Web site's founders offer style mavens to the masses

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2010

If you think you know the difference between turquoise and sapphire, you don't know the half of it. Unless you are the sort who keeps a Pantone color chart in your dressing room -- indeed, unless you are the sort who has even heard of fashion's favorite color-consulting firm -- chances are pretty good that you have not given much thought to the way these two shades of blue offset shades of red.

This matters because if you have a ruddy complexion, a sapphire shirt might be just the thing to tamp down the excessive pink in your cheeks. But if your skin has yellow undertones -- and you know what undertones are, right? -- then turquoise could be a bad choice because it could make you appear sallow, even jaundiced.

These may sound like trivial matters in the grand scheme of life. But in our mundane, day-to-day lives, when we are not thinking existential thoughts but just trying to make a good impression during, say, a business meeting, this sort of information can come in handy.

But alas, it's not the kind of knowledge that one acquires in high school or college. It isn't laid out in Vogue or Harper's Bazaar, where readers are given the scoop on the seasonal trends and then sent forth to incorporate them into their wardrobe like fashion savants. Stylists -- those mysterious architects of dazzling red-carpet moments -- are the keepers of such secrets.

But how do mere mortals find these talented wizards?

Style for Hire is a new online agency aiming to give the masses access to master mythmakers. Washington is the launching pad, the company's test market.

When the agency's Web site goes live Sept. 13, customers will be able to search a database of company-approved stylists in the D.C. area. The site's founders, Stacy London of TLC's "What Not to Wear" -- the one with the gray streak in her raven hair -- and former fashion industry executive Cindy McLaughlin, are doing the training and vetting.

Thus it was that one weekend in July, two dozen men and women, vying for positions as stylists with the new venture, gathered in a black box of a room at Georgetown's House of Sweden. Pantone colors were scrupulously dissected topics of conversation, along with foundation garments, proportions and a complicated formula for calculating "cost per wear" that involved enough algebra and opacity to make the Government Accountability Office proud.

"In a very subjective field, we're trying to come up with an objective system," McLaughlin, 40, says. Yet how do you objectively quantify a good eye and a way with people? For safety's sake, Style for Hire will offer customers a 30-day money-back guarantee.

A stylist's skill lies in knowing whether a client should wear an A-line skirt or a pencil version. They elevate mundane ensembles with just the right necklace or belt. They are visual storytellers, concerned hyperbolists for whom an ill-fitting garment is disastrous and a particularly flattering one is quite literally breathtaking. "I die!" celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe regularly moans on her Bravo reality show whenever she spies a stunning frock.

Stylists are able conjure a fashion icon out of a lanky 20-something starlet. . . or a 40-something first lady with a nice set of biceps. They don't merely help you shop; they don't just tell you what to wear. The best of them help you construct a dazzling, but convincingly authentic, personality out of clothes.

In her training, London eschewed the tough love she embraces on "What Not to Wear." The company's stylists will not thrust their clients into a 360-degree mirrored room and force them to face their sins of drawstring trousers and shoulder-pad-infested camp shirts. London doesn't believe in the Hollywood approach either, in which clients sometimes end up looking like clones of their fashion gurus, bedecked in Halston-era jumpsuits and tunics with fake tans and highlighted hair. The D.C. experts must "be part cheerleader, part clinician and part psychologist. You're treading into dangerous territory because appearance is so bound up in self-esteem," London, 41, says.

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