Help at hand with a style makeover

Personal shoppers as marriage counsellors - it sounds distinctly odd but there is no doubt that these professional fashionistas can occasionally have a real effect on relationships.

Help at hand with a style makeover
Property manager Megan Lamont gets some top tips about what to wear from personal shopper Jacinda Lilly. 
Photo / Janna Dixon

Like the personal image consultant who unknowingly ended up shopping for a man's wife and his mistress.

Both had commented on the makeover idea to the husband after separately watching one of the many TV shows of that genre.

"The lover was the feminine sort so there was lots of lace, frills, very pretty, girly," the consultant said. The wife, some 10 years her senior, had sunk into the "sloppy brigade", and her physical self-confidence was low.

"She was a very attractive woman, but it was hidden." The consultant helped her feel womanly again and dress accordingly; the marriage revived and the lover departed the scene.

Then there was the woman who, her self-esteem bolstered by feeling good about herself after a consultant's ministrations, slept with her husband for the first time in months, re-energising their marriage.

However, most of the good works done by personal shoppers or personal image consultants centre on a specialised branch of "retail therapy" as opposed to couples' therapy. Like Megan Lamont, who needs some new summer clothes. In the past, this would have been a fraught matter.

She'd try for adventurous, but Lamont, a petite 37-year-old property manager and mother-of-three, would always find herself buying the same old, or wrong things. It's Christmas party season and she only has one dress - it cost a small fortune and she never wears it. "I'm a sucker for a salesman," she says ruefully.

But this time she has Jacinda Lilly, a personal shopper, at her side. This time, there will be no mistakes. Decisively, serenely, Lilly leads Lamont around Auckland's Westfield St Lukes Mall. She's already figured out Lamont's best colours and her "body line and style" - garment cuts and lengths that best suit her figure - and made a recce of the stores.

First stop: Stax. Lilly methodically scans the racks and pulls out a red lacy dress. Lamont tries it on. It ticks all the boxes and looks gorgeous but Lamont's put off by the plunging neckline. Next, Kimberleys. Lamont picks up a white skirt, checks Lilly's face, which registers gentle disapproval. "Too white?"


A red polka-dot dress? Lilly: "I'd love that on you if it was a different colour."

They push on. By the morning's end, Lamont has checked most of her shopping list, and, most importantly, feels confident in her purchases. "If I'm going to spend money, I want to spend it well."

Welcome to the world of personal image professionals. Myths abound in this sometimes loopy-sounding territory, so let's debunk a few.

Myth number one

Personal shoppers, more commonly and grandly known as image consultants, made famous by a gaggle of blistering makeover TV shows, are reserved for the rich and fabulous and for ladies who lunch. 

In fact, it's often the ladies - and gentlemen - who have neither the time nor dosh for lunch who are paying experts to show them how to get the biggest, and most flattering, bang for their bucks.

"It's regular people," says Lilly, a trained teacher who started her business Imago Dei earlier this year after retraining in the field.

Susan Axford has been in the sartorial fairy godmother business for 10 years.

"It's become more acceptable to seek help in different areas of your life... We're all so busy now. We can't be experts on everything," she says.

Mary Cox helped introduce New Zealanders to what she calls image development 25 years ago. She says after a 10-year lull, the industry is rebounding. "Image is coming back. People have forgotten how to buy quality clothes, how to shop within a budget, they want more value for money. People are tiring of the casual look."

Leonie Dobbs, a Wellington consultant with 11 years' experience, agrees. Basic grooming and style nous that used to be passed down by grandmothers, she says, have been lost (muffin tops and visible panty lines, anyone?).

People who hire personal image consultants range from 20-somethings wanting to look the part for their first real job, to mums wanting to focus on themselves after years of focusing on others, to septuagenarians seeking a little je ne sais quoi. Guided by clients' budget and taste, a good personal shopper will scour the rag trade, from op shops to bespoke tailors.

Hair, make-up, accessories, glasses and, sometimes, things such as comportment and handshake firmness are scrutinised.

Of course, some clients are celebrities. Axford won't name names but has arranged for stores to open out of hours for high-profile clients who don't want to be photographed with a personal shopper.

Myth number two

Personal shoppers are glorified rent-a-girlfriends. Axford: "It's very different from taking your girlfriend out for a wander around the shops."

However, the past few years have seen a proliferation of people promoting themselves as image consultants without any formal training. Cox heads the New Zealand Federation of Image Consultants, a one-year-old body that aims to set standards and safeguard credibility. So far, it has only 20 members and some non-members, such as Axford, are well-trained, so it's not the sine qua non in personal shopping, but it helps.

Some of the New Zealand schools and courses Cox endorses: Beauty Spa and Wellbeing (her own school), New Zealand Fashion Academy, Colours and Harmony, Colour Me Beautiful, and Dobbs' Style Studio.

Expect to pay about $90 an hour for personal shopping (with or without the client present), about $300-$400 for colour and style assessments and you can usually get discounts for package or group deals.

Myth number three

Kiwi blokes don't care about the way they look. Almost a third of Axford's clients are male. "I often get men who are divorced and previously their wives shopped for them because they've always been too busy ... "

Other men can be new to a city and need help to navigate the shops. They also care about how their women look - such as the man who engaged a consultant to shop, unknowingly, for both the wife and the mistress.

Myth number four

All women love shopping. "I haven't had one of my hundreds of clients walk in to my studio and say 'I like shopping'."

Maybe they find the miles of racks and barrage of magazine advice bewildering. Maybe they've been burned by costly past mistakes. Probably, no matter what figure they have, they have body issues.

"Women think when they go shopping and they can't find anything that fits it's because their body is wrong... but it's just that the manufacturers make for a general idea, which few of us match perfectly."

Axford estimates she has close to 80 per cent of the clothes she buys with clients altered. "I've bought for a client a size 10 and a size 16, on the one morning."

Larger women are confronted with skinny sales assistants and ranges that don't even go up to their size. Lilly describes a client who has been reduced to tears by a shopping mall. "For some people, shopping is overwhelming and intimidating. They don't know where to start."

Myth number five

Makeovers are only cotton-deep. Makerita, a 38-year-old family therapist and plus-size, always hated clothes shopping. She hired Lilly to help her update her wardrobe for a new job. "I've always been a confident person but I was always self-conscious about what I was wearing. I'm more myself now because I'm not worried about it any more."

Last week, she went shopping solo for the first time since her excursion with Lilly. Success: a top that drew compliments at her Christmas party. "I was like, yeah!"

Predictably, image consultants talk about the importance of first impressions (research on how attractiveness boosts your chances of getting a job, lover, raise, etc).

Beyond appearance, they enthuse about empowering clients with the tools to take control of not only their image and self-confidence, but their holistic wellbeing.

Says Dodds: "It's all about getting back to who you are and loving who you are."

She describes a woman in her early 40s who, post-makeover, had sex with her husband for the first time in months. "Her husband was finally taking notice of her because she was dressing like a woman, not a tent, and she had accepted her body was lovable."


  • Wait until you're fully dressed to look in the dressing room mirror, if you look in it at all. The lighting and close quarters generally do few favours for anyone. Bigger mirrors in the ante-chamber or shop are truer.
  • Don't be a fashion slave. Susan Axford: "Just because it's 'in' fashion, doesn't mean you have to be in it."
  • Buy what looks good on you, not your mate or a model, and trust your first impressions. Axford: "If you have to talk yourself into it, it's usually wrong."
  • Accessories in your true eye colour (not your assumed one, check in the mirror) will make you look healthier.
  • Match the curve of your shoe toes with the curve of your chin or jaw line for a balanced look.
  • To minimise the appearance of a large bust, avoid sleeves that end at the bustline.
  • To minimise bulges, choose loose fabrics but avoid shapeless "tents" - as they'll only make you look bigger.
  • Base your size on your largest measurement and take in clothes where they don't fit.
  • Plan your wardrobe for maximum mix-and-match capacity, and stay focused. Axford: "You don't need many clothes, but the clothes you have must look superb on you."

- Sources: Susan Axford, Leonie Dobbs and Jacinda Lilly

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