Stacy London, fashion guru, discusses insecurity in new book

October 3, 2012

You know it’s going to be painful when the doyenne of fashion wisdom dismisses your black-and-silver Peter Kaiser peep-toes as “sensible heels you wear with a cocktail dress when you’re getting old and you don’t want to wear heels anymore.”

That’s not the half of it. The heels, which happen to rise two inches, don’t work with the cobalt-blue Tahari jumper. The jumper is a size too big. The four black plastic buttons on its front placket are oversize and obvious, and create a pinafore look. The black T-shirt underneath is too casual. And the earrings are all wrong: Even if the jumper were salvageable, it is mod and silver chandeliers are not.

“You had a lot of opportunity here,” Stacy London pronounces.

It was not quite like having your entire wardrobe gleefully dumped in the trash a la London and co-host Clinton Kelly on their long-running TLC makeover show, “What Not to Wear.” But after the style savant’s assessment — “Style is the quickest shorthand to who you are,” London writes in her new book, “The Truth About Style” — it’s hard not to question a lifetime of sartorial choices.

And yet London is somehow on your side as she rips you apart, sipping lychee red tea in a Manhattan hotel. She understands the psychic roadblocks manifested by the ill-fitting outfit from Washington. She says there’s more to bad dressing than bad taste — women, she argues, literally cloak their emotional issues in their clothing.


Stacy London(left) and Cindy McLaughlin are launching the Style for Hire website. They intend to help the fashion challenged hire a stylist to remake their wardrobe. (MARVIN JOSEPH/WASHINGTON POST)

“My whole life I’ve had a love-hate relationship with style, and my body, and myself and self-consciousness,” she says. “And I have not met very many women who haven’t.”

The book — which will bring her to Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in downtown Washington on Thursday — transposes the show’s makeover format to the page. It features nine women in fashion ruts. With empathy, a little therapy and an eye for what’s flattering, London diagnoses their fashion problems and proposes common-sense solutions. As she does on the show, London shifts the conversation from the runway to real life, focusing on practicalities such as helping the working woman “who just needs a great pair of jeans.”

Makeovers notwithstanding, a more apt title for the book might be “The Truth About Stacy London.” It turns out that the stylist who inspires godlike reverence from her fans is just like them — highly imperfect. London writes about a traumatic bout with psoriasis that started at age 4 and left painful scars on her arms, torso and thighs, as well as dramatic weight fluctuations caused by anorexia and compulsive overeating.

“After 10 years of being the expert, I wanted to make myself a little bit more dimensional,” she says. “I started to feel a little bit boxed in by the idea that people will tweet me and Facebook me and say, ‘You’re so pretty and you have such confidence.’ Well, I don’t feel that way.”

With the book launch and publicity tour imminent, London is terrified. Turning the tables on herself wasn’t so easy.

“Dredging all that stuff up,” she says, “it brought back a lot of pain that I haven’t looked at in a long time. To be honest, I wish I had been in therapy while I was writing the book.”

The steroid that eventually cleared up her debilitating skin disorder left painful cracks and fissures. It “was tearing like a zipper all over my body.” The emotional scars resurfaced at Vassar, where a diet in her senior year spun out of control. Surviving on sugar-free butterscotch pudding, she hit 90 pounds. After graduation, she landed a job as an assistant at Vogue and began binge eating and ballooned to 180 pounds.

Her passion for clothes, she says, helped balance her insecurity about her body “with what I could surround myself with on the outside.”

However on edge London might be, she appears to be taking her own advice — “You may be hanging on by a thread, but you don’t have to look like it.” She’s elegant in Club Monaco gray silk trousers and a Madison Marcus jacket and two Swarovski crystal necklaces from an upcoming jewelry collection she designed with Sorrelli. The show-stoppers, though, are the four-inch Jean-Michel Cazabat stiletto heels with two-inch ankle straps. “It’s a shackle!” she swoons.

The jewelry line is but one venture in an entrepreneurial year devoted to the book; a new production company; a national fashion campaign for Westfield Shopping Malls; and Style for Hire, the company London co-founded that rolled out Washington in 2010 to bring style experts in multiple cities to average people. Not to mention filming the ninth season of “What Not to Wear.” Style for Hire has since expanded to other cities.

She says overwork has triggered digestive problems. We are dealing, after all, with a self-described perfectionist who organizes her closet by fabric within each color palette. She gets her drive from her parents, a retired think-tank president and NYU professor father and venture-capitalist mother. London’s senior thesis was titled: “Nietzsche, Thomas Mann, and Hermann Broch, the Concept of Self and Its Relationships to the Creation of Character in Literature.”

The style whisperer can write. Viking asked for a memoir. It was not to be.

“I’m 43,” she says. “I’m not there yet. I’m not Shelly Winters. That’s a biography I want to read. She slept with everybody!” London opted instead to have makeover subjects help tell her story.

There are, she says, universal truths. Foremost among them: Style can be transformative. Seeing yourself in an A-line skirt that fits well — no matter what your size — can turn around a negative self image. (Oh, and you can wear white after Labor Day. “Global warming demands it.”)

“I see in­cred­ibly successful women beating themselves up,” London says. “There’s something in our culture that allows us to believe we’re never enough. I’m sick of it.”

She makes herself Exhibit A, admitting to insecurity about her unconventional good looks — her distinctive nose and trademark shock of gray hair. “For the record, I would never get a nose job,” she writes. “I wouldn’t be me with a cookie-cutter ski-slope nose. For the same reason, I don’t dye my gray streak.”

In a cluttered landscape of makeover shows, London has demonstrated that fashion is not always frivolous. “Stacy and Clinton are able to access the emotional stuff without humiliating or exploiting,” says clinical psychologist Jennifer Baumgartner, author of “You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You.”

“That’s rare. It’s done with the dignity of the person totally intact.”

London says she got the idea for the book after a speech in San Francisco a couple of years ago, where she took a risk and came clean about her scars, the broken heart she was nursing and the resulting weight gain. She got a standing ovation. Even in the “Oprah” era, London says, the response shocked her.

Abe Gurko, author of the fashion blog I Mean . . . What?!? says London “translates what fashion is to Everyman,” conveying the idea that “you don’t have to live on Park Avenue to wear a black dress the right way.” He thinks her fans will respond well to her vulnerabilities.

“She’s not trying to be like Anna Wintour,” Gurko says, “and frankly, I’m not sure how much people are really that interested in Anna Wintour’s personal life.”

A fashion queen since age 2, London is pictured in the book as a matchy-matchy toddler in flowered shorts and sun hat. But does she ever close her critical fashion eye?

“I will meet people on the street and the first thing they’ll say is: ‘Rip me apart. Just rip me apart!’ ” she laughs. “As if that’s some fun sort of activity. Some people are gluttons for punishment.”

She used to offer her opinions a lot more freely. “Now I’m a little bit more respectful. But if you ask me, I will tell you the truth.”

Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.
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