That is always a challenging question for me to answer not because I don’t know but because the best way to describe what it is I do is to let a client tell you.
Years ago my friend Peter (who is colorblind and needed help picking out clothes) offhandedly brought up the ludicrous idea, while we were walking up and down Michigan Avenue, that I should become a personal shopper. The women in his office just couldn’t believe how good his clothes looked and they were always surprised (as was he!) about his knack for mixing colors.
You do just what the people on those cable shows do, he says to me, but you’re really good at it, so why not make a business out of it? He even came up with a name for it: Personal Shopping Plus or PS+
It took me a year and a half to take him seriously, not because I didn’t believe I was really, really good at it –shopping for/with others was something I had been doing since I was 6 years old for fun and to much acclaim within my circle of friends and extended family — but because the job title–personal shopper– sounded awfully trivial.
At some point in that year and a half, I (reluctantly) convinced myself that spending my time doing something I knew to be fun and very much appreciated just might not be so trivial.
Even if the job title was trivial, I must have convinced myself, I would figure out a way to make it the opposite of trivial– whatever that meant. (I mean, if George W. Bush could be “Governor of Texas” and “President of the United States” maybe job titles shouldn’t be taken so seriously. Right?)
As the years passed, salespeople at Ann Taylor took to calling themselves “personal shoppers,” so people like me, who did not work for a store but rather for a client, became differentiated as “stylists” or “celebrity(!) stylists”–a description which had more than one person in America asking “what salon do you work for?”
Adding fashion as an adjective helped clear things up a bit. I wasn’t exactly convinced that fashion stylist fully described what it was I thought I was doing, so along the way to finding my way in the business I decided to define myself as a “personal style and image consultant,” the emphasis in that description being much more on “personal” than “consultant.”
It’s as (comfortable and) accurate a description of what it is I think I do and it turns out, quite by accident, perhaps slightly more respectable than “former Governor of Illinois and Alaska.”
Earlier this month I had to give two “talks” for a private event and for the second of these talks I decided to focus on the “personal” aspect of my own job description.
On an unusually warm late afternoon in October, I am taking my brother to the park so he can play on the swings. My brother Theo has Down Syndrome, is 44 years old and, on a good day, functions at about the level of a 4 year old.
To borrow from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, he has been 4 for 40 years. I can’t remember a time in my life that I haven’t been caring for my brother. For the last 16 years I’ve been his primary caretaker. (Come to think of it–and only recently did I recollect– he has helped take care of me too, since my essay on how my relationship with my brother compared to that of “Benjy” and his siblings in Faulkner’s novel won me both the Senior English award in high school and early admission into the University of Chicago.)
As I’m holding Theo’s hand crossing the street, I can see a homeless man with a cart full of his belongings and a woman. They’re talking loudly. As we get closer into the intersection, it appears as if they’re arguing. Just as we pass them by, the woman, who it is now clear to me has a mild case of Down Syndrome, yells at the homeless man: “I’m not retarded. He’s retarded!”
Here Theo and I are minding our own business on a perfectly lovely afternoon and somebody with a hell of a lot of nerve is calling my brother a retard?
The good thing about functioning at the level of a 4 year old on a good day and being fully focused on the good stuff– the swings just a few yards away –is that you miss the conversation–and the insult– altogether. Theo blissfully speeds toward the swings but I almost spin out of control trying to figure out what has just happened.
Near as I’ve been able to reconstruct it? We are walking across the street just before the woman with Down Syndrome must have called the man “homeless.” That makes him feel bad so he is all “I may not have a place to live but at least I’m not retarded.” Around that moment, she sees Theo and, in order to feel better about herself, she’s all ” At least I have a place to live and who you calling retarded?” and points out the severity of Theo’s retardation to drive her point home.
Hey, it’s not the first time someone demeaned someone else to feel better about themselves and it won’t be the last. It’s an ugly way to feel good about yourself but it temporarily does the job.
I know I went home feeling bad about the whole thing. I’m sure the woman with Down Syndrome went home and felt bad about being (called) retarded and I’m sure the homeless man went–okay, he didn’t go home–he went somewhere and felt even worse about being (called) homeless (by a retarded woman, no less).
The next morning, I wake up before Theo. I turn on my computer, intending to email someone about the events of the previous day, when it suddenly dawns on me: What if when she yelled “He’s retarded,” she was referring not to Theo but to me? Let’s face it, I’ve been called a few names in my life, so it wouldn’t be out of the question that she was singling me out.
I laughed so hard standing in front of my computer that I woke Theo up.
Weeks go by, life and work conspire to complicate each other just so that I’m feeling more than a little frustrated and, quite frankly, at a loss to explain what it is that I like about either.
Then I get the following email. I’m very used to getting emails like this so, while it was great to get another one (insert a shout out to all of you who have sent them to me this past year), a few days go by and then it really sinks in.
This is what I do and this is why I do it:
November 25 – It is our 33rd wedding anniversary. I wanted to shop for a jacket and top to wear to dinner; something new that fit my continuously changing body. My daughter and I were going to leisurely shop a couple stores while I was visiting her in Chicago. A friend of hers, Tom, had a couple of coupons we could use for discounts. I had no idea what was about to happen. Tom picked us up and at some point it was decided that Tom was going shopping with us and would help me shop. Tom Kolovos, image consultant and fashion stylist, was going to help me shop. Yikes, panic. I was not prepared for this. There was no way I could get out of this now. I was feeling frumpy, embarrassed, insecure and not sure I wanted someone ripping me apart. I don’t like shopping. It is a chore.
Tom helped me identify my best features and what will work for me and what won’t. No more hiding behind my clothes. He taught me that I can still dress practical to my lifestyle, age, and budget, but with “style.” I never knew that a “statement” piece of costume jewelry can “make” a simple outfit and I would feel so exceptional. I have a positive self image again and walk a little taller. I am lighter on my feet and genuinely spiritually uplifted.
Sounds pretty good to me. Way to go. Good work, if you can get it. Any Tom, Dick or Bary from DC might reasonably call it a solid B+
Thank you for indulging me by reading my blog this year. Happy Holidays and a very Happy New Year!