The Minor Makeover
Girls Just Want to Have Fun? Hardly. Image Consulting for Teens Is Serious Business.

By Cathy Alter
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 11, 2009

Surely it was inevitable. Moms already bring their teenage daughters for high-end haircuts and mani-pedis. And now, image consultants -- who act as personal shoppers, closet cullers and makeup advisers -- say their business is thriving among clients of high school age and younger.

"I don't have the best confidence," says Hannah Abrams, 16, shrugging and offering a small smile. "I feel like a makeover will make people look at me in a different way."

In an effort to build her confidence, Hannah's mother, Tamar, a communications strategist and Huffington Post blogger, has brought her to Jane Pennewell's Falls Church townhouse for a consultation and makeup application on a recent Sunday. In the weeks to follow, Pennewell, an eternally chipper woman who loves to accessorize, will supervise Hannah's salon haircut and take her shopping for a new summer wardrobe.

"I'm worried I dress too suggestively," says Hannah, a sophomore at Arlington's Yorktown High School.

"To find a grown-up who will help my daughter establish how she wants to look is a gift," her mom says. "I think other girls can sometimes steer her in the wrong direction."

Even if the economy were booming, the idea of a teenager using an image consultant is perplexing, to say the least. But the trend has been taking hold among young girls who have been raised on a steady diet of pop culture, from "The Hills" to "Hannah Montana," girls who are being shaped by an industry that trades in reinvention. In this week's episode of Bravo's reality drama "NYC Prep," one teen client actually rebelled against her hectoring stylist, who declared items in the girl's closet so "last season."

"There has definitely been an increase in my number of younger clients," says Lynne Glassman, a D.C.-based image consultant who has clients as young as 9, and recently shared her wisdom with an entire Girl Scout troop.

"I get so many calls from teens," says Rachel Weingarten, a New York-based style consultant who also does marketing and public relations. "It used to be that deb parties were rites of passages. Now, makeovers are the norm."

* * *

Or, if not quite the norm, hardly an expected trend amid a recession. The Association of Image Consultants International has no hard data on the number of teens seeking help, but a dozen D.C.-, New York- and Los Angeles-based image consultants and personal shoppers all report an increase in their number of clients who are minors, despite the flagging economy. To further bolster their business during these lean times, many say they are being more flexible with their fees. Some, like Pennewell, are willing to barter -- Tamar Abrams is writing for the image consultant's Web site in exchange for her daughter's initial consultation ($150) and several hours of shopping ($500 and up).

"In the past couple of years, the market of 12-to-20-year olds has absolutely grown," says Los Angeles stylist and image consultant Abby Michelle Moll, who works with adult clients and their kids. "It's being driven by the media and the Internet."

Reality shows like "How Do I Look?" and "What Not to Wear" usually center on the remarkable before-and-after transformations of the participants. Maybe it was only a matter of time before the trend hit teens and preteens. The idea of perpetually camera-ready teens is what youth market analysts call KGOY, "kids getting older younger," which is, of course, no new phenomenon.

"Girls are identifying with what they see depicted on TV, in the movies and online," says Patricia Dalton, a clinical psychologist in Washington. "They think, act and talk in ways that make them seem older and more mature than they actually are developmentally."

They also attain a certain level of sophistication, mystifying parents who think Eddie Bauer is the height of fashion.

"I'm just the mom," sighs Jonell Easton, a court reporter and single parent, who shares a two-bedroom co-op near Washington National Cathedral with her 17-year-old daughter, Jane, a junior at Holton-Arms, a uniformed prep school in Bethesda. On this day, Jane and her mother are hosting a consultation with image coach Sharon Glickman for Jane and two friends.

"At school I'm surrounded by a certain lifestyle that's always present, and when you see all that . . . ," Jane says, trailing off, trying to explain her situation. "I went to National Presbyterian for elementary school," she starts again. "There, the Limited Too was the big thing."

To help navigate the pressures of "Free-dress Fridays," Jane, who resembles a younger Jennifer Connelly, has been working with Glickman for the past three years. Image consultants typically charge $100 an hour for personal shopping, but Glickman has offered her services to Jane at a reduced rate, which Jane pays by babysitting Glickman's 6-year-old granddaughter.

"Sharon really understands how to put something together," she says, looking fondly over at Glickman, a well-turned-out blonde in a dramatically flared jacket.

"Where did you get that hair?" Glickman exclaims as one of Jane's friends, Meredith Korengold, 17, takes a seat.

Meredith, who has shampoo-commercial long and shiny auburn tresses, stares down at her silver Tory Burch skimmers. "Umm," she hesitates, baffled, perhaps thinking about her lineage. "Europe?"

Jane's other friend, Kate Monahan, 16, a raven-haired sophomore who models part time, sits down next to Meredith, Hermès bangles clinking like ice cubes. She has swiped her to-die-for studded Hermès belt from her mother's closet.

Glickman positions herself in front of the girls. "Have you all heard about the economy?" she asks.

"Yeah," they say in unison.

"If you have money, it's easy to go shopping," observes Glickman. "But we have to be creative with what we buy since we can't buy it all."

The girls, who shop with money from after-school jobs supplemented by allowances they decline to reveal, nod and take sips of their Diet Cokes.

What follows is a two-hour lesson that involves Glickman's system, which ascribes a point for each item of clothing and each accessory (pants, shoes, earrings and so on), designed to encourage the wearer to decorate herself, but not overdecorate. "At least six points, no more than 12," she warns. There is also a brief lecture on body type ("Kate is built like a ruler and can wear little kilt skirts," she assesses), and for the finale, an individual color analysis during which the girls are draped in various fabrics to determine their most flattering shades. ("Does this have to do with horoscopes?" Meredith asks before being swathed in a red pashmina. "Seasons," Glickman corrects.)

By the end of the presentation, it has become quite clear that the students are well above average. When quizzed, they rattle off a list of favorite designers as if they're reciting the periodic table, instantly recognize the significance of Glickman's purse being a Jil Sander, and rhapsodize over the genius of Andre, a personal shopper at Mazza Gallerie's Neiman Marcus.

Ultimately, it's not what to wear that concerns them. It's the pressure to wear it better.

"I dress for other girls," admits Meredith.

"It can be pretty competitive," Kate says with a nod, placing her mini Chanel bag over a slender shoulder. "You don't want to see someone wearing the same thing."

Adjusting her Burberry headband, Jane adds, "But we don't want to be the different one, either."

* * *

It's 5 o'clock on a recent Friday and F Street's H&M is bustling. Glassman, the image consultant who recently counseled Girl Scouts, is standing with one of her clients before a display of bolero jackets, arms laden with a closet's worth of pint-size clothing.

Glassman works out of her home office in Burleith. Her business moniker is Doctor of Dress. She currently works with a 12-year-old ("who just came in for her colors") and a 14-year-old ("whose mother has no clue how to shop for her"). Her client at this moment is Livy Wilson, who is 9, and is explaining her sartorial style.

"It's not really really modern," Livy begins. She pauses to regard a pleated jumper. "It's more in the middle."

"Bohemian chic?" asks Glassman, a middle-aged woman who wears black dhoti pants and looks like an edgier Liz Taylor.

"Yes," Livy says. "Exactly."

KGOY, indeed. But the image consultant is not just a sign of adolescent precociousness and privilege. It is also, for some, a balm for the troubles of adolescence. It's tough being a teenage girl, as it probably has been since time immemorial. That's one thing Hannah's mother thinks about sometimes: how tough it is to be her daughter's age, how critical the kids are of one another, how much less complicated the world seemed when Hannah was younger.

Hannah has a wide, open face with thick auburn hair and huge green eyes. It's hard to imagine people looking at her as anything other than the prom queen. But she developed her curves early, and describes her middle school years as being difficult, aided by the mean comments left by her classmates in her Facebook page's Honesty Box.

"You have bad skin, you're ugly, your body's gross," she remembers. "I would be so depressed I wanted to see a therapist."

Before driving away from the image consultation (Hannah told her mother if she stayed she'd "interfere"), Abrams pulls out a dog-eared copy of Washingtonian magazine from 1994. She wrote the feature story that month; it details her experiences as a single mother having a child through in vitro fertilization. On the magazine's cover sits baby Hannah, wearing an adorable floral print dress with huge velvet collar.

Abrams says she longs for the old days. She hopes that with Pennewell's gentle guidance, her daughter will see herself through a different prism. She looks at the baby picture and sighs.

"Isn't she just gorgeous?"

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