StyleMichelle Adams

Nicki Clendening on Dressing for Yourself, and No One Else

StyleMichelle Adams
Nicki Clendening on Dressing for Yourself, and No One Else

Wandering the souks of Saudi Arabia. Or rambling through Central Park. Or even walking dirt roads through upcountry South Carolina. “I’ve never wanted to look like anyone else,” says Nicki Clendening, the iconoclast behind interiors firm Scout Designs NYC and Beetle, her year-old online jewelry, decor, and clothing shop. “I don’t want to see a version of myself walking down the street.”

 
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She’s felt this way since kindergarten. “Being an original was just something that was encouraged in our house,” says Clendening, who grew up on a farm with four siblings (and no TV) in rural South Carolina. “My mom made a lot of our clothes, and she always encouraged our creativity, and that included dressing ourselves.”

But even in grade school, Clendening had her critics. “My sisters and I were routinely sent home from school for wearing outfits that our teachers couldn’t figure out,” she says. “There was nothing really wrong with them. The best thing they could come up with was our clothes were distracting to the other students.”

Among Clendening’s most enduring staples are her black kimonos. “I’ve been wearing them for years,” she says, “and I’ll wear them with jeans and a tank top, or I’ll wear a longer kimono over a black leather dress with heels to a more formal event. There was a kimono that I just got rid of; I’d had it for 15 years, and I finally wore it to death, but I just replaced it with another kimono. They’re pieces that have endless versatility in my closet, and that’s why I have them.”


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Clendening’s grandmother, Mimi, was another influence on her outré style. Clendening’s grandfather, an engineer for an international construction company, shuttled from country to country, project to project, with Mimi as his travel partner. “Every year, when my grandmother came back from wherever they were living at the time,” whether Saudi Arabia, China, England, or elsewhere, “she would bring us gifts, and they were always exotic. She would bring us jewelry or clothing, and there was one year when she came back with just a ton of copper things,” Clendening recalls. “Everything that was in our house was something that my grandmother found in the souks in Saudi Arabia or the antique shops around Europe where they traveled and lived.”

“I spend more money on my accessories, jewelry, bags, hats than I do anything else,” Clendening says. “Even if I’m wearing a mix of the same clothes every day, the jewelry—maybe I’ll wear turquoise one day, and then silver the next day—it can make things feel different and new.”


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It’s those worldly treasures, bestowed on the grandkids by Mimi, along with her family’s stacks of National Geographic, that kicked off Clendening’s lifelong fascination with exotic, antique, and vintage finds. “I didn’t grow up with anything new, so I was never into the allure of new things,” she says. “And now, whether it’s the pieces in my apartment or the things I wear, they have all been found at a flea market or a thrift store.”

Of course, vintage isn’t the only way to clothe yourself. The real trick, Clendening insists, is choosing a wardrobe flush with pieces that you’d gladly wear, mixed and matched, day after day, week after week. 

But first you have to get to know yourself and the basics of your personal style. “I believe that you can wear whatever you’re comfortable in. It’s a confidence thing,” she insists. “We all know what fits us best. That’s why I’ve always bought jackets. They’ve been a staple throughout my life.”


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Often, it’s just about casting off fear and testing your sartorial limits. “Try things out and see if they work for you.” Even Clendening has sometimes had to push herself. “For many, many years, I never wore blue jeans of any kind. I never felt confident in them,” she admits. “I didn’t like the way I looked in them. They just didn’t suit me. But that’s something that’s changed. Over the years, I’ve figured out what works for me, what looks good.”

“I’ve been stealing them out of my best friend’s husband’s closet,” Clendening confesses of the white dress shirts that are a staple in her wardrobe. “He buys them at a thrift store, and I’ll find one that I like, and because they’re bigger, I roll up the sleeves and tie them at the waist. I’ll wear those with skirts or jeans, to either dress them up or not.”


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Don’t let the schoolteachers or any other rule makers tell you what to wear, Clendening insists. The only critic that matters is the one who’s looking back at you in the mirror or the shop windows as you stride down the street. “I get dressed every day for myself,” she says, “and I always have, and for no one else.”

 

Written by S. Pajot  |  Photographed by Marta Xochilt Perez | Produced and Art Directed by Michelle Adams

 
 
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