Confessions of a Stylist: 5 Myths, Busted*

by Tracy James


One of the things I set out to do when beginning my career as a wardrobe stylist almost 16 years ago was to dispel the myth that a stylist was a luxury only afforded by celebrities or wealthy people. Thanks to stylist-to-the-stars Rachel Zoe, who has made a name for herself dressing A-list clients and having her own TV show, the general public now knows what the heck a wardrobe stylist is. However Zoe has not done much to promote the image of a stylist as accessible to all, as the majority of people don’t spend their lives walking red carpets. I wanted to be - and believe I have become - a “real world stylist," if you will: approachable, non-pretentious, and accomodating to clients from all walks of life. In my view, just as not everyone has a knack for decorating their home - so they call in an interior decorator, nor does everyone have a green thumb for making their yard bloom - so they employ a landscaper, so should those who lack the skills or desire to put together an appealing wardrobe be able to seek style assistance. In order to reach that audience, I have to continually banish assumptions. Here are the top 5 myths about stylists that I hear most often.   


Myth 1: Stylists only buy the most expensive brands.
“I’m sure you only wear designer clothing."

Even if I made Rachel Zoe money, I wouldn’t exclusively buy designer clothing. I am brand conscious in the sense that certain ones tend to fit my shape better than others, but I would never select an item solely based on the brand. And I loathe blatant logos. Take one walk down Rodeo Drive and you will see that money doesn’t buy taste. What matters more than how much you pay for your clothing is how you outfit pieces together. As my July Style Icon, fashion industry legend Arlene Goldstein, said, “It’s all in the mix.” Like Goldstein, in my closet you will find high and low end: Topshop next to Theory, H & M next to Helmut Lang and so on. What is fun for me is to observe designer looks, whether in magazines or on runways, and then reinterpret them for my own lifestyle, figure and budget.

My proportions certainly aren’t the same as Victoria’s Secret model Alessandra Ambrósio, nor is my pocketbook (her Gianvito Rossi sandals alone are $1,095), but that didn’t stop me from loving her summer street style. From my existing wardrobe, I pulled items to emulate the look, but make more sense for my lifestyle: Instead of a genuine suede mini skirt, faux suede shorts from Fabrik Homewood. American Rag jacket (Macy’s); Fabrik v-neck tank; Charming Charlie fringe bag; Stella & Dot stud earrings, aviator shades and long necklace; Banana Republic crystal cuff; Seiko watch (my late father’s); Charlotte Russe leopard wedges.

My proportions certainly aren’t the same as Victoria’s Secret model Alessandra Ambrósio, nor is my pocketbook (her Gianvito Rossi sandals alone are $1,095), but that didn’t stop me from loving her summer street style. From my existing wardrobe, I pulled items to emulate the look, but make more sense for my lifestyle: Instead of a genuine suede mini skirt, faux suede shorts from Fabrik Homewood. American Rag jacket (Macy’s); Fabrik v-neck tank; Charming Charlie fringe bag; Stella & Dot stud earrings, aviator shades and long necklace; Banana Republic crystal cuff; Seiko watch (my late father’s); Charlotte Russe leopard wedges.

When clients lament that they love but cannot afford designer duds, I encourage them to use those styles as inspiration to create their own "looks for less.” That said, as I’ve aged and feel less obliged to follow every fashion trend, I make an effort to choose quality over quantity. Tommy Hilfiger hit the nail on the head when he said, "Quality always wins. If you're wearing something of incredible quality it will outshine any trend, any fashion idea, and anything that's funky or groovy."

While I loved the 2-piece Tibi ensemble ($625) on the left, a midi length skirt isn’t flattering to my petite stature, and a strapless cropped top not practical for everyday wear. So I was delighted when I found a dress (in Petite sizing no less!) with a similar feel at the LOFT Outlet for $19. I wear it to beat the Alabama heat while running around town, therefore pair it with my comfortable Qupid wedges from Fabrik Homewood.

While I loved the 2-piece Tibi ensemble ($625) on the left, a midi length skirt isn’t flattering to my petite stature, and a strapless cropped top not practical for everyday wear. So I was delighted when I found a dress (in Petite sizing no less!) with a similar feel at the LOFT Outlet for $19. I wear it to beat the Alabama heat while running around town, therefore pair it with my comfortable Qupid wedges from Fabrik Homewood.


Myth 2: Stylists have no fit issues.
“You’re small so you look good in anything.”

At 5’1", I am below the national average of 5’4”, and shy runway stature by almost a foot. I’m pretty sure that my legs are the same length as Giselle Bundchen’s torso.

At 5’1” (if you round up, and I hope you will), I have my own fit challenges, so can easily relate to the myriad of style issues my clients report facing. I find that monochromatic dressing lengthens my petite frame, so I decided to try pattern from head to toe with this Free People jumpsuit. Stella & Dot cuff and earrings; Cordani sandals.

At 5’1” (if you round up, and I hope you will), I have my own fit challenges, so can easily relate to the myriad of style issues my clients report facing. I find that monochromatic dressing lengthens my petite frame, so I decided to try pattern from head to toe with this Free People jumpsuit. Stella & Dot cuff and earrings; Cordani sandals.

Some assume that just because I am small, I can wear anything. Consider that the average fit model (the bodies upon which clothing sizes are based) is 5’7” and a size 6. If that is your size, congratulations, you are in the tiny percentage of the population who can successfully wear off the rack. The rest of us have to take proportion into consideration, and either strategically mix our pieces, invest in alterations, or both. Proper fit is absolutely key to looking polished, but it doesn’t always come easy. From my mentor Tim Gunn I have borrowed the phrase, “Make it work!” Looking great is, after all, a bit of eye trickery. The idea is to camouflage those parts of our body we’re not crazy about, and accentuate those aspects we do like about ourselves. Have killer legs? Wear more skirts and shorts. Love your collarbone? Highlight it with boatneck tops. As a “super petite,” I find I am best flattered in hem lengths above my knee, shoes with at least 2 inches of heel, pants no shorter than my ankle bone, and sleeve lengths no longer than my wrist bone; and I avoid ruffles and bows lest I resemble the 12-year-old girl whose height I mirror.    


Myth 3: Stylists follow fashion rules.
“I bet you never make fashion faux-pas.”

In our current “anything goes” fashion world, what IS a fashion faux-pas these days anyway? Those who know me well know that I usually roll with the motto, “It is better to ask forgiveness than permission.” Rule following isn’t my strong suit. When advising clients, I might invoke guidelines, but I never use the word “rule.” In fact, in my typical wardrobe seminar for businesses, I have a whole segment based upon antiquated fashion rules now meant to be broken - like wearing white only between Memorial Day and Labor Day (see the addendum following this article) or avoiding color combinations like pink & red or black & navy. I’m not a proponent of limitations when it comes to creativity, especially when it comes to personal style. I must admit that when a new client tells me that according to her Color Me Beautiful chart circa 1996, she is a “Winter” and can only wear certain colors, I roll my eyes (but on the inside of course…most of the time). I’m a fan of wearing what makes you happy. Love yellow despite the fact it’s not on your color wheel? Wear it! Want to wear white in December? Go for it! Finding one’s personal style is achieved though channeling one’s authentic self, so avoid censorship.


Myth 4: Stylists never make fashion mistakes.
“I’m sure you never have buyers remorse."

Sometimes when I get undressed at the end of a day, I think, “Wow, that outfit was an epic fail. Thank goodness I never have to wear it again!” And therein lies the beauty: fashion is not permanent. If anything, it is a lifelong experiment. I give myself, and my clients, permission to constantly evolve. While I admit it is rare (thanks to years of experience), I do from time to time make fashion mistakes. And guess what? That doesn’t make me a bad person or stylist. Give yourself a break! Buying mistakes are all part of the learning process, whether you’ve stepped a bit too far out of your comfort zone with a particular garment or played it too safe and brought home something exactly like ten other things in your closet. Analyze your mistake so you can avoid making the same mistake twice, then move on. To keep your closet clutter free of such items, I recommend keeping nearby a bag for giveaways. If you put something on then take it off for whatever reason, into the bag it goes. When my bag fills up, I take it to my local charity bin. Comedienne Rita Rudner once joked, “The saleslady told me the dress looked better on. So I took it home and put it on and I wondered, ‘Looks better on what? On fire?'"  

Yes, even I make purchase mistakes. Like this Topshop vest bought in a Magnificent Mile shopping frenzy during a trip to Chicago. After trying it out in a few outfit combinations, I realized that, alas, it was not the couture lookalike I hoped it was. Moving on!

Yes, even I make purchase mistakes. Like this Topshop vest bought in a Magnificent Mile shopping frenzy during a trip to Chicago. After trying it out in a few outfit combinations, I realized that, alas, it was not the couture lookalike I hoped it was. Moving on!


Myth 5: Stylists are judgmental of the fashion choices of others.
“I didn’t know I’d run into you today; don’t look at what I’m wearing!”

I truly hate the fact that some people feel the need to greet me with a disclaimer: “Oh my gosh I just threw this on to run errands, you must think I look awful!” Actually, Suzy Q, I was thinking how nice it is to see you. Sigh. Contrary to the belief of some, I do not have a filter through which I see everyone with black bars over their eyes. (Also, see Myth #4.) If asked to critique, I can certainly shift into that mode and do so. Otherwise, I’m “off the clock,” so to speak. In a similar vein, I don’t expect my style to be your style. A prospective client once asked me, “How do I know you aren’t going to try to make me look just like you?” To which I retorted, “My style is MY style, you can’t have it! You’ve got your own and we will find it!” Part of my job is to help people find their best selves and learn how to communicate to the world that self through his or her style choices, even if those are choices I wouldn’t make for myself. 

*As published in B-Metro Magazine, August 2016.

Addendum: The Memorial Day to Labor Day Limitation on Wearing White is an Antiquated Notion

Here's why: in the old days, families had coal-burning furnaces in their homes. These heating systems emitted tiny bits of soot into the air, which would make light or white clothing appear grayed and dingy. So when the furnace was turned on - which in some parts of the country was around Labor Day - those particular clothing items were moved to the back of the closet. When It was time to turn the furnace off for the season, which was around Memorial Day at the latest, that clothing could come back out to play. Therefore, unless you're still running a coal-burning furnace, in which case I think you might have more trouble with the EPA than the Fashion Police, you're good to go wearing white anytime of year as long as it's temperature appropriate.