A little over a year ago, my wife and I moved to a new home built in 1916, and the rooms often have tiny or sometimes oddly shaped closets. With two wardrobes to accommodate, we started looking into various wardrobe / closet systems that help us to get the most out of our closet space and stay organized. Of course, we contemplated a walk in closet, isn’t that every clothes horse’s dream? In the process I learned a lot about the different systems, advantages as well as disadvantages and I would like to share my experiences in this article. To really cover every spectrum of the market I will distinguish between budget wardrobe systems, mid-range closet offerings and high end closet systems.
Before You Start – General Rules
Your top priority in a closet should be visibility. By that, I mean you need to be able to see all the clothes you have, otherwise you will inevitably only wear the things you see. So before you decide on a closet, bear in mind that you want to see as many of your clothes as possible when you design a closet.
One of the things most people don’t think about is proper lighting, though without the correct light, you won’t be able to distinguish various shades of grey or blue and you will only notice once you step outside the door. If you have big, south facing windows in your walk in closet and you always get dressed in the mornings, your situation will be different than in a small NYC apartment closet without natural light. Bear in mind that direct sunlight is not desirable because it is too powerful and may ruin the color of your clothes. Instead, opt for milk glass or diffused material. That way, you will get even natural light, that is soft and doesn’t harm your clothes. In my experience Daylight LED light with a color temperature of 5000K – 5500K works best because they show the color accurately, are comparatively cold to the touch (as in, not a fire hazard) and use very little electricity. Technically, the higher the Color Index Rating the better, but regular LEDs from the hardware store do a much better job than incandescent or halogen lighting.
Most people pay a lot of attention to the outward appearance of the closet and how it looks in a room. While this is very important, the number one purpose of your closet is to store your clothes and if you invest thousands of dollars in high quality garments, custom suits and accessories, you should never skimp on the hangers. Cheap hangers can destroy a garment, which means avoiding wire hangers at all costs for any garment. The dry cleaner uses them because they are thin and cheap but they also oxidize and are bad for the shape of your garments.
Hence, be consistent and get hangers of the same kind or at least the same width, so that every jacket or shirt gets the same exposure. I would have never thought about the importance hanger width before I actually started to use the same kind of hangers – it really makes a significant difference. As a bonus, using the same hangers gives even a simple closet polish.
Compared to the cost of the wardrobe itself, I would always recommend to buy the best hangers you can afford as your first priority. Even the most expensive closet will look ugly and perform poorly with bad hangers, whereas a cheap closet with great hangers will serve you infinitely better.
Jackets need wider hangers to support the shoulder properly and ideally they should have the proper width for your jacket. The best ones I have come across are the Luxury Hangers from Butler Luxury; read my review of them here. Bear in mind that you can hang about 12 jackets per yard with these hangers.
Shirts on the other hand don’t need a lot of space and I prefer to hang my shirts over folding them for the visibility. I recommend straight (not v-angled) hangers that are flat without pointy corners. I use these wooden shirt hangers from Butler Luxury because they are exactly what I want and they match my jacket hangers. While my wife likes thin non-slip hangers with velveteen finish for her sweaters and shirts, I find easier to hang a shirt on a smooth finish. It is a personal decision. Make sure you count your shirts before you start designing – you can hang about 25 – 30 shirts per yard depending on the hanger.
Slacks / Pants. I prefer to hang my odd trousers on a bar rather than to clip them at the cuffs. In my experience, the cuff clip takes up more space in a closet, wrinkles the cuff and eventually lets the trousers fall down at some point in time. Fortunately, I have never had a problem with trousers creases from hanging on a bar. If you pay attention to putting your slacks on the hanger properly, you shouldn’t either. In any case, it is a personal preference but I tried both and decided bars suit my needs better. All my suits are combined on the Butler luxury suit hanger – if I can see the jacket, I don’t need to see the identical trouser pattern. All odd slacks hang on pull out bars in my closet system. Definitely make sure that trouser bars have a non slip finish otherwise they will fall down constantly. Also, avoid the wood-metal clamp hangers you sometimes see; they experience the same issues as cuff clips.
When planning, don’t forget your shoes – count what you have first and make sure you leave some extra room so you can see and reach all your shoes. Otherwise you will bury some shoes and most likely you will never wear the ones at the bottom. In my experience, shoes need quite a bit of space but they don’t need to be stored with your other clothes. Instead, you can store them close to your entrance or backdoor. Again, make sure that shoes are visible and accessible. Also, your shoes will last much longer if you let them rest on a shoe tree a few days in between wearing them.
When you budget for a closet, do yourself a favor and don’t consider only the upfront cost. A custom closet will be assembled for you in your home whereas an Ikea system needs to be picked up, carried up the stairs and then installed. Altogether this can take take days longer depending on the size of your wardrobe. Some closet suppliers will design your entire closet space with you. All you need to do is to bring measurements, and they do it for you, while others won’t provide any assistance.
Your investment will also depend on how long you would like to stay in your home in addition to your budget. If you only plan to stay for 2 years, the ultimate custom closet may not be the right choice for you and a budget option may be preferable. Some of the wardrobe systems can easily be disassembled and put back together again in your new home. On the other hand, if you plan to stay for a lifetime, invest in quality, functionality and design because it will be less expensive for you in the long run.
Ultimately, know your resources, your needs and what your time is worth and factor in these costs when you compare prices.
Budget Closet Systems
Ikea Pax is probably the most popular wardrobe system on the market. It is tall, affordable and available in various finishes, widths, doors, etc. All parts are designed so you can be flexible in building your wardrobe. The material is MDF and not of the best quality, but it works. I would not recommend to buy a simple Pax because it is not very stable on it’s own. Hoever, connecting two units together adds stability. If you don’t mind putting it together on your own, it is probably the biggest bang for the buck if you want doors on your closet. $500 – 600 will get you started.
- Finished closet looks decent
- Many DIY customizations / hacks available online
- Big bang for the buck
- Great flexibility
- Well thought out, proven system
- Protects your clothes from dust
- Not the best quality – paint chips or rubs off after a while
- Won’t move well (but it is movable)
- No support line for customer service
- Only picture instructions (but there are helpful youtube videos)
- Cannot mix and match doors
- You have to assemble it yourself or pay more for assembly than for product itself
Closetmaid is a functional wire system that does not focus on aesthetics. It is rather inexpensive and can be easily obtained in the U.S. at stores such as Home Depot. You may either design for yourself but I recommend you invest $5 to have some of the reps help you with it. It is made of coated wire and $500 will get you a long way. Alternatively, you can opt for ClosetMaid Selective which is a system of MDF laminated-wood with drawers
- Simple & functional
- Can be reconfigured later
- Customer service & designer included ($5 is not worth mentioning)
- Can be moved to a different location
- Manual not always conclusive and at times frustrating
- No dust protection
- Dull aesthetics
- You have to assemble it yourself
- Limited options
- MDF laminated wood chips easily
Rubbermaid is very similar to ClosetMaid. Both are made out of wire rack and allow you to customize your closet on a low budget but you don’t have as many options. Also the bars don’t always line up and optically it is rather spartan. An investment of $450 – $500 will provide you with a functional closet that works, but not much more than that.
- Thorough manual makes it easy to assemble
- Can be reconfigured
- Customer service is mostly automated but it works
- Limited design services
- Not aesthetically pleasing
- You have to assemble it yourself
Elfa is a Swedish closet system with parts mostly made in Poland. In the U.S. it is sold exclusively by the Container Store. My wife found this company several years ago and their system is clearly a huge step up from the affordable wire rack solutions of Rubbermaid or ClosetMaid. First of all, it is made of epoxy bonded steel that comes in titanium grey or white with optional MDF wooden accents in various colors. After a free, extensive in-store design session (in home consultation is available for a fee) parts are cut to size so you can maximize the usable space of your closet. All designs and parts are saved in their system so if you move, and bring your elfa closet with you. The store staff will then help you reconfigure your existing system into a new design, so it is super easy and convenient to expand. We were able to re-purpose 80% of our Elfa systems when we moved to our new condo. In regards to service, it offers much more than the budget options. The in-store service is fantastic and while they provide walk-in design sessions, I recommend to schedule an appointment so you don’t have to wait. If you want to assemble it on your own, you have to pick up the items at the Container store a few days after your designed it. Alternatively, for 30% of the purchase price (but at least $180) an Elfa certified installer will pick up the parts, bring them to your new home, rip out the old closet, patch the holes and paint the recovered space in white before installing the new system. Once they are done, they clean everything up and if parts are missing they pick them up as well. Note, if you move and you bring old elfa parts with you, make sure you let the sales clerk know that you want these assembled as well, so they can charge you accordingly.
An investment of $800 – $1000 gets you very far but I recommend to wait until their 30% off sale which usually happens twice a year in Jan/Feb and mid summer. Then the price difference to the budget options becomes less significant and the improved quality and better options really make it much more appealing in my opinion.
- Quality closet system with great design
- Good assembly instructions & video
- Comprehensive installation service available (30% up charge)
- In-home consultation available (for a fee)
- Free in store design service
- cCan be reconfigured, moved and expanded very easily
- Customer service is top notch
- More expensive than budget wire systems but (30% discount twice a year)
- Somewhat limited color options
- MDF options don’t necessarily improve the aesthetics
California Closets is probably the best known closet / wardrobe system in the U.S. The customization options are endless, and you can really build something that will improve the value of your home. At the same time, you won’t be able to move it, expand it or just change positions without major expenses. Priced at $2500 – $5000 for the same closet space, it is considerably more expensive than Elfa and so it’s not a surprise that the in home consultation is free. Overall, it is almost an industry standard that works but you definitely pay for it.
- Industry standard for built-in closet systems
- Free in-home consultation & design
- Endless customization options
- In-home consultation available (for a fee)
- Finished, furniture-like look
- Very expensive for what you get
- Cannot be reconfigured, moved and expanded without major expense
- Installation crew will not fix wall and paint
Closet by Design
Closet by Design seems very similar to California Closet. They are similarly priced, offer similar services and both don’t fix holes in the walls and paint. Basically, it has the same pros and cons, so just compare it above.
The Easy Closet system is positioned right in between Elfa and California Closets in terms of customization and options. It allows you to be more unique in your look than with Elfa but it is about half the price of California Closets. The material used is top quality particleboard, but it particleboard nevertheless. Design services are included or you can design it yourself and the closet is shipped to you for free. It also comes with a lifetime warranty but that’s always just for the lifetime of the product. You must install it yourself, so know what your time is worth and what tools you have.
- Semi-custom option, considerably less expensive than California Closets
- Free design or DIY Online tool
- Particleboard wood
- More expensive than Elfa
- No installation options, you have to do it yourself
Custom Build with a Carpenter
For solid wood closets, it seems like John Louis Home as well as Solid Wood Closets are two contenders. Since I have no experience, I can’t tell you anything about them. Apart from that, you should also consider a local carpenter. Generally, the quality you get from a carpenter is really solid and usually better than what you get from a store bought system. At the same time, carpenters often lack design skills and so you will have to know exactly what you want and design the closet yourself or alternatively with an interior designer to get what you want. A bespoke closet from a carpenter may sound nice but it is definitely more work than acquiring a bespoke suit.
Modern, simplistic design on a medium budget
Generally, simplistic and modern closets are usually pricey but not too long ago, Ikea introduced the Stolmen system. It is based on aluminum posts that are mounted to the ceiling or the wall. Then drawers, hanging rods and shelves in white glass creates a simplistic, neat look but things don’t always line up and it is definitely a two person job to setup. With the lower price, you also get very few options and as always with Ikea, there is not service hotline you can call. Priced at $800 it is similar to Elfa yet provides a different look. Note, your ceiling should be between 6’10.5″ and 10’9 tall, and it looks particularly neat next to brick walls or even glass.
High-End / Custom Closets
Personally, I do not have any first hand experience with any of these systems but I wanted to mention them because it may he helpful to some of you pursuing the ultimate luxury closet. Of course, these are just examples and you can come up with all kinds of ideas of what your ultimate luxury closet should look like.
Molteni & C
Quality materials combined with forward think unique designs and clean, modern concepts are paired with high prices at Molteni & C. Their Gliss 5th system is has lots of attention to detail – for example it has a specific sock drawer. Apart from that they offer Gliss quick, dwell and walk in closets. It comes in many luxurious options and is definitely pricey. In the U.S. flagship stores are in NYC and Miami and you can find 7 store-in-store concepts. To find the one closest to you click here.
Poliform offers a number of different styles called Ego, Ubik, Senzafine, Close and Tweed. All are completely customizable, made in Italy and very expensive, providing a modern, sleek look similar to modern kitchens.
Lago is yet another Italian company that offers modular panel closets. Named after its founder Daniele Lago, these closets have an emphasis on color allowing you to create all kinds of interesting, bold and colorful wardrobe statements. Currently there is no U.S. distribution and they are only available in Europe. Note California Closets has a Lago series of Italian finishes available, which is not to be confused with this company.
Although originally a manufacturer of kitchens, the Seattle based company Henrybuilt makes also closets in the U.S. Their forte seems to be custom wardrobes in wood and details such as leather pulls rather than handles, so if you want a domestic high end product with a design appeal, you may want to look into them.
My wife and I knew that we would not stay at new home for more than 5-10 years, and so it was clear we should either look for a mid-range or budget alternative. We had a bedroom available that we also wanted to use as a guest bedroom as well as a closet for me. We had experience with Elfa at our previous home and while I really liked the flexibility and quality of the product, I wanted a closed solution for my garments because otherwise they inevitably collect a lot of dust. At the same time I wanted to ensure great visibility and lighting. After comparing systems it became clear that the Ikea Pax seemed to be the most affordable option for us. Although they offer a corner unit, I soon realized that it doesn’t offer very much space and so I decided on 4 Pax units with two doors each that would stand side by side along a wall. We had it delivered and then we assembled it ourselves. I definitely recommend to work on it with two people otherwise it can be too heavy. For a good video on assembly instruction take a look below.
Originally, I wanted 6 mirror doors and one black glass door on each side but I did not realize that both doors were screwed into the pax wardrobe in different positions. As a consequence, I would not have been able to put in drawers or racks effectively. Don’t contemplate combining two different doors in one pax – it won’t work.
When I looked around a lot of people added a small storage area on the very top of the closet but to me that is wasted space due to the lack of visibility. Since I am 6ft tall I decided to put my hanger bar all the way to the top of the closet. That way I could see all of my jackets and shirts , take them out comfortably and I could add some drawers in the middle which are easily accessible. So, if you are tall enough to reach up, I would definitely recommend this solution. For my ties, I choose a slide out pants module and in the middle I added pieces of glass for hats and sweaters. My socks, pocket squares, underwear and athletic wear are all in drawers and my slacks on another slide-out pants module. Basically, I bought bars, drawers, pants modules and glass. We then added 8 LED lamps on top that we connected to the light switch. When I slide out my drawers or tie rack, everything is illuminated evenly and accurately, allowing me to choose the right colors for my outfits.
For all our built in closets we chose Elfa again because we had such a good experience. The parts from our old closet were incorporated into our new designs and we even opted for professional installation. The service was very good. First, they picked up all the parts and went back when they realized something was missing. They removed the old closet, filled the holes and quickly painted it white. If you want a different color, you should have it available for them. Then they installed the new closet, cleaned up and left. Compared to Ikea, it is definitely a much more pleasant, hands-off experience. We used a very slim hall closet as a shoe closet, adding multiple rows of shelves. The great thing is, you can readjust the height of the shelves at any time. So let’s assume you buy tall boots or your want to rearrange things, it’s easy to do so.