Ask the computer for the look that's 'you'

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Dear Emily, I have a clothes problem. After I saw you on TV and read your book "Looking Terrific," I decided I could improve my image -- with a little help. Then, when I began looking for a new job, I realized that if I could dress better, coordinate things, etc., I would enhance my possibilities. Enclosed is a check for your computer wardrobe kit. . . .

Emily Cho frequently receives "Dear Emily" letters like this.

"One lady took pictures of all the clothes in her closet just to show me she really needed help."

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As the only image consultant of her kind in the United States, miss Cho knows there are many American women who want help in improving their clothes image. Her new computerized consulting service intends to meet the need of these women "who hunger for clothes advice that's geared specifically to them," as she explains it.

"I have tried to make the computer be as personal as possible," she says.

Today Miss Cho wears a bright red, Indian cotton sundress and woven sandals. Around her neck is a brass choker, an Ashanti necklace with carved cowrie shells at each end. Her black hair, which hangs below her waist when loose, is wound in a chignon at the nape of her neck.

She dissects her own image: "This outfit is right for today to meet you, but it's certainly not right to gain authority in a male office. IT's too playful, even though red usually gives authority."

She analyzes Emily Cho is the picture below.

"That photograph was for the back of the book to show I had the authority to write it. That's about as soft as an executive can look. I generally feel a little masculine and strong; therefore, I like to soften. I'm constantly sizing up and balancing the attributes of the person. It's really like painting a picture."

Her image with her clients must be a "little different, but I can't be scary." Too much jewelry makes her frightening, she says. "I have to look approachable, real, and a little bit exotic. It's tough."

About as tough as keeping her bright red lipstick unsmudged during an entire lunch. Yes, she thinks about her lipstick because when she eats hamburgers (she was eating asparagus), somehow her lipstick ends up on her chin if she's not careful. She never touches her eyes, either -- it might smear her makeup.

For 10 years Miss Cho has applied her "artist's" touch to the closets of women who are too busy to coordinate their own wardrobes and who can afford the make-over jobs.

Her clients incline toward florid adjectives to describe their transformations -- "incredible," "fantastic," "absolutely amazing."

"She has integrity," adds one woman.

"There's not one item of clothing Emily picked out that I have said we made a mistake," says Gina Toppins, who will soon change jobs from personnel work to television production.

"She wants to help a woman become more of herself, rather than make her into something," says another client. "I was in a shirtwaist, A-line skirt rut before."

Miss Cho's initial visit with a client lasta an hour and costs $100.

"I meet the woman in her closet, or she brings clothes to my office so I can see what she wears. I have come to closets where there were no clothes at all. They said they were so embarrassed that they cleaned out before I came."

At that meeting Miss Cho finds out the woman's life style, budget, and "what she thinks of her body, her hang-ups. Clothing is very connected to a woman's feelings of herself. It's a lot deeper than just putting stuff on your back.

"In a nudist camp you tell people's individuality by the least thing -- a bow in the hair, the sneakers. You cling to any clue you can get."

Miss Cho coaxes from each woman her own specific image, whether she is a television personality who needs to look good from the waist up or a wife with four kids in the suburbs who has lost herself in jeans. She says of a suburban wife moving into the city and looking for a job, "You have to go in steps; you can't jump too fast because then she wouldn't be projecting herself. She's got to feel and look comfortable in her clothes."

Before she sought Miss Cho's help, Ms. Toppins wore brown, black, and gray, loose-fitting clothes -- even though she was a size 10.

"I cannot coordinate colors. Emily would tell me how to mix and match. She told me my best features. I was a model and you'd think I would have known, but I didn't. We bought a silk dress and she told me how to move in that type dress."

AT the first meeting Miss Cho becomes "a very good professional friend and the woman knows I will not gossip about her. I think women have to feel trust because they think clothes are a test of their feminity. They are very suspicious kinds of creatures. If I did this for men, it would be an easier service -- fast, superficial, and I would be out of it.

"I'm not a clotheshorse. I only believe in presentation, the power of an effect. I could be in advertising, or package design. But it's the people part that keeps me in consulting."

One woman who is a nurse praised Emily Cho but didn't want her name mentioned:

"One feels a bit embarrassed that one hasn't developed a taste. I have a master's degree in education from Columbia University -- just to prove I'm not dumb," she laughs.

But Gina Toppins says, "It's like interior decorating. Instead of making mistakes, it's worth it in the end to hire somebody to do it for you."

The second stage of the wardrobe service is research ($200), where Miss Cho scours the stores in New York and set aside clothes for her client. This consumes about four hours, during which Miss Cho says she "becomes the person."

The next day is the five-to six-hour ($50 an hour) shopping spree when she accompanies the woman to the stores and decisions are finally made.

"I leave them with the clothes in their closet, smiles on their faces, and a list of what goes with what for them to tack to their closet doors."

Requirements for all: the $550, plus at least a $1,000 budget for one season of clothes, a trip to New York, and a size 14 or smaller dress.

"If it's more than a 14, it's a search, not an image service."

This personal service may be free enterprise, but it's not democracy. On tour for her book, which was a best seller last year, Miss Cho was constantly asked to stay over in one city or another. "They were angry when I could not."

She had already launched her computer consulting service with a coupon in the back of her book. More than 2,000 requests streamed in. "And that's a very elite popluation: people who read books." Now, instead of writing a second book or going on another tour, she is expanding her massmarket consulting.

Anyone who requests her kit must answer 125 questions ranging from "How you want to look off the job -- trendy? exotic? conservatively elegant? soft and sweetly feminine? pert and perky? sport and casual?" to: "Do you have a double chin? And how is your rear end?"

After the computer logs the answers, it types out the personalized replies. It may not be as lovable as the chubby, burbling robot in "Star Wars," R2D2, but Miss Cho's computer tries hard -- with a little human help. Using the answers, illustrations, and a color code, a woman can turn into her own Emily Cho.

It seems unlikely that an ethnic Chinese woman -- born in Manila, raised in Westchester, N.Y. -- would become a top image consultant.

"I thought nobody would come for help because I wasn't French or European. The Chinese have absolutely no connection with fashion, or only with a costume kind of fashion."

In high school, where she was the only Chinese girl, Emily Cho was always wishing she was blond and blue-eyed.

"I was constantly observing what made people popular and how they presented themselves."

In college (Cornell and Berkeley), she studied to enter social work but decided she "wanted only the happy side."

She joined the Bloomingdale's department store executive training school, then a modeling agency as a booker, "where I learned a lot of tricks."

Although Miss Cho understands some Chinese, she cannot speak a word. She hasn't read the books of prominent Chinese-American author Maxine Hong Kingston "because it is mythology.My whole being is practical, down-to-earth, here and now."

But a trace of her cultural upbringing surfaces when she admits embarrassment about seeing her name and picture so big in the ads for her computer service.

"You've been brought up to be more humble than blasting your name all over the place. I rationalize by saying I'm offering a service before I'm offering a face."

Has the feminist movement affected Emily Cho?

"Not. At. All." The topic seems closed.

After a pause, "I would like to see if I could get into one of the feminist magazines, Ms., or something.

"I don't feel I'm making women into sexual objects. My philosophy is not decoration but just to have the effect and forget about it. You're working to getting away from having to think, 'Gee, I don't look good today, therefore I don't feel like talking.' You want to get the package right and then you're free."

Miss Cho insists women are experts at "reading the messages of another person's clothes. They may not be able to verbalize what they see, but they are reacting to it."

Miss Cho puts the messages into words, and that might make her frightening to many women who would prefer to hide in their closets instead of merely cleaning them out.

But she isn't like that. She doesn't say what a woman is wearing wrong, but softly suggests what she could wear right. The most alarming thing about her is her lipstick (which one guesses she could keep intact through a five- course dinner and all night, too).

"Before Emily, nobody would have looked at me and said, 'Ugh,'" claims the Columbia-educated woman. "But now I look stunning. I can say this because I had nothing to do with it.

"I couldn't do without those two pieces of paper that tell me what goes with what in my closet. If I lose my papers, that's it."

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