Christmas 2014 probably looked a little different for Jess Carpenter than it did for many fashion influencers. At the time, the petite blonde was living in a 200-year-old Brandywine, Maryland, farmhouse with her husband, Christian, and, well, not much else. She had some basic furniture—a kitchen table and a few chairs—but no TV, no couch and not even a computer. Piles of meticulously wrapped presents under an ostentatiously decorated tree weren’t there either. Instead, Carpenter had filled a large glass vase with branch trimmings she’d scrounged up for free at Home Depot and wrapped the bottom in burlap.
“Our house had an echo. Our landlord thought we were moving. Our family, who loves Christmas, thought it was really weird,” she says with a laugh and a warm twinkle in her voice as she thinks back upon this season six years ago. “But I remember being really happy.”
This time period occurred before Carpenter, 30, was an Instagram influencer. It was before she amassed more than 225,000 followers on social media, before she flew across the country to speak at fashion conferences and before big-name brands such as Ikea and Everlane were flooding her inbox with requests to collab on Jess with Less, the zero-waste living and sustainable fashion blog she now runs out of her Hampden row house. But what’s important to know is that her approach to life before these successful endeavors is not that much different from how
she lives her life today.
That Christmas, Carpenter’s happiness was derived from the freedom the couples’ commitment to a deeply minimalist lifestyle afforded them. They’d begun the journey three years earlier, inspired not by aspirations of internet fame—not yet, at least—but by a real-world predicament: They were $16,000 in debt, and they didn’t want to be anymore.
“I was living paycheck to paycheck, not even able to afford glasses because I was buying stuff I shouldn’t buy, with no thought of the future,” she says. “Then I watched a YouTube video on tiny-house living. The couple talked about how they simplified their needs and how they had no electric bill. They had less stuff, but were enjoying their life more—something clicked.”
Embracing Minimalism and Zero-Waste Living
Immediately inspired, Carpenter stopped shopping—and started paring down. Along with the TV, couch and computer, out went anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary in the kitchen.
A lifelong thrifter—she and Christian even met at a secondhand store—she also sold or gave away their knick-knacks and decorations. The most difficult cull was saved for last: six bins of beloved
vintage clothing, collected over years of meticulously scouring Goodwill stores, 2nd Avenue shops and Savers for the perfect pieces. Fully committed to only living with what she really needed, Carpenter took the pieces to a vintage store in Richmond, Virginia, in the spring of 2015, where the owner bought almost everything. At that point, the Carpenters had about $2,500 of debt left. The check the owner handed her was for almost the exact amount.
“We were debt-free the second we left,” she remembers, “and free to do anything we wanted.”
And what Carpenter wanted to do was share her journey. During the years between the first YouTube video and her last clothing sale, she’d unlocked several more doors in the rapidly growing world of intentional living.
Shopping secondhand had, of course, always been part of her ethos, and minimalism—a philosophy that encourages cutting out clutter so you have more time and resources for experiences and
relationships—had accelerated her journey out of debt. Along the way, she discovered zero-waste living—the prioritization of reusable items over disposable whenever possible to reduce landfill space—and sustainable fashion, which encourages consumers to buy from brands that prioritize eco-friendly fabrics and manufacturing processes.
When practiced together, these choices created a fulfilling, purpose- driven and flexible lifestyle that Carpenter knew others—and, in these times of climate change, the world—would benefit from. In 2018, she registered a domain name—Jesswithless.com—and got to work.
“I get very obsessive when I do things, just like with paying off debt,” she says, “so I went all in.” Along with her full-time job at MOM’s Organic Market in Hampden, Carpenter estimates she was clocking eight additional hours a day on her new side hustle in the first few months. She posted every day for two years.
What she posts is not unlike that Christmas “tree” of leftover branches—often the exact opposite of what you’d expect from someone trying to “make it” on the internet.
Instead of constantly strutting around in new outfits, she unabashedly ’grams the same pieces over and over again. Instead of rounding up expensive beauty products and posh boutiques to hit up in global fashion capitals, she posts in-depth directories of sustainable clothing brands and details the contents of the reusable cup and utensil kit she once brought on a cruise. Instead of the latest Louis Vuitton or Chanel, nothing is a bigger score than a pristine pair of vintage Levis she knows she can wear
“It’s always just been me, sharing my life and what I’m going through,” she says about her platform. “It’s been fun to create a community around that.”
Shop Intentionally, Shop Sustainably
Two years in, this community includes 115,000 followers on Instagram where Carpenter snaps her chicly neutral outfits—expect plenty of peasant blouses, subtly textured sweaters and plenty of wide-legged pants—in front of her ultra-paired down “closet,” which is a garment rack.
“Getting rid of the excess helped me understand what I really like in my wardrobe, instead of just buying mindlessly,” she says. “I love clothes, but I don’t love spending a lot of time creating an outfit. Having everything match makes it easy for me.”
On TikTok, 110,000 more tune in to watch her 15-second thrift shopping hacks and ingenious styling tips. One of the tips—how to use a belt to crop a sweater over a dress—went so viral when she shared it on Instagram last November that the Daily Mail and Fox News picked it up.
Clearly, Carpenter’s perspective resonates. In addition to racking up the views, it’s also led to partnerships with progressive, like-minded brands such as Sézane, Thinx and even broader
platforms. In April 2019, she was invited to speak at the Sustainable Fashion Forum in Portland. Other participants have included staffers from Vogue, Nordstrom and Adidas. The biggest way living with less has brought her more is the pursuit of her passion. In January, Carpenter left her job at MOM’s to pursue her creative endeavors full time.
These days, she scours estate sales, auctions and thrift malls across the mid-Atlantic for furniture and home decor finds to fill out Carpenter Studio, a tiny yet visually stunning slip of a 200-square-foot showroom she and Christian leased on The Avenue in March. Here, their vintage wares—Memphis Style candleholders and cantilever coffee tables—might as well be an extension of her closet: ’80s and ’90s references meld with a monochrome palette of white plaster, marble, silver and gold.
“Our aesthetic is postmodern art deco with a little mix of boho,” she says. “We like weird but functional stuff.”
Evidently, so too do customers. Online sales, a necessary pivot during the shutdown, are through the roof—so much so that Jess and Christian are already talking about getting a bigger space. They’re also using the opportunity to connect with other like-minded small businesses in Baltimore such as The Greenhouse at Good Neighbor, Alyssa Zygmunt’s buzzy new dried floral business and Mount Royal Soap Co. But even though the Carpenters have an audience eager to buy, buy and buy, she hasn’t compromised on her principles.
“As far as influencers go, what she preaches on her platforms is exactly who she is in real life,” says Julia Keesler, a longtime friend and, as of September, Carpenter Studio’s first employee. “Whether it’s clothing or furniture, she’s always been about investing in good pieces that are meant to last.”
In fact, when it comes to holiday shopping this season, Carpenter hopes people do less of it—or, at the very least, do it more intentionally. While that might not be the sentiment you’d expect from a newly minted store owner, it’s a logical extension of the brand she has been building—and one that makes the case for her new business venture.
“As adults in this period of reset, we’re looking around our houses. We want to invite things that have meaning into our lives, especially when they’re more affordable, better for the environment, last longer and made better. That’s why vintage home decor is trending in the first place—because there’s so much more to it than ‘I got it at Target.’