Checking image consultants' credentials

Image consultants are cropping up across the country faster than runs in nylon stockings. For a fee, they'll advise you on everything from personal color analysis to interior decorating. But how do you know if the consultant you choose is truly qualified, or whether he or she just picked up a book along the way and decided to go into business?

To help with questions like these, five fashion consultants in the San Francisco Bay Area banded together to form the Association of Image Consultants (AIC). The group's goal is to set professional standards for entry into the fledgling industry and protect consumers from inexpert advice that might prove costly.

Color analysts and books on choosing your best colors began their popularity streak more than 20 years ago. Then, from simply analyzing personal coloring and supplying color ``palettes,'' the field expanded to take in the whole image.

That's how image consulting was born. Besides color consulting, this wider field includes wardrobe planning, personality development, personal shopping, cosmetics, life style, figure analysis, basic style, and interior decorating.

``We hope to be to image consulting what the American Society of Interior Decorators is to interior decorating,'' says Diane Parente, the AIC's first president. ``We require a minimum of three years as a full-time image consultant for membership; extensive training or experience in the fashion industry; a portfolio of references; and review and acceptance by the board.'' The group also hopes to get college accreditation soon.

After its initial founding, the AIC quickly grew to a membership of 40, and that number is rising. Like similar organizations, the AIC aims for the highest-quality services for its clients, and members must adhere to a code of ethics.

``We hope the AIC will help clients choose the consultant who is right for them, and not only on the basis of the cost'' (which may run from the price of a few pairs of panty hose to the cost of a Bill Blass suit), says Jeane Johnson, AIC vice-president. ``The initial charge is secondary to the fact that people may later spend hundreds of dollars based on the consultant's decisions.''

And who are the people willing to pay the price for image consulting?

``For the most part, my clients are career women with disposable income and very little time to spend on themselves,'' says color consultant Paula Wilhelm. ``They find it easier to have someone else tell them what they should wear than to make those countless decisions. Many of my clients are men who have become aware of the impact of color in business,'' she says.

Another AIC member says many of her clients are teen-agers just embarking on their own independent choices of clothing. The knowledge gained from working with a consultant gives them some degree of freedom from self-consciousness and provides an intelligent guide to their shopping in years to come.

``The busy homemaker who needs a little lift in her life profits from our service,'' another member remarks. ``She shops for clothes with more pleasure and no longer indulges in impulse buying that results in expensive mistakes. And she finds her wardrobe doing triple duty.''

The AIC suggests asking these questions before selecting an image consultant:

How long have they been in business? (It takes three to five years to develop expertise.)

What are their qualifications? Listen for specific credentials, not just general statements.

Where did they receive training?

What experience have they had in the field?

What are their fees? (If too low, they may be learning on the client's time.)

Do they maintain a separate studio?

Do they have a portfolio of their work?

For information on becoming an AIC member or starting a chapter, write to Diane Parente, La Belle, 576 Sutter Street, San Francisco, Calif. 94102; telephone (415) 421-4121.

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