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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 clients.

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 short time.'

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 at all.

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 pieces.

'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 wear.

'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 and shoes.'

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 bust.
  • 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 bad.'
  • 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.'
 

"Thanks very much for your assistance today - I am really pleased with what we bought. It was a good reminder that, despite carrying some additional weight, I can still look and feel great by having the right clothes."

- Liz, Mt Maunganui


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