Find Your Style (with a little help)

Consultant shows you how to pick— and pack—a personalized wardrobe.

Writer: Vicki Ingham
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

Courtney Conlin clearly remembers when she became aware of the idea of personal style.

She was starting middle school and noticed an ad for wide-leg pants at a popular clothing store. Until that point, she says, “I was a tomboy, wearing hooded sweatshirts and boys’ sneakers.”  The retro-inspired pants reminded her of the bell bottoms her father had made for himself in the 1970s, “with a handkerchief cut into the legs of the jeans to give them the flair. I just loved those.”

Her parents agreed to let her buy the stylish pants. “It was a defining moment for what I do now,” she says, “because it taught me not to be afraid to take a risk—if something is really calling out to you and you really like it, it’s OK to give it a go. I wore the heck out of those pants.”

One of six siblings born and raised in Newton (“we were a family of Maytaggers,” she says), Conlin, 38, moved to Des Moines in 1998, where her interest in clothing eventually took her into retail. Working at Siren Boutique

in West Des Moines and at Banana Republic, Conlin discovered how much she enjoyed helping people choose clothing, build wardrobes and develop a sense of their own style. She discerned a need, however, for independent advice that went beyond shopping.

Encouraged by her sister-in-law Jackie Conlin, a personal stylist in San Francisco, Courtney Conlin began her own consulting business about five years ago, specializing in helping clients fine-tune their wardrobe so that it’s suited to their lifestyle, professional needs and tastes. She also advises on special-event attire and packing for travel. In addition, as a style consultant for the men’s custom clothier J. Hilburn, she can order custom suits for men.

Her services start with an interview that helps her get to know her clients—their interests, hobbies, likes and dislikes. Then comes a closet consultation, a careful inventory during which clients can weed out pieces that don’t fit or flatter. Conlin says the inventory enables her “to see where people are, where they’ve been and where they need to go.”

The next step is shopping. “I pre-pull items, and I have fitting rooms ready to go,” Conlin says. “My goal is to make it as easy and seamless for [clients] as possible, so there’s no stress, and it’s even fun.”

Finally, Conlin creates a “Look Book” for the client. Loaded onto a tablet or smartphone, the photos show complete outfits with all the mix-and-match variations, including shoes and accessories.

Conlin works with teens to retirees, but her typical client is in career mode, age 27 and up. While her goal is to help clients develop an up-to-date wardrobe no matter what their age, she discourages them from getting caught up in fads.

“I think it’s important for people not to deviate too far from their true sense of self, their personal style,” Conlin says. Paraphrasing Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, she says, “ ‘Fashions and trends are fleeting but your personal style is forever’ is one of my favorite quotes. It’s about what pieces work best for you … because at the end of the day, self-confidence is everything. It’s about you being good with you, and the rest will follow.”

Pack It In

One of Courtney Conlin’s services is to help clients pack for travel. As spring break approaches, she offers these ideas for getting everything you need into one carry-on for the airplane.

Roll your clothes, especially silks and other lightweight fabrics, to limit wrinkles and get more into the suitcase. Flat-fold each piece to make a rectangle, then roll tightly. When you reach your destination, unroll each item and hang it up immediately.

Choose versatile pieces that you can mix and match to make a variety of outfits. Depending on where you’re going and what you’ll be doing, plan on one pair of denims, one or two outfits for dining or an event, and three pairs of shoes—one to wear, two (one casual, one a statement shoe) to pack.

Wear as much as you can—your heaviest shoes, your heaviest or bulkiest pieces, and any jewelry or accessories—to save space in the carry-on. Women should wear a pashmina on the plane because it can double as a blanket.

Neutral-colored clothes make mixing and matching easier. Add a pop of color with a layering piece, a dress, a scarf, or a shoe. Accessories are also a fun way to add color, and “statement earrings can seal the deal on an outfit,” Conlin says.

Create outfits (and snap pictures) before you pack so that you’ll know the exact outfits you planned for your trip. This can also help in narrowing things down before the packing begins.

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