Defining Personal Style

When I was a young executive in the fine wine business, I agonized about what to wear to work.  At that time in the 80’s, women—especially those working in male-dominated industries—wore conservative suits and sensible shoes. This way, the focus was on our talent, not our curves.  To say the least, it was boring. Then, one day I had to travel to Florence to help one of our wine producers, the Folonari family (who owned Ruffino), develop a cooking school.

Meeting Giovanna Folonari, wife of the winemaker, Ambrogio, was a style epiphany for me. Giovanna looked like a model: tall, slender and with chiseled, facial features. She had a patrician beauty which made her look as if she had just walked off a Botticelli canvas. She was chic beyond belief.  Giovanna epitomized understated elegance. She wore beautifully tailored clothing, mostly from Italian designers such as Valentino and Armani whose classic fashions reflect impeccable style and elegance. Giovanna was also the first woman I knew who highlighted her short, mahogany brown hair to make it look sun-kissed, a style my hairdresser imitates for me every five weeks.

Giovanna was always tastefully dressed wearing just the right amount of stunning, Florentine gold jewelry to add pizazz to her finely tailored outfits.  I wanted desperately to look like her.  I wanted to own everything in her closet and jewelry box.  The only problem was that I weighed a good twenty pounds more than she.  Nonetheless, Giovanna was a powerful fashion role model for me and to this day when purchasing a piece of clothing, I wonder if she would approve or tell me to put it back on the rack.

Like most women, I love looking stylish but hate to shop and spend excessive amounts of money. My solution is simple: shopping sales, outlets and resale stores.  I also depend on the opinion of my friends, such as Diane McComber, who served as my personal shopper for years as we worked our way through the clothes at Ritzy Recall, a resale shop in Avon, Colorado during our annual ski vacations. 

Musing on the topic of defining personal style, I asked a few of my friends to share their thoughts.  My trainer, Jennifer Spina, says having style means knowing how to put things together so that they enhance your appearance.  “You don’t have to be trendy to have style,” she explained. “You can have a classic look, such as Kate Middleton, who adds her own personal flair such as sexy shoes and a shorter length of skirt. Or, you can curate your own recognizable look.”

No doubt, we all know people who when they walk into a room you don’t need to see their face.  Just by looking at what they are wearing, you know who it is.  My friend, Katrin Naelappa, who heads Wines from  Spain, always wears the most show-stopping, long jackets.  She stands out in a crowd with her colorful,  and always beautifully tailored jackets.  In New York City where most people subscribe to Bloomingdales-sales-person-black, Katrin brightened up a room with her chartreuse, turquoise or blood orange long jackets of fine linen and brocades. 

Another friend, Codie Conigliaro, has a great, minimalist style which I admire.  As a garden designer she dresses appropriately: skinny pants, jackets and always great shoes or boots, depending on her tasks.  I asked her what her secret was for creating her “look.”  Codie confidently ticked off her six golden rules for having impeccable personal style.  “First,” she explained, “Know what looks good on your body type. For me this means one unbroken line. Don’t cinch me at the waist to cut my look in half.” Her second recommendation is to build your wardrobe on a few basic pieces, the best quality you can afford. Tip number three is to add the right shoes.  (Codie is mad for shoes.) Next, top off our outfit with a great over piece to cover up any body imperfections you may have.   Codie’s fifth piece of advice is “to dress appropriately for your age.”  And last, accessorize with a signature touch.  For her, it is her collection of fashionable glasses which she sports instead of jewelry or scarves. 

But how does one define personal style?  Over hot chocolate and pretzel croissants at City Bakery, I thought I’d get a man’s opinion.  Mubarak Kamaru, a stylish young man from Ghana who helps care for my husband, explained that for him personal style goes beyond fashion trends.  It is all about “demeanor, attitude and self-confidence.” He explained further, “It depends how you feel inside. When you wake up and don’t feel at your best, it is reflected in your choice of clothing.  When you’re feeling great, you reach for something which makes a stronger statement, something you can wear with confidence. Personal style is really a combination of inward and outward appearance.”

To simplify things, I divide personal style into three categories; classic chic; daring panache; and unfortunate.  We’ve already discussed the first—classic chic—which may appear easy but requires a studied eye to avoid it becoming boring.  Daring panache, on the other hand, is the hardest of the three styles to pull off as it risks falling into the “unfortunate” category.  Daring requires substantial self-confidence plus a generous jigger of fun, and finally, great posture.  When I encountered someone who has embraced the concept of daring panache---and is able to pull it off -- I have been known to gush, often to perfect strangers, “You look amazing,"  or "I love the look."  

Dressing in a bold, daring manner is not for everyone. But, if you venture down this path, remember what my super stylish friend, Deborah MIntcheff,  says, “Don’t be shy. Own it.”