Winning the Wardrobe War
Plenty Magazine, February 2006
Is there anything as aggravating as our clothes? Bought in hope
- even when we're not sure they suit us - our unworn garments can
cram our closets for years. We pull them out, try them on, sigh.
and yearn for a personal style consultant. Lauren Hamilton goes
looking for advice.
Susan Axford helps both men and women get a grip
on the contents of their closets. And it's no glamour job. 'It's
a service industry, about looking after people's basic needs. The
aim is to make our clothing purchases viable, to really work for
us, so that they're not big, expensive mistakes hanging at the back
of the wardrobe.'
Her male clients range from tow-truck drivers
to MPs, and the women may be missionaries, mums or corporate high-flyers
corporate types. She has special-needs people too, including blind
Her customers are often leaving youth behind.
'They want to look modern but don't want to look victims to the
latest fashion. As our colouring changes and our figures change,
a lot of what's in the shops isn't going to suit us. A lot of my
clients say to me, "I'd like to wear this but am I going to look
like mutton dressed as a lamb?" 'What's in the shops can be confusing.
There's such huge variety that it's quite bewildering. Some garments
can be very expensive and people can feel distressed about spending
all this money and then not being sure if they're just being talked
into it by a sales assistant.'
With her careful makeup and cropped dark hair,
Susan looks chic and sleek - the legacy of having spent 11 years
as fashion editor at the New Zealand Herald . 'In that
time I saw all the different colours and styles pour through and
realised that people were often very confused about what might or
might not suit them. When I left the Herald in 1998 I trained
as a colour consultant and then set up my own system. I call it
cracking the code. Once you know your best colours and styles, you
train yourself to look only at what is right for you, so that by
the time you get into the changing room you're really only just
checking on sizing.'
Clients mostly find her on the internet and visit
her Parnell studio for a consultation ($150) or ask her home to
assess their wardrobes. That sounds scary, but she asserts it's
not about shrieking 'Out! Out!' as she bins your most beloved gear.
'I like to work in a teaching sort of way. It's not a ruthless
thing - it's about helping clients understand what, for them, does
and doesn't work.'
Susan works all over the country, with some clients
flying her to Wellington or Christchurch for regular wardrobe refreshment.
And if a group of people anywhere want help, she's happy to go any
place in which clothing dilemmas lurk. She assures us that we can
all look good with ease, at any age.
'The boundaries aren't so strict these days. Once
when we got to a certain age we'd have said, "Well, I can't wear
that any more now". Some things aren't appropriate but
I like to show people you can still look modern without looking
like a fashion victim. It's about buying investment pieces that
are not going to be outdated in a few months' time. It's having
a wardrobe that will support your lifestyle.'
She'll take you shopping too - serious
shopping - at $80 per hour. 'It's totally different from going with
a girlfriend. We'll be extremely focused, targeting definite purchases.
We can cram more into a day that way, or even an hour. I can leave
them in one shop paying, while I go on to the next place, sourcing
the next thing. Some just want to take me for instructional purposes,
not necessarily to buy but to ask me, why wouldn't you recommend
this, why would you choose that ? We can achieve a lot in a
Some long-standing clients simply trust her to
shop for them - easy when she knows exactly what's in their wardrobe.
'They'll say, "I've got a big occasion coming up. Can you get me
a top to go with that skirt we bought last year?'
Of course, shopping and men don't necessarily
mix. 'I usually shop without my male clients as they don't want
to do it for too long. I'll often have choices set out in various
shops before they even get there, so they don't have to spend too
much time trying things on. I shocked a male client the other day
by asking if he could start before 3.30 because the shops would
close at 5.30. He guffawed and said, "I've never been shopping for
two hours in my life !"'
As we chatted she had a boot-load of men's clothes
'on appro' in her car, ready to be taken to someone for approval
that evening - that way he didn't have to even set foot in a shop
So what are the classic pieces we all need? 'It
comes down to your lifestyle. Obviously, if you're a woman spending
a lot of time playing golf you may not need a lot of party clothes.
If you often go out at night, you'll need more special-occasion
'But I still think, whatever your age, a good
neutral suit is useful, whether with a skirt or trouser. You can
dress it up or down - adding a sparkly top or brocade jacket for
going out in the evening. You want every one of your garments working
with something else so that you don't have heaps of things you never
'From what I've seen, most of us wear 10 per cent
of our clothes 90 per cent of the time. It's better to aim for an
80 percent of the wardrobe being worn 20 per cent of the time. 'If
you continually put on something and then take it off because you
hate it, there's no point in putting it back. Get rid of it. It's
amazing how little you do really need.'
So is her own wardrobe edited to an elegant minimum?
She rocks back in her seat, laughing. 'No! I'm like the plumber
with leaky taps. I do have my favourites, but every now and again
I think I must find time to go through the rest.'
Style Tips for Women
'All my female clients are very aware of their
body flaws,' says Susan. 'Usually within a few seconds of meeting
me, they're rattling off their flaws. It's sad to see that lack
of confidence and their amazing awareness of what they think is
wrong with them. I can show them how to minimise their problem areas
and bring all the attention to their lovely features.'
Here's some of her style wisdom:
- Be willing to have clothes altered for better fit. Consider,
for instance, changing the buttons, slipping in shoulder pads,
wearing a better bra. 'Ninety to 95 per cent of my clients' clothes
get altered after purchase. Our population isn't big enough to
have a huge range and it can make the world of difference. Unless
a garment fits properly it will never feel great and women think,
sadly, it's only their body that's the problem when in actual
fact everyone has that problem.'
- You don't have to buy designer labels to look good. 'Chain stores
are fine - we don't have to go to the top end of the market. I
once had a client with a whole suitcase full of European garments
and they were so wrong for her. She said, 'Don't you realise
I've got $20,000 worth of clothes here? She'd spent a huge amount
of money and not got the right effect, while some people can buy
very inexpensively and look great.'
- If you're older, best not to display that fleshy fold between
upper arm and bust. A little cap sleeve is more flattering than
cutting into the skin with a halter neck as teenagers do. Susan
adds, 'Even some 18-year-olds can't wear them well either."
- Got good legs? Show them off. 'As women get older they think
their skirts have to go longer, but if they're small in stature
a long skirt will only make them look shorter. That's not to say
your skirts should be mid-thigh, but they can still be on or just
below the knee cap and look really good.'
- Don't try to hide extra weight by wearing extra-large clothes.
'It makes you look like a person in a tent. Much more flattering
to wear clothes that skim your frame.'
Every woman needs.
JAZZY ACCESSORIES 'A fabulous scarf or a big chunky
necklace need not be expensive but can look terrific. Buy your basic
wardrobe and then concentrate on the other things - your hair, skin
care, makeup, glasses frames (sunglasses or reading glasses), bags
GREAT HAIR 'Your number one accessory. You can
get away with the same pair of black trousers four days a week but
if you've not got your hair well cut and styled, then you're not
making the most of yourself.
SMART SKIN CARE 'I personally don't put major
money into cleansers or toners. I think a day sun-block is important,
and a good night cream (not forgetting the throat), and an eye cream
applied very gently. Press with a light fingertip, don't rub it
in. I don't put much money into makeup because it just comes off
at the end of the day. It has to be the right colour for you, but
doesn't need to be expensive.'
SUBTLE MAKEUP 'Remember that as we get older some
makeup doesn't work for us. We can't wear lip glosses because they'll
bleed into fine lines. The most important thing is good eyebrow
shaping. Keep eye makeup really subtle and natural. Use mascara
but avoid dark eyeliner and put colour onto the lips instead. You
don't want heavily emphasized eyes as well as lips.'
Ahem - mind those hems!
Best to avoid:
- Sleeves cropped to the same level as the fullest part of the
- Jackets or shirts that stop at the fullest part of the thigh
- Trousers that end at the widest part of the calf.
Why? Any horizontal line leads the eye sideways,
so fabrics hemmed at our widest parts make them look even broader.
Style Tips for Men
Men don't complain about their looks the way women
do,' Susan observes. 'They never talk about their body flaws, it's
more, "I've just got a promotion, so I'd better have a few new suits
and X-number of shirts and three ties". They're more decisive. They
know they have to do it and just want it done as soon as possible.
'It's a totally different attitude. There's no
agonizing over it. A lot of women will put an outfit aside and think
about it overnight before they buy, whereas men just get out the
card and away they go.
If you're a bloke with a tired wardrobe, here
are some maintenance tips:
- Don't think that because you wear a suit only once a year you
can keep on bringing out the same suit year after year. 'It will
look like a 15-year-old suit, even if it hasn't worn out.'
- Buy new, better-fitting garments if you gain or lose weight.
'If you put on weight, your old trousers won't fit properly. They'll
be set too low, with the tummy hanging over the front. Losing
weight can mean that your jackets hang off you, which also looks
- Get rid of faded old casual gear. 'Things like polo shirts and
sweatshirts do get jaded and lose their colour over time. Men
tend to keep them for too long.'
- Single-breasted suits are best for most men. 'Unless you're
very slim and are prepared to have the jacket done up all the
time, it doesn't look too good.'
- Good haircuts are essential. 'Often men don't have it cut often
enough, especially older ones who aren't so keen about using product
on their hair to keep it in shape. Luckily we don't see too many
comb-over styles now on bald heads! Some are going for the total
head shave, of course, but you've got to have a well-shaped head
and good ears to get away with that look.'