A couple in similar sweatsuits sit inside the Garfield Park Conservatory, the woman has a dusty rose outfit and the man has beige pants and coat
Mycah Murdock (left) and Christian Zamarriego visit the Garfield Park Conservatory. Credit: Isa Giallorenzo

With all the snow we’ve been having, it’s hard not to look around and be inspired by beautiful shades of neutral colors. That was the case with Christian Zamarriego, 31, who was photographed at the Garfield Park Conservatory during a particularly snowy day. “I felt inspired to wear neutral colors that matched the weather. We live a few minutes down the street from the conservatory, and I just wanted cozy vibes,” says Zamarriego, whose love for neutral tones is connected to his native southern California.

“I grew up going to the desert quite often, and neutral colors remind me of those fond memories,” he says. There’s also a practical side to his penchant for neutrals: “Neutral looks—especially monochromatic ones—typically make an outfit come together with not a lot of effort,” he says. His partner, Mycah Murdock, 28, wanted to be comfortable and warm, while still wearing an outfit that matched her energy that day: “I belong in neutral tones. I feel safe, calm, and beautiful in them. Though the colors are often subtle, I think strong statements can be made in neutral-toned outfits—particularly monochrome neutral-toned looks,” she says, in agreement with Zamarriego. 

A woman standing on the ice skating ribbon at Chicago's Maggie Daley park, wearing winter clothes
Naomy Valbuena poses on the Ice Skating Ribbon at Maggie Daley Park. Credit: Isa Giallorenzo

Also covered in neutrals, Naomy Valbuena, 19, was enjoying the wintry local landscape while gliding away at the ice skating ribbon downtown. She was going for a 70s-inspired look that day, decked out in all kinds of cozy textures and earthy tones. A visitor from Miami, Florida, Valbuena planned most of the outfits for her trip and chose the one in the photograph for “an active day out.” Another out-of-towner, Julia Boccabella, 22, planned her outfit as well. Originally from Chicago and now living in Denver, Boccabella usually favors an “indie sleaze” aesthetic, but decided to gloss it up that morning she was photographed: “This outfit is a lot more refined than I normally am! I had it ready since I knew I was heading to brunch the morning after a night out. I wanted to stay warm, so the fuzzy hat was a must,” she says. Boccabella claims to love colors, but prefers neutrals: “They’re so flattering and versatile, which is perfect for me since I’m always on the go. I love that they’re so classic and effortlessly chic,” she says. 

A woman standing on a sidewalk in downtown Chicago, wearing a winter hat, coat, and pants.
Julia Boccabella, 22, usually favors what she calls an “indie sleaze” aesthetic. Credit: Isa Giallorenzo

Another advantage to neutrals, according to Agriculture Custom Clothiers owners Milton Latrell and Christopher Brackenridge, is that they provide a blank canvas for pops of color brought by all kinds of accessories. “Neutrals really expand the range of a wardrobe and add a lot of versatility to it,” says Latrell.

The same male model (Millyrock) in two looks, a black puffer coat with black pants, and a white broad-brimmed hat with white/cream cardigan coat and printed pants.
Millyrock the Model in two looks available from Agriculture Custom Clothier. Left: Agriculture Luxury Collection puffer jacket ($1500), sneakers ($225), and backpack ($350) with turtleneck ($90) and trousers ($149). Right: Dobbs hat ($125), cardigan ($225), Romeo merino sweater ($135), trousers ($139), and Mezlan boots ($375).  Credit: Bmore Kreative Photography (courtesy Agriculture)

Speaking of blank canvases, Brooklyn, New York, dweller Naama, 22, picked her outfit to match all kinds of imagery: “I style my outfits themed on where I’m going—that day we were heading to the Art Institute of Chicago. I love taking pictures at museums, so I opted for an all-white outfit to not detract from the artwork,” she says. Naama also praises the flexibility neutral shades offer: “I love how forgiving neutral tones are. Neutral tones for my wardrobe allow me to match multiple items together, repeat outfits, and lessen the time spent styling outfits,” she says. Some of Naama’s style references are light academia, cottagecore, and Parisian and Scandinavian fashion—all very neutrally-toned. 

A woman in a bucket winter hat, white winter knit coat, and white shoes poses in front of the "bean" in Chicago's Millennium Park.
“I style my outfits themed on where I’m going—that day we were heading to the Art Institute of Chicago. I love taking pictures at museums, so I opted for an all-white outfit to not detract from the artwork,” says Naama, a tourist visiting Chicago from Brooklyn. Credit: Isa Giallorenzo

Even for those that usually subscribe to a more vivid aesthetic, neutrals certainly have their value. The owners of two of the coolest (and most vibrant) stores in the city, Sasha Hodges and Adrienne Hawthorne, share why they can sometimes open an exception for more muted tones.

a collage of items available for sale at Chicago vintage store Kokorokoko including hats, sunglasses, and sweaters
Clockwise from top left: vintage shearling bucket hat ($48), sunglasses ($15), vintage scarf ($12); vintage Avenue Fashions blouse ($58); vintage cream and black mini bowling bag ($34); vintage Diane von Furstenberg striped sweatshirt ($48); vintage tan wool bowler hat ($22); vintage silk trousers ($76); vintage Campus velour sweatshirt ($58); vintage Missoni turtleneck sweater ($108). All items at Kokorokoko. Credit: Courtesy Kokorokoko

“We usually highlight bright colors and patterns at Kokorokoko [vintage shop], but there are a lot of beautiful pieces in cream, beige, and tan on our racks as well. Many of our customers are inspired by the late 90s minimal aesthetic, or the 70s revival from the same time period, which lean heavily on earth tones,” says Hodges, who owns her boutique with Ross Kelly. A seasoned wardrobe stylist as well, Hodges suggests playing with texture and different tones when going for a head-to-toe neutral look. Neutrals remind her of the Olsen twins, Yeezy, and Halston—a big inspiration for Calvin Klein, whose collections defined minimalism in the 90s.

Several accessories available from Ponnopozz including a hair clip, tote bags, and a giant beige scrunchie.
Accessories available from Ponnopozz. Clockwise from top left: Chunks Checker Claw ($18), Baggu Duck Bag in Trippy Checker ($34), Vintage Royalty earrings ($46), Room Shop Giant Satin Scrunchie ($25), Baggu Duck Bag in Natural Grid ($34), Bodacious Arches in Polka Dot by Night Moves Atelier ($48). Credit: Courtesy Ponnopozz

Another “colorful maximalist,” Adrienne Hawthorne of Ponnopozz says she has lately been enjoying neutrals: “They’re calming and perfect for the winter weather outside . . . they’re a good base to play from,” she says. 

knit wear from the Weaving Mill in Chicago including sweaters and a scarf
Items from the Weaving Mill. Clockwise from top left: wool gradient scarf ($75), wool hat ($65), wool Window Coat ($390), Binder Paper cotton-blend shirt ($65).  Credit: Courtesy The Weaving Mill

At the Weaving Mill, where their main focus is thoughtful in-house design of woven apparel while partnering with social programs and promoting artist residencies, an attention to detail makes their neutral garments pop. “I think playing the temperature of ‘neutrals’ is the most interesting and fun thing to do,” says Emily Winter, who runs the studio. “Weaving is all about color relationships and figuring out how those little tweaks in value and temperature can either kill a pattern or make it sing,” she says. With some considered choices, neutrals can clearly make a statement on their own, or be the basis for bright splashes of color. One thing is certain: no wardrobe is complete without at least a few trusty neutral pieces. 

Where to buy
• Agriculture Custom Clothier, 67 W. Chicago, 312-877-5610, shopagriculture.com
• Kokorokoko Vintage, 1323 N. Milwaukee, 773-252-6996, kokorokokovintage.com
• Ponnopozz Studio and Store, 4839 N. Damen, 773-654-3025, ponnopozz.com
• The Weaving Mill, Chicago (online shop only), theweavingmill.com