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Image Makers Help Strut Your Stuff

Services: Consultants teach people to sell themselves through confidence, communication skills, and, well, that new wardrobe doesn't hurt.

January 08, 1998|LILLIAN REITER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Has your social life descended to the depths of wearing pajamas and watching videos with a pal? Is your career as flat as leftover champagne?

With the new year little more than a week old, this may be the perfect time to make some major changes: Reap a fatter paycheck, land a more stimulating job, move higher up the social scale and create a new look for 1998.

That's what the growing profession of image consultants is selling and, reportedly, it's a service more and more people are buying. The expression "clothes make the man" has taken on new meaning in the '90s.

"There's a direct correlation between beauty and the bucks," says Dianna Pfaff-Martin, founder of California Image Advisors in Newport Beach. According to one recent behavioral study, she says, "More attractive people, or people who are perceived to be more successful, make more money than those perceived not to be successful."

A first impression comes around only once, and experts say that people make as many as 11 important assumptions about you in that crucial first minute--age, financial status, family background, education, trustworthiness, level of success, attention to detail, health, social status, self-confidence and tastefulness.

Seven years ago, the Assn. of Image Consultants International (AICI) was founded in Washington, D.C., underscoring not only the interest in image-making but also in the need for professional qualifications for image makers. The association grants the title of "professional image consultant" to members who complete a 20-page application and demonstrate proficiency in fashion, color theory, business practices and public speaking. Many of its 100 members--all of them women and a third of them in California--come to the image-making business from the worlds of modeling, public relations and merchandising.

That includes Brenda Kinsel, a Northern California image consultant whose motto is: "You need to look like your resume." According to Kinsel, self-confidence is one of the most important tools for success, but sometimes confidence alone is not enough. Sometimes, you need professional help to make you look as confident as you feel.

For many of those who entered the work force in the 1950s and '60s, it seemed that image wasn't as important to success as brains and a willingness to work hard. But in the '70s, when women entered the job market in droves, competition in the workplace heated up. The era of the gray flannel suit was dead, and the dress-for-success movement was born.

The faltering economy of the late '80s and early '90s made competition for high-powered jobs even sharper. Experienced employees and professionals were forced to deal with a leaner, meaner economy. Younger workers often faced frantic competition without so much as a corporate dress code to guide them. The workplace became a war zone, and even a bright and shiny new MBA was not enough ammunition.

Enter the image consultant.

"Success is based on perception," says Pfaff-Martin. "You can have the most fabulous product or service, but if you don't present yourself as a successful person, you'll never make it. [But] image consultants are more than personal shoppers. We deal in the perception of others, and I package my client based on who that client will be dealing with in the business world."

The image make-over starts with teaching clients--many of them in their 30s, 40s and 50s--how to communicate well in three distinct ways: visually through wardrobe and appearance, verbally as in addressing an audience, and nonverbally through gestures and posture. Clients in California might typically spend 30 hours and $3,000 for a full image upgrade, says Kinsel.

Pfaff-Martin instructs her clients in the meaning of clothes. She believes that a navy blue suit, for example, can convey an aura of confidence and responsibility; a red dress, dynamic leadership. She also counsels clients about things as seemingly benign as taking up the proper position in a crowded room to show importance, or something as common-sensical as always ending a sentence on a firm down-tone to show decisiveness.

"Make your visibility count," Pfaff-Martin says. "Move away from the crowd so others can see your value."

Richard Redmond, a 52-year-old Costa Mesa loan consultant, recently turned to Pfaff-Martin for advice. Applying his newfound knowledge about image-building, he traded in his old car for a black Corvette.

"It comes in handy for business lunches because it only seats two people. It gives me time alone with the real decision-maker, a chance to get my point across to the only person that really counts," Redmond says.

Although Pfaff-Martin often conducts her business in company boardrooms, former model Carol Priestley, owner of Personal Image, works out of a boutique in a small Lake Forest mall. She gives advice not only about makeup, hair styling and skin care but also about body language and manners.

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