Is hav­ing a sig­na­ture style re­ally im­por­tant, asks Sharon Stephen­son

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Is hav­ing a sig­na­ture style re­ally im­por­tant, asks Sharon Stephen­son

The leather skirt was short, tight and so blingy it was prob­a­bly vis­i­ble from space. It was also the kind of gar­ment that finds favour with ladies of the night and anorexic teenagers.

Ex­cept this was the kind of store fre­quented by overBo­toxed women with im­pres­sive den­tistry who had nowhere else to be at 11am on a Tues­day. So I threw a month’s mort­gage at the but­tery soft skirt, only to find when I got home that: a) it made me look like Danny DeVito’s older, uglier sis­ter, and b) it didn’t go with any­thing in my wardrobe.

And so it’s been ever since some­one was silly enough to give me a credit card. I’ve wan­dered lonely through the com­plex maze of fash­ion, get­ting bat­tered by every new trend, never find­ing a place to call home.

A for­mer col­league, prob­a­bly the most stylish wo­man I’ve ever met, asked me once why I bought clothes for a life I wasn’t liv­ing.

She, damn her, was clever enough to work out what suited her at an early age and will­ingly sur­ren­dered her­self to the god of tai­lored sep­a­rates. She also re­jected large chunks of the colour wheel, pre­fer­ring a pal­ette of black, white, grey and navy.

You may call my col­league bor­ing, but she had dis­cov­ered fash­ion’s Holy Grail, a sig­na­ture style, and stayed loyal to it. Once, at a party at her house, I strayed into her closet, which was like a mono­chrome branch of Ar­mani; I wanted to move in.

“It’s ob­vi­ously not vi­tal to our con­tin­ued sur­vival as a hu­man race, but it’s use­ful to know what you’re try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate to the world every time you get dressed,” she said to me on yet an­other morn­ing I ar­rived at work dressed more as fash­ion road-kill than run­way-ready.

The mes­sage I am ob­vi­ously send­ing to the planet is that my wardrobe is a schiz­o­phrenic pur­ga­tory where ill-ad­vised trends and buyer’s re­morse go to chill. Where a Stella McCart­ney top I al­most lost a limb for at a sale rubs coat-hang­ers with a should-have-seen-the-in­sid­eof-a-rub­bish-bin-years-ago Glas­ton­bury T-shirt. There’s a boho dress that grabbed me by the throat years ago and re­fused to let go and a del­i­cate beaded cardi­gan that hasn’t quite evaded the call of the moth.

If I’m hon­est, most of my clothes look as though they were pur­chased by some­one with se­verely com­pro­mised eye­sight.

Which is some­thing of which Suzanne Fa­hey could never be ac­cused. The Welling­ton im­age con­sul­tant has been cov­er­ing peo­ple’s naked­ness for the past 15 or so years and has yet to meet some­one she couldn’t dress.

“A sig­na­ture style is a way of dress­ing your­self that ex­presses your per­son­al­ity, what­ever that might be,” says Fa­hey. “At its most ba­sic level, it’s about be­ing clear about who you are, what you love and the kind of clothes and ac­ces­sories that re­al­is­ti­cally fit your life­style.”

It doesn’t, how­ever, mean that you have to stand out or wear the same thing every day of your life. In fact, dare to men­tion the B or U words and Fa­hey will laugh in your face.

“A sig­na­ture style isn’t a uni­form and it sure as heck isn’t about be­ing bor­ing or in a rut. It can be as sim­ple as a well-cut suit or preppy-style chi­nos and a but­ton-down shirt, but what it does is help de­fine your iden­tity and your place in the world.”

You don’t have to look far to find peo­ple who’ve made this for­mula work. Steve Jobs was ad­dicted to black polo necks, Anna Win­tour has rocked the same hair­style since she was 14 and Au­drey Hep­burn adored striped Bre­ton tops. More re­cently, Kate Moss (skinny black jeans) and Sofia Cop­pola (but­ton-down shirts and bal­let flats) have found — and stuck to — their sig­na­ture look.

Here in New Zealand, Ju­dith Barag­wanath has flown the sig­na­ture style flag for more years than she cares to re­mem­ber. Hers is a

dis­tinctly mas­cu­line sil­hou­ette which goes heavy on men’s busi­ness suits, army and navy sur­plus coats and shirts, jodh­purs (her two pairs pre-date World War II), Doc Martens, Ray­bans and dark lip­stick which, con­trary to pop­u­lar opin­ion, is brown rather than black.

Barag­wanath, who’s lived on Wai­heke Is­land since 1994, ad­mits it took some time to nail her cur­rent look.

“I went from Vic­to­rian pet­ti­coats and tail­coats in the early 70s to mod­ern mas­cu­line later be­cause I looked at blokes and thought, they look all right and they don’t have to change their whole wardrobe every sea­son, whereas women are on a ham­ster wheel — and an ex­pen­sive one — year in and year out. It’s com­plete mad­ness.”

Far from be­ing a slave to fash­ion, Barag­wanath set­tled upon good ba­sics that don’t date and tarted them up with strings of paua and pearls and old sil­ver cut­lery worn as brooches. She laughs at the mem­ory of pin­ning a fox tail to the seat of her pants, once all the rage.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, she’s a cheer­leader for hav­ing a sig­na­ture style, not least be­cause of how much time and money it saves. “There’s no in­de­ci­sion or flap­ping around for hours de­cid­ing what to wear. It’s on and I’m gone in 60 sec­onds.”

Not once to mince words, Barag­wanath wishes oth­ers would fol­low suit: “It’s be­yond me why women don’t know what suits their colour­ing and frame by a cer­tain age and then stick to it for the long haul. It’s just com­mon sense that seems to fly out the win­dow when­ever some ghastly new trend made of crappy cloth rears up and flaunts it­self, de­mand­ing to be worn by those who re­ally should know bet­ter.”

Her ad­vice is equally blunt: “Ladies, look in the mir­ror. Se­ri­ously. Front, back and don’t for­get the side view. Be hon­est with your­self and then get your arse to a good tai­lor. Trust me, your bum will in­stantly look smaller”.

Auck­land style coach and blog­ger Caitlin Tay­lor ap­plauds Barag­wanath but says it’s okay to not have a sig­na­ture style.

“Of course it’s good to know what you like and what suits you but that doesn’t mean you have to be­come a one-trick pony or be afraid to try some­thing new,” says Tay­lor, who has worked in the fash­ion in­dus­try for 15 years, five of those as a stylist.

“Style for me is an ex­ter­nal ex­pres­sion of in­ner con­fi­dence, so if you feel amaz­ing in some­thing then wear it and rules be damned! Un­like a lot of other stylists I would never tell a client what not to wear. I’m a firm be­liever that any­one can wear al­most any­thing, it’s all about how they wear it,” says Tay­lor, who de­scribes her own style as fem­i­nine, edgy and re­laxed.

That means fo­cus­ing on your good bits, down­play­ing the not so good bits and us­ing that to de­velop your own style.

“Dress­ing well is all about know­ing your body shape and recog­nis­ing the cut of clothes that suit your body.” For ex­am­ple, if you’re an hour­glass (think Scar­lett Jo­hann­son, whose hips and bust are roughly the same size but with a nar­row waist) then you’ll prob­a­bly want to high­light your waist with a fit­ted dress or belt, or maybe even use a cropped or fit­ted jacket to bring in the waist from the sides, ad­vises Tay­lor. Pear-shaped women, whose hips and rear are wider than their waist and bust might want to bring a sense of bal­ance to their frames — i.e. mak­ing the bot­tom half look smaller by draw­ing at­ten­tion up and to the shoul­ders. “All the off-the-shoul­der styles around right now are per­fect for pears,” says Tay­lor. Should you hap­pen to be that other fruit-re­lated shape, a bust-heavy ap­ple, make use of long neck­laces, scarves or open jack­ets to cre­ate a ver­ti­cal line down your body, which min­imises a larger top half. “If you’re a tall and lanky col­umn, then lucky you, you’ll look good in a pa­per bag,” laughs Tay­lor. Some­times, though, col­umns can be long in the body and short in the legs. “By wear­ing a top or blouse tucked into pants or a skirt, you give the il­lu­sion that your waist starts higher up, mak­ing your legs look longer.” Work­ing this stuff out does, of course, in­volve be­ing truth­ful about your body. “Once you ac­cept the fact you’re not 6ft tall with Elle McPher­son’s legs, you’ll never again have to buy a cer­tain pair of shorts and won­der why they don’t look right,” says Fa­hey. “Com­ing to terms with your body shape means un­der­stand­ing the type of styles that work, which should make the en­tire shop­ping and dress­ing process more plea­sur­able and save you time and money.” Fol­low­ing the path to style’s sunny up­lands also means not get­ting hung up on the lat­est trends, which are gen­er­ally shift­ing and un­pre­dictable. “As Heidi Klum likes to say, ‘In fash­ion, one day you’re in, and the next day you’re out’,” Fa­hey says. “My ad­vice is not to worry about the next big thing, but to wear what makes you feel good.” Which is, of course, the key to achiev­ing a sig­na­ture style. “If a look suits you and you love it and feel con­fi­dent wear­ing it, then con­grat­u­la­tions, you’ve won the style lot­tery.” All of which qual­i­fies as some kind of happy end­ing. And yet I’m still not sure I feel grown up enough to have a sig­na­ture style. And maybe I never will. Which could ex­plain my wardrobe’s mul­ti­ple per­son­al­ity dis­or­der. But it’s the place I go for my daily joy fix, where I can dress ac­cord­ing to how­ever I’m feel­ing on any given morn­ing. And if that in­cludes a strip­per-es­que leather skirt, then so be it ...



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