Absolutely Fabulous

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

What did I do for a living? What did I do for fun? Who were my style icons? Did I have a crush on anyone on my friends list? Peering over a clipboard from behind his desk, Guillaume let each question—OK, not that last one—lilt out of his perfect throat in his perfect French accent.

I write, I told him, and I go to bars and hang out with my cats. Style icons? Probably a tie between Gwen Stefani and Lindsay Lohan when she's not doing too much coke, er, suffering from exhaustion. As he scribbled, my eyes wandered to Guillaume's bookshelves. Biographies, magazines, fashion tomes. And, just over his left shoulder, a learn-to-speak-French text I remembered from school.

How curious. But the questions kept coming. If I had to go to a trendy party tonight, what would I wear? Probably a pair of Seven jeans I still feel guilty about buying, some vintage heels and a sparkly tank top. Trendy clothes are not my problem, I told him. I need the opposite of trendy. I know all about skinny jeans and how bad they look on anyone with more than a half-percent of body fat—not that that stopped me from buying two pairs. I have an oversized watch and the ridiculously large handbag. I'm fully capable of opening a Lucky and buying the knockoff version of whatever's trendy this Wednesday, so long as there's a possibility somebody else is going to think it looks completely silly. I just need to look like a normal person sometimes.

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.

So Guillaume tossed around a couple of words that sounded nice, like "sophistication" and "class," and I decided I was in. He sent me home with a binder full of scary prices—$120 per hour with a three-hour minimum to do some "closet surgery" on my existing wardrobe, same thing for personal shopping. When I e-mailed him to talk about my article, we negotiated a deal—no price is too small to pay someone to tell me what I look crappy wearing—and I was ready to roll.

I stayed ready to roll for a few weeks while my calls and e-mails weren't returned. What had I done? Had I offended Guillaume with my so-last-season Diesel leg warmers? Maybe he didn't like the way I penned my e-mails, though I always try to keep exclamation mark usage to a minimum. Maybe "Call me back when you have a moment" means "Please ignore this message" in French. Whatever the case, I knew I'd been dumped. Better to just eat a few cans of soul-comforting Cheddar 'n Bacon Easy Cheese and move on. My dream stylist was out there somewhere.

Still reeling from my Francophone rejection, I considered that maybe my business casual wardrobe wasn't so bad. The next time I had an interview with a lawyer who wouldn't appreciate seeing me in a wife-beater and Converse sneakers, I threw on the usual: black tuxedo pants bought circa 2000 from the Gap outlet in Hillsboro, an Express blazer I'd triumphantly found on sale for $25 just after I'd graduated from high school and one of the four button-up dress shirts I'd purchased over the years from discount chains Charlotte Russe and Forever 21.

This was "professional business lady," and the outfit had a reputation with some of my office mates. It even had a song. So when, post-interview, I hustled down the hall to my desk and realized I'd been spotted by a co-worker, I braced for the inevitable.

"Professional! Business! Laaaa-dy!" he sang, chugging his arms from side to side. An appropriate backing band would have been Survivor, composers of the sports film classic "Eye of the Tiger." I didn't like to admit it, but maybe I did have a small, tiny, petit fashion handicap when it came to making my work clothes look as stylish as the rest of the trend-conscious parts of my closet.

A couple of calls to local fashion folk pointed me to Gibbe, a perpetually smiling and occasionally cynical former Neiman Marcus house model who agreed to meet me at a North Dallas coffee shop to discuss my plight. I learned quickly that this would be no wham-bam-thank-you-mademoiselle one-stylist stand. Clad in stick-straight-legged pants and leopard-print heels and carrying a giant Cole Haan bag, Harriet looked like a walking, talking mannequin.

Harriet spent the '80s jetting across the world on modeling gigs, then started producing documentaries and, eventually, fashion shows for the likes of Chanel and Armani. Fashion is not frivolous for this woman, and she let me know it the first moment we met.

"Your closet is your history," Harriet began, taking the occasional sip of hot tea and placing a blue notebook in front of me. I wouldn't just be getting some nice clothes for work; I'd be expanding my identity. The notebook was my "transformation journal," where I'd write down my goals and dreams so that we could determine the clothes I'd need to achieve them. With the right wardrobe, I could do anything.

Ooh, it was corny to hear. It was even a little bit New Age-y, especially when Harriet told me, "Clothes have energy." At the same time, it rang true.

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