10 Brutal Truths From an Image Consultant
Allow me to introduce my friend and former Client, *Gillian, the newly minted President of a major consumer products company.
When I first worked with Gillian, she used to scare me to death because she was unquestionably the smartest person in the room. Equipped with laser wit and tongue, watching her go Bruce Lee over bullsh*t was at once thrilling and terrifying. She never felt the need to apologize for her intellect, power or opinions and I wanted a little of that for my own self-doubting soul.
Luckily, business trips and wine broke the intimidation barrier and we developed a friendship that outlasted the business one.
Over the decade that I’ve known Gillian, I never considered what she looked like, only what she said or what she thought. But in her new role, I noticed her style evolving until one day she was downright red carpet. It wasn’t Botox, surgery or a pool boy named Juan; there was something else I couldn’t put my finger on.
Finally, after two rounds of dirty martini realness at The Monkey Bar, the truth dribbled out.
Me: Ok, give it up. I’ve never seen you look better. What are you up to?
Gillian: Hmmm…well…the truth is that I got a lot nice of nice perks with my new role, and one of them was a personal stylist and image consultant.
You mean like Sarah Palin in “Game Change”?
Actually, very similar. Except I can’t see Russia from my house…
That’s some perk. I always thought you were well put together though…were you offended that they suggested an image overhaul?
No, I was thrilled not to have to figure this out on my own.
I learned a while ago that as I got more senior, I needed to be equally tuned into the unspoken language in the room. Your looks, words, gestures, tiniest actions are all scrutinized and interpreted by your employees by the Board, by Wall Street analysts, by the press. To pretend otherwise is naïve and foolish.
The goal was for me to look like “the boss” and more serious, like someone you would give $500 million dollars to for a new manufacturing plant. You just can’t wear tulle for that.
So your stylist, she was….um…the Rachel Zoe of Wall Street?
Not really. My stylist Mona saw beyond fashion and looked at the bigger context of my life. She had insight into the industry I worked in and knew exactly how to package me. She started by probing what had I done, where was I headed, and “got me” in about 10 minutes.
I was not thrilled however, to go through the process because emotionally it’s a stripping down. After the first intake, came the “gutting of the closet” where I spent most of the day in nothing but my Spanx, trying on everything she considered questionable.
I thought this part would be a snap because I purge my closet each season. But within minutes, Mona was whisking away anything she considered bad. Within two hours I had a king sized bed’s worth of items that had snuck their way into my heart and remained in my closet. She not only edited my closet, she edited me.
The fun part came when Mona transformed what was left of my wardrobe into outfits that I would have never thought of myself. After, Mona handed me list of key items missing from my closet and sent me shopping. This included a day at Saks where she and I went two-on-one with a personal shopper, which is the only way to work that one-day sale. Everything we bought was monochromatic, perfect for my shape and made my wardrobe more powerful and more versatile – - they were pieces with purpose.
Here were the Top 10 things I learned:
1. Curate your closet like a fashion editor. Mona’s toss criteria helped me break the emotional bond I had with my clothes and look at my wardrobe more objectively:
- Is it worn, stained, pilled or have too many loose threads?
- Does it reflect where I want to go, or a past chapter?
- Does the cut make me look chubby, wide or work against my frame?
- Does it the color wash out your face?
- Does it look too young or cheap?
- Is the item really a classic, or past it’s prime?
2. Understand your frame. This is not about thin, plump, short or tall. She said my biggest challenge was that I’m short-waisted, which means I’ll never again look twice at stripes or bolero jackets. Instead, she suggested “column dressing” which means I start with a monochromatic top and bottom and layer color or texture on top of it.
3. Embrace a great fitting bra, Spanx and thongs. Get your boobs measured by a bra fitter invest in a great molded bra every year. There is no place in Mona’s world for panty lines and bra bulges. Full stop.
4. Invest in cut, fabric and don’t overlook vintage. Better to spend on a vintage Ralph Lauren suit you’ve had tailored, and not something new from the Forever 21. I’ve also hit pay dirt at high-end consignment shops and flash sales on Gilt, Haute Look and Rue La La.
5. Then, find the best tailor you can afford. If it doesn’t fit, you will always look cheap no matter how much you spend. It’s unbelievable what a tailor can do to nip in a waist, let out the hips and fix that gap around your boobs on a blouse.
6. Look at hair, make-up and skin care like another accessory. Luckily, my skin, eyeglasses and make-up were Mona approved. In fact, she endorsed some of my fine lines as being a good thing in my new role. She did suggest a do-over on my naturally curly hair, which resulted in a life changing Keratin treatment. My world is now a blissful, frizz free good hair day, even if I’m Power-Pointing in the middle of a Bangladesh monsoon.
But as she focused on taking me from Chief Marketing Officer to President, the advice became more brutal. Keep in mind the context of Corporate America here. These rules wouldn’t necessarily apply to someone like yourself who is in a creative industry, or in tech. Each industry has it’s own secret dress code, so this was mine.
7. Colorful clothes and prints don’t convey power. This surprised me because I thought women had achieved more fashion license in the boardroom. Mona said not in my case since I had to convey a look of don’t mess with me power. Out went all the jewel tones that made my skin look pretty and alive even when I was severely jet lagged.
8. Add impact with bold, powerful accessories. Fortunately, Mona introduced me to a world of statement accessories that prevented me from looking too Amish. Her rule; wear one bold piece to add interest, like this Ralph Lauren longhorn belt buckle you’ve been eyeing, or my favorite topaz encrusted cuff that makes me feel like Wonder Woman.
9. Black, nude, navy, and gun-metal are the 4 basic food groups of shoes. Cover these bases before stretching into other territory or in my case any other colors or patterns. Heel heights can range from 2” to 4”, but if you’re opting for higher, you have to be able to walk comfortably in them. Even the slightest bit of teeter suggests a lack of confidence. No flats; they’re too dumpy to signal power.
10. Even the smallest details matter. “What do you think your wedding ring says about you?” Mona asked of my simple, round .84ct. engagement ring and wedding band. My sentimental answer that I married for true love at age 24 apparently has no place in the boardroom. Mona encouraged me to upgrade to something that signals I’ve “arrived”, hence my new chunky diamond bling.
Ouch, that’s last one is rough. Didn’t that strike you as almost…crass?
Yes and no. I had the same you reaction you did, but when I thought about it, I realized how many times I’ve subconsciously made a snap judgment about someone based on these little signals. It’s not about right or wrong, more about the reality of how you’re perceived. I got over it.
Diamonds rings aside, I want to be styled! How much does the whole thing cost? Keep in mind; I make a lot less than you, G.
Mona was $225 per hour, with the process taking about 10 hours. If you do the closet purge yourself, you could probably get away with half the time. Aside from my new wedding ring bling, I spent an extra $5000 on new clothes. Working with an image consultant is better than Botox and probably the best self-improvement thing I’ve ever done. Mona fundamentally changed how I package myself in the world thru her insight into me, my body, my coloring and where I want to go.
In fact, I’m giving the gift of Mona to my cousin who’s gone thru a nasty divorce and is ready to start dating again.
Waiter…can we have another round? Gillian, you’re picking up this one ‘cause I’m saving up for my Mona.
*Names changed to protect the innocent