Absolutely Fabulous

It's a fashion jungle out there unless you have the right guide

This is my nightmare. I am in a dressing room outfitted with dark mahogany walls. The place smells faintly of cedar and, fainter still, sulfur.

Behind me, several crisp new shirts glare viciously at me from their smug, shape-preserving wooden hangers. White and boxy, these shirts are the very color and shape of fashion evil. Some—the deceptive ones—have light blue stripes, but I know that they, too, have nefarious plans for my closet. A humming air conditioner blows an icy retail wind into my tiny cell, lifting and twitching these sleeves of imminent style death. Lacking any trace of flair, these are the clothes I am destined to wear in a dismal future full of business luncheons, PTA meetings and other "grown-up" activities.

Suddenly animated by the powers of darkness, the collared demons begin grasping at my throat, squeezing any semblance of fashion sense out through my gaping mouth. For me the future is now, and it's wearing high-waisted mom jeans and vests patterned with embroidered farm animals—except in December, when, of course, they will be covered with tiny Christmas trees.

Upscale department stores such as Nordstrom and Barney's offer personal shopping as a complimentary service.
Upscale department stores such as Nordstrom and Barney's offer personal shopping as a complimentary service.
Personal shopper and self-described "transformationist" Harriet Gibbe (left) combs North Dallas businesswoman's closet for clothes "fabulous" enough to make the style cut.
Personal shopper and self-described "transformationist" Harriet Gibbe (left) combs North Dallas businesswoman's closet for clothes "fabulous" enough to make the style cut.

In desperation, I fling the dressing room door open and am chased down an endless hallway by three or four swift-legged pairs of pleated khakis that overtake me in a cloud of brushed cotton. My fate is sealed.

See, few things scare me like the possibility of dressing like an adult. Global warming, grizzly bears and thigh-high pink argyle leggings are not threats in my world. Tastefully cut black pants and boring button-up shirts? Somebody get the smelling salts; Mama's gonna have a spell.

So when I found myself wide awake, standing in the dressing room of a real grown-up store, J. Crew, surrounded by collars, cuffs and various finely tailored garments, I was apprehensive. Looking in the mirror, I tried to visualize a me who liked Andrea Bocelli records and Shiraz priced more than $7.99 a bottle. Every inch of my body cried, "Flee! Flee to Forever 21, where you can buy four plastic headbands and a tank top screen-printed with tiny skulls-and-crossbones for less than the cost of one of these ungodly collared numbers!"

But there was another, louder voice coming through, and it was telling me to try on a classic white button-up shirt with a woolly gray sweater. It kept telling me I was going to be fabulous.

"You're going to be fabulous!"

There it was again. It belonged to my stylist/fashion cheerleader, Harriet Gibbe. The tall, thin former model flashed a photogenic smile at me in the mirror as she folded and bunched my sleeves.

I surveyed the results uncertainly. From the waist down, I was all Andrea: beat-up cowboy boots and a weathered pair of Fossil jeans I'd bought for a quarter of the retail price from Buffalo Exchange. These were my "nice" jeans, the ones that didn't fall off my ass, displaying my great divide. But on top, I was, um, kind of classy. The shirt tapered just under my rib cage, and the gray sweater that had looked so frumpy strewn across a table in the store was surprisingly fetching with its oversized cowl neck.

As I started to fasten a key button right over my cleavage, Harriet stopped me.

"Leave it open!" she squealed. "Bosoms are so in right now."

It was then that I knew Harriet and I were on the same page. I had come to her seeking an image overhaul, hoping to go from a thrift-store chic 20-something who still gets carded buying cigarettes (I mean lottery tickets—hi, Mom!) to a sleek, sophisticated professional journalist. There couldn't possibly be animal-embroidered denim vests in my future when my stylist so deeply understood the intrinsic value of making sure everyone knew I had two powerful weapons 'neath my blouse. Viva bosoms, indeed. Perhaps they could protect me from those insidious khakis.

People tour Paris for art and London for history. They fly to New York for entertainment and jet across the Pacific for beautiful beaches. But Dallas? People come here only because they have a two-hour layover on their way to Vegas, right? Sure. That and they've got a couple of credit cards that haven't yet been maxed out. Dallas may not be the fashion mecca of the Western Hemisphere, but it's a great place to exercise your plastic. Need a tour guide? Get a personal shopper. Dallas has a lot of retail terrain to navigate.

First, of course, there's Neiman Marcus, Dallas' 100-year-old flagship shopping outpost, and America's first shopping center, Highland Park Village, home to Chanel, Escada and Tory Burch. Plus there's the big-haired, overdressed mother of all malls, the Galleria, complete with an Old Navy (for your $5 flip-flops) and a Saks (for your $5,000 handbag.) And of course the newly revamped NorthPark Center, the tastefully dressed rival of the deliciously tacky Galleria, where Dillard's and Barney's live together in harmony, uniting the classes like a good old-fashioned communist revolution.

This is Dallas. We bleed cash and soak it up with the deeds to luxury hotels. We have entire urban enclaves modeled after Beverly Hills (Highland Park, represent). So, when I'm trying to convince friends to fly in from exotic locales such as New York and Los Angeles, and there is hemming and hawing about how there's no way the grassy knoll can be entertaining for two straight days (without the aid of a different sort of grass), I have to admit it: We may not have centuries of American history on display or a plentiful supply of Impressionist art, but we do have tons of places to buy shoes, purses and the odd one-of-a-kind Balenciaga ball gown.

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