In search of a new image

What happens when an 'average guy' meets with three fashionistas

I begin our session with a disclaimer: "I am unclear about what I want to do with my pants, and I'm aware of past failures."

My advisers nod silently, soberly, as if to say: "We have seen this problem before." They calmly run their eyes over my loose-fitting khakis like engineers surveying the foundation of a condemned building.

They are expressionless.

I pause, waiting for my insecurities to be confirmed. Have I made a mistake putting myself in the hands of a trio of fashion experts? Women have been getting advice from "image consultants" for years, and now – slowly – men are turning to them, too.

I am a sartorial pilgrim, I tell myself, staking out unfamiliar ground.

"Why don't you show us your closet now?" asks Suzanne Fanous, a no-nonsense Long Island native.

With a flourish, I open the closet. The room is silent.

"Tell me what you see," I say, playing the role of observer.

"Blue," says Ginger Burr, president and founder of Total Image Consultants in Sommerville, Mass.

"I see blue," adds Ms. Fanous.

Earthshaking observation, I think, inwardly chiding them. Either these women possess keen insight into the human condition, or they simply take great pride in identifying primary colors.

I came to discover that both traits were true. The act of image consulting lies somewhere between plumbing the depths of the human psyche and belaboring the plainly obvious.

Image consultants wear many hats: artist, tailor, coach, confidant, productivity guru, and psychologist – a mix of Martha Stewart and Carl Jung.

They ask personal questions: "What message would you like to communicate?" "Are you gentle or masculine?" Their verbiage runs New-Agey, with terms like "hue family" and "color messages" popping up now and then.

But after one day under their tutelage, the practical results are clear: I have no embarrassing fashion questions left to ask, and I will never again buy an ill-fitting pair of pants.

I am of average height and build. I keep myself relatively well-scrubbed. My clothing is uninspiring, yet presentable. I take pride in being able to match colors. I assume the majority of Americans are like me. And yet millions are looking for outside help.

When image consultants began offering services during the early 1980s, male white-collar workers wore plain blue and gray suits, and "women basically dressed in menswear [with] a skirt," says Ms. Burr.

Style in and out of the workplace has evolved considerably since then. Fashion options expanded. Bright colors became widespread. Both men and women have been faced with choices so numerous that many have failed to produce a coherent style. For some, image consultants can help separate the fine from the unflattering.

Most of Burr's clients want help preparing for a specific event, such as parties or business trips. Some are more high-maintenance; they won't go shopping without her. Others don't go shopping at all, entrusting Burr and her colleagues to comb the retail racks for them. The consultants often visit clients' homes and critique their wardrobes.

Still, Burr's ultimate goal, she says, is to make herself obsolete. She requires just one commitment from all her clients: They must at least try on whatever she recommends.

By doing so, she believes they will learn to see color and texture and fit in a new light. "It's a learning process. It comes from within. Sometimes it's just exposing them to what the options are," she says.

Burr and her associates – Fanous and Kate Ericson – recently spent an afternoon analyzing my wardrobe and then helping me pick out some new clothes. The four-hour process costs about $320.

What's your style?

Burr's philosophy of image moves from the inside out. She and her colleagues first ask clients about their likes and dislikes and what image they want to project:

Fanous: Name something you do not feel comfortable in.

Me: I feel curmudgeonly in sweater vests.

Fanous: What message would you like to communicate? Are you casual, businesslike, artistic? Are you George Clooney in a turtleneck and sports jacket?

Me: I think my favorite outfit is bluejeans and a sports jacket.

Fanous: Let's say casual with a little bit of businesslike.

Much of the consultants' job is to observe. People give them nonverbal clues, they say, that project who they are and what they may need help with:

Burr: I notice you put your hands in your pockets a lot, don't you?

Me: Yes, I suppose so.

Burr: Look, the edges of your pockets curl because you're stuffing your hands in.

Fanous: Show me how you put your hands in your pockets. Another way you can do that is to push the jacket back rather than pulling it up at the sides. It doesn't bulk up your whole jacket.

Getting pants that really fit

Fanous says the biggest problem for men is fit. They often buy clothes only a few times of year, but their sizes may differ depending on whether they are gaining or losing weight:

Ms. Ericson: I might rethink the pleats on the pants. Your pleats move outward. They give you a wider look.

Burr: Or you could change to plain-front pants.

Me: I'd probably be less likely to wear those.

Burr: And why is that?

Me: Because I like more of a loose-fitting pant.

Burr: Do you know about stretch? They don't have to be skin-tight.

The idea that businesswear needs to cost more than casual clothing is a misconception, according to Burr. She says quality sports jackets, for example, are not hard to find at a low price, but inexpensive casual clothing – often made of cotton – wrinkles quickly and easily loses shape. An upgrade to silks and wools can cost a bit more:

Ericson: You should probably have these pants shortened. There should only be one break in a man's pants. You have two.

Me: What's a break?

Ericson: The natural fold in the fabric.

Me: Is this a break? Is this a break? [I point to creases in my left pant leg.]

Ericson: Well, those are there because you're bending over.

Me: I count two breaks.

Ericson: These pants are tapered . Because the pants narrow at the bottom, you're creating a look where the largest portion of you is at your waist.

Women often feel that they should already know about fashion, while men are more inclined to get someone to help, says Burr. When either sex receives instruction about fashion and clothing, whether from a store clerk or a family friend, it is often irregular and incorrect:

Ericson: You're hanging your pants the wrong way.

Me: I hang my pants the way my dad taught me to hang them.

Ericson: Well, I'm sure your dad [is] a great man, but he doesn't know how to hang a pair of pants.

Me: It's wrong? You're starting an Oedipal crisis here.

Ericson: They should be unzipped, first two buttons together, and turn the waist in. That's how you hang them because that's how you wear them. This is folded the way you would want them to fit on your body. Those in the closet are folded the way you would want them to look on a hanger. Are you a hanger or a body?

A basic tenet of fashion is to dress for the job you want, not the job you have, says Ericson. She says dress standards vary considerably from city to city and at different departments within companies. She sometimes visits a client's office to observe the fashion environment:

Burr: Let's see your dress shoes.

Me: These have a blue streak on one; there's a giant blemish on the other pair. Obviously that's not great. But do I care enough to get them fixed? Not really.

Fanous: In an interview, you're probably going to cross your legs. They're going to see that blue streak on there.

Me: Would you hire me?

Fanous: If I need to send you to [interview] Arthur Andersen's top guy, I'm not going to want to send you there with a blue streak on your shoe.

Ericson: It's perfectly acceptable to introduce people to your blue streak and ironic tie collection after about Week 4 on the job.

Burr believes many people buy too much clothing; they often settle for something that isn't perfect. "Our rule is, if you don't love it, you can't buy it," she says.

Burr: You don't have an excessive amount of clothing.

Me: Well, I've always wondered about that.

Burr: Do you wear everything in there?

Me: Yes, except for one thing. A tight pair of black jeans.

Burr: And you're keeping them because...?

Me: Interesting question.

Burr offers a quick color analysis: I wear browns well, because my hair and eyes are brown and my skin tone is "Mediterranean." These darker hues also help me get away with olive and rust, those namby-pamby earth tones that have dethroned the tyranny of blue and gray.

For $120, Total Image Consultants will spend an hour creating a palette of 40 to 70 colors that suit an individual. All three women carry such palettes in their purses, neatly contained in a leather holster. In Burr's perfect world, all mankind would carry such a palette. "Color is power," she says.

Going shopping

Armed with my "hue family," we go to the only store from which I buy clothing, Filene's department store in Boston. I am somewhat self-conscious about the plainness of this choice, but the consultants are supportive.

After I am measured by a store clerk, Fanous helps me pick out an olive-colored sharkskin suit from Jones of New York. Burr and Ericson search for shirt-tie combinations.

They return with an array of attractive options. My favorite – a warm salmon-colored shirt with a green, floral-patterned tie. It perfectly matches Fanous's suit recommendation.

I soon realize that these consultants think on a special wavelength that's inaccessible to the poorly dressed.

Our day ends with hugs and handshakes. I am a better shopper now. My insecurities have been addressed – if not eliminated. And I can spot fabric breaks from a mile off.

Still, I am somewhat troubled by the materialism of the exercise, so I query my consultants.

They seem to have thought about the issue. "This is about helping people forget about how they look," says Ericson without hesitation. "If they feel overly concerned about their image, then my job has not been done."

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