get smart!

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 February, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 February, 1997, 12:00am

FIONNUALA: ONE night last summer, I was having dinner with a woman friend in the Hong Kong Club. The temperature always seems to hover around freezing in there, as if the exhaled breath of all those dead colonisers is blowing down one's spine, and I was wearing a sleeveless dress. (Isaac Mizrahi, from the Joyce sale, wildly expensive but I thought I was the bee's knees in it.) So I casually but very stylishly slung on a pale blue, cashmere wrap ... OK, it was a cardigan, but it was a nice cardigan and my teeth were beginning to rattle.

My friend glanced over and said: 'You know, you really should try and look more ... available. Look at you, that's the sort of thing grannies wear. And that dress does nothing for you except make you look older. Sorry to be the one to say this, but it's true. You've got to make more of an effort to be trendy, and not look quite so ... old-fashioned.' Then she told me that her children had head lice and as I'd been in contact with them a few days previously, we had to do a quick head inspection in the Hong Kong Club loos, and what with one thing and another it was definitely the sort of night I won't forget in a hurry.

About a week later (I remember because I was still at the stage where I was obliged to smear my scalp with preventative green chemicals from the Adventist), the editor of this esteemed magazine rang up in some excitement. She'd seen an advertisement in Dollarsaver placed by a woman who promised to change people's images by overhauling their wardrobes, thereby turning them into 'living human treasures'. 'It's perfect for you,' she commanded. 'Go and check it out.' WELL, you know how it is. I was still licking my wounds over the 'old-fashioned' remark, and feeling a little raw. Weeks passed. Eventually, the editorial edict thundered forth again, and thus it came to pass that Linda Smart, wardrobe overhauler and image consultant, came to call on me.

Naturally I live in a flat the size of a microdot, which means that each morning in order to open my wardrobe door I have to stand on the bed. I thought this might not look too cool in front of Linda, but she immediately kicked off her shoes, climbed onto the duvet with me and we peered into the depths companionably.

'Hmmm, hmmm,' she said. 'A lot of beige. And black. Most people have a neutral foundation and they build around that. Which are your favourites? Do you wear this when you're doing interviews or when you're going out in the evening? What's the goal here?' I said that I thought maybe I'd like to try and look a bit more, cough, cough, available. Linda nodded kindly and said 'Drop-dead gorgeous. OK. You've got to have a focus when you go out shopping. You should never buy something unless you've got something to wear it with. For instance, what do you wear all these skirts with?' Good question. I have a terrible habit of buying skirts as separates and then puzzling over what on earth I can wear with them - shirts leave a lumpy line when you tuck them in, I hate the idea of body-suits and there's a limit to the number of jackets a girl can own. So when I wear a skirt it's always as part of a suit, of which I have enough to last me until the millennium.

Linda threatened to become ruthless. 'If you've got things hanging up here after six months, you should liberate them,' she declared. 'Throw them out! If you haven't worn it, it's for a reason.' But those skirts cost a fortune, I said feebly, and I like them. We compromised by agreeing that when we went out shopping, we'd look for some matching tops.

According to the Smart theory of dressing, there are four categories of women: chic, elegant, glamorous and spicy. 'Audrey Hepburn was chic, that's a cosmopolitan, working look. Jackie Kennedy was elegant, there's a bit more aloofness there, a veneer. Elizabeth Taylor is glamorous, so is Pamela Anderson. Glamour is never quite classy. And spicy is when a woman is erupting, not constrained. Julia Roberts is spicy. Now, what do you think you are?' I said, in a quite a small voice, that I've always wanted to be Audrey Hepburn. I know it's very sad - she's dead, her heyday of gorgeousness was 30 years ago and she was at least 25 centimetres taller and a six kilograms lighter than I am - but there you have it. 'Oh, that's fine,' replied Linda. 'You can take the idea of Audrey and play with it, update it. It sounds as if part of you wants to be more outrageous. In your own way, you can be a femme fatale.' As proof of her perspicacity, I showed Linda my Anna Molinari groovy leopard-print shoes which live in a box at the foot of my bed. Occasionally, I take them out, look at them lovingly, wonder when I'm going to wear them, and then wrap them up in tissue-paper again. There are nine other shoe boxes alongside (that's not counting the 10 pairs of less lovely shoes for day-to-day life), plus a variety of matching bags folded in cloth. Linda said that I was obviously an accessories girl and that I had no problem in that department.

But she did say that I was too small to wear geometric prints, that I should get some of my shirts taken in because they didn't fit properly under the arms, that getting things altered was very easy in Hong Kong but Westerners never seemed to bother, which was a shame, and that I should liberate a couple of silk tops from Episode which I haven't worn for two years. Also a suit, the deadly shoulder pads of which contravened the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty.

A COUPLE of days later, we arranged to meet at Giorgio Armani. Linda knows that quality clothing counts. 'It's surprising how many women say they haven't been into Joyce or Armani. I tell them to go and get a feel for how things look, and not to be intimidated by sales staff. Very often women who come to Hong Kong are overwhelmed - the local stores use a lot of synthetics and don't have large sizes and so the expat women go into a state of shock.' Linda herself came out here in 1990 with a garment wholesaler, having been a fashion buyer in London. (She was then called Linda Snart but wisely changed a letter.) She eventually set up her own tailoring business, but found that clients were always asking her to go shopping with them. Now she charges $2,000 for a four-hour consultation and $300 for each subsequent hour; some clients pay for as much as 12 hours of advice. She also gives fashion seminars at the New Age Shop, and Chinese University recently asked her to give a presentation to its MBA students.

'I prefer to come to a place of supporting people who might be frightened of colour and frightened of their bodies,' she declared. 'There's a lot of dressing to please other people, especially among women. They need to learn self-confidence.' I said that I knew exactly what she meant. We wandered around Armani looking for tops for my many skirts, and I tried on a skimpy little black dress which wasn't a success (closer to Pamela Anderson than Audrey), and then we moved on to Joyce where the sale was still lingering.

I usually loathe shopping with anyone and tend to zip in and out of shops, dodging assistance and comment, so I thought it might be a problem having Linda in tow. But she was great, handing over little jumpers which I'd never have rooted around for myself, and saving me from hopping around in my underwear trying to catch an assistant's eye.

Then she planted a tiny thought which began to flourish in the back of my mind and it was this: I haven't owned a pair of jeans for 20 years. Maybe now was the moment to attempt a return to the denim fold. 'As long as you're comfortable with it,' Linda added.

We went to Versace and Emporio Armani which weren't successful (too stiff and uncomfortable), and Agnes b which was. I knew it would be because there was a picture of Audrey in the changing room which had to be a sign.

Linda unearthed a selection of black jeans, white shirts and (because, oddly enough, I don't own any) belts. The jeans were hipsters and they felt like the most trendy items I'd ever worn in my whole life. Linda said they'd look great with my Anna Molinari leopard-print shoes which, of course, was the real clincher. I bought them for $850. The belt was $230.

Do I feel less old-fashioned, more a woman of the late 1990s? Well, let me end with a footnote which may illustrate to what extent I've found myself in the modern era of consumerism. When I was paying the bill at Agnes b, the assistant handed me a free pencil and a small package which was labelled Harmony. I assumed that it was a shampoo sachet. It was only when I went to wash my hair with it the following day that I was startled to discover he'd given me a condom.

DAVID: RARELY have the considerable downsides of having a large ego been so starkly demonstrated to me as when I agreed to write this article. I was told I would be visited by one Linda Smart who would come to my house, inspect my wardrobe, advise me on what I should wear and take me shopping to kit me out in gear she believed was appropriate.

At first I was reluctant to allow her to come to my house as I had scheduled that particular day to watch Baywatch and Fortune Hunter and was looking forward to it.

But later that evening, when in a carpe diem frame of mind referred to in medical texts as pissed out of my mind, I decided to acquiesce. I had a vague feeling of curiosity peeked by a temptation to see what I would look like. This feeling is otherwise known as narcissism - beware of it.

On the appointed day, Linda arrived. I had spent a considerable time preparing the flat for her arrival. The dishes were unwashed for days, clothes strewn everywhere, tissues from a recent influenza attack glued to the floor, dirty laundry festering in the spare room - basically anything to create a bad impression. If she wanted to focus on clothes, I thought, I'll feed her a range of bad impressions to see if she can be led astray by other value judgments.

It is a very curious feeling to have someone walk into your flat in the full knowledge that while they are making small talk they are also casting a critical eye over the clothes you are wearing and assessing your personality. I have heard women refer to men they have met giving them a feeling of being undressed with his eyes. This is almost exactly how I felt - probed and violated. It was clothes rape. I had only met Linda for two minutes and I was already feeling edgy and defensive. I looked up and glanced at her and realised with horror and embarrassment that she had me exactly where she wanted me. I was primed for assessment, ripe for a remake. We retired to the wardrobe.

My wardrobe is located in my spare room, which is the size of a wardrobe. Linda strode in. I shuffled in behind her, emanating grouchiness. It wasn't until I saw my own clothes through someone else's eyes that I realised how awful they were. She asked me to show her my favourite piece of clothing. I realised this was an important question - the answer counts and has implications.

I scanned the dour contents and sheepishly pulled out a jacket I feel comfortable in. She picked it up as if it was a rotting carcass she had discovered on the beach in front of her Malibu home and held it away from her. I smiled ingratiatingly, wanting to be complemented. 'I can see,' she said, gazing at the shiny elbows and missing buttons, 'that you wear it too often.' I caught a glimpse of myself reflected in the window behind her. I looked like a mad leering rabbit with my upper-lip drawn back in a grotesque parody of a smile while my eyes said 'Rip her throat out.' We came across my green suit. I hate my green suit, it makes me look like Robin Hood dressed for cocktails. 'You like this?' Linda enquired, using the same tone of voice one usually reserves for paedophiles. 'Absolutely not,' I replied. 'I hate it.' There was a pause. 'Then why did you buy it?' Her question had a certain irrefutable logic. I spluttered as only the English can do when faced with their own stupidity. There was no doubting who was in charge of this conversation.

The interrogation came to and end and I showed Linda to the door. As it closed my shoulders slumped with relief and I set about that time old tradition of reassuring myself by criticising the person who had so offended me. She's shallow, I thought. There's more to life than appearances. Clothes don't matter as much as what you say. How can she make a living doing something so trite? It made me feel better. But all the time I knew she was right. Clothes matter enormously, I'm afraid to say. All the cliches people utter about clothes are true. They are a statement of your personality. They are a way to express yourself and - most frightening of all - first impressions do count.

In this reflective mood, I attempted to assess what had actually occurred in my flat that morning, and I soon realised that I had been very effectively brought down so that I could now be brought back up again. I hadn't been completely slagged off, but I had been told with as much subtlety and finesse as possible that my taste in clothes was wayward. I also realised that under clever probing, I had revealed an awful lot of myself to Linda about my work, my play, my habits and my life expectations. I had a feeling I would be hearing more of these subjects the next day when we met for the shopping trip.

SHOPPING trip. Those two words should be placed in the Word Hall of Horror right next to Holocaust, Genocide, War and Kenny G. I know it is sexually stereotypical, but I hate shopping for clothes. Shopping for cameras is fun. Shopping for digital diaries is great. Shopping for sound systems is cool, but shopping for clothes is a living hell. All that fussing makes me homicidal.

However, having been brought down by Linda in my wardrobe I was looking forward to being brought back up again. I was under the impression that the humiliating side of this experiment in narcissism was now over and I could now set about enjoying myself. How wrong I was.

Having faced up to the fact my clothes were not all they could be I now had to face a fact that goes much deeper inside the male ego. Economic humiliation. Most men can't stand not being rich, and I'm one of them. Linda and I met outside Emporio Armani, a shop seemingly designed for the sole reason of economically humiliating those who enter it. As I walked in I was feeling rather good about myself. Within minutes I felt like an abject failure. All I had achieved meant nothing in the face of those staggering price tags.

Linda comforted me. She said places like Armani had after-Christmas sales. I felt even more cheap. Then - with the same logic as judges who believe in short, sharp shocks for young offenders - we went to Christian Dior. This place makes Armani look like Marks & Spencer and the suits were the best I have ever worn. Classic, superb quality, comfortable and great bird pullers.

Despite the trips to high-price designer boutiques, I was surprised by Linda's aims and ambitions from this trip. I had been expecting to be kitted out in super expensive gear that made me feel trussed up like a turkey. Instead, I found that she had listened closely to our conversation in the wardrobe and applied it to what she was looking for. I like to wear suits that are smart but light and easy to move around in, as my day job can be stressful and energetic. That is what she found for me. We also tried on some more casual gear, which I had said needed to be appropriate not only for the office but for a drinking session after work. She deftly found what I was looking for. More to the point, she found stuff that added interest to the way I look, so that I wasn't quite as dull to perceive as beforehand.

I must be frank and state that I was highly sceptical about the kind of person that would pay for Linda's services prior to meeting her. Bringing in a clothes consultant seemed to me to be tantamount to walking around with a neon sign on your head reading 'Sad Bastard'. But I was wrong. If I needed financial advice I would get an accountant and if I needed legal advice I would get a lawyer, but we all seem to think we can dress like professionals. We can't, so it makes sense to get some educated advice.

This is what Linda provides.

But of all the things I learned from this deeply odd experience, it was the fact that you can dress me in a Christian Dior suit and I am still the same sad bastard I always was, just this time I was a well-dressed sad bastard. If I had to sum it up I would say I learned that clothes do not make the man - but they do help.

Linda Smart can be contacted on 2810-7170, or on her pager 7300-1879.