook that she uses as a place to hang pre-planned outfits.

Upgrade the hooks

If you have any small hooks in your closet, consider replacing them with something higher-quality or more decorative. “Anthropologie has the cutest hooks,” Hay says. If you want to mount multiple hooks in a row, Gill suggests hanging the hooks on a board cut to stretch the length of the wall and painted the same color as the walls. “Not only is it much stronger and more resilient, it gives a custom, elevated look,” she says.

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