This summer I visited Marisa Minicucci's M Siamo fashion showroom - M Galleria. I was accompanied by three of my gal pals: Sylvia the spa owner, Chiara the banker, and Mary Ann the international sales director. It didn't matter that outside the sleek, air-conditioned loft, situated on Montreal's Main, it was a sweltering 34 degrees Celsius. In our summery attire and strappy sandals, we were ready to take a by-appointment-only peek at the M Siamo Fall 2003 collection, and do some proactive shopping.
As a professional image consultant, I know that first impressions are formed quickly. Those who study this sort of thing say that we form an impression of a new encounter in less than ten seconds. On our way to the showroom, I shared this critical statistic with my friends. I explained that when the stakes are high and first impressions count, a sixth-of-a-minute doesn't leave much margin for error. With this information in mind, we were fully motivated to arm ourselves with new arsenals of wool suits, silk shirts and suede shoes that would give us that elusive extra edge.
Entering M Galleria, we were welcomed by an expectedly fashionable and unexpectedly congenial salesperson who offered us wine, cheese and cherries. The Zen-inspired decor created a tranquil ambiance, but failed to subdue our nervous anticipation, as we waited to see the clothes that would be so us. We sat around a table in the centre of the room, surrounded by a spectacular window view of Mount Royal in summer bloom - admittedly, an ironic backdrop for viewing autumn clothes.
Our attention was diverted from the panorama to a lithe model gliding past us. She smiled knowingly - fully aware of the impact of her presence and the persuasiveness of her image. As the model turned on astonishingly high heels, accentuating the tailored waist of a pin-striped suit, I could hear my chic rat-pack oohing and ahhing. We were swept away by the bigger-than-life image she so convincingly projected. Longing for even a sliver of her confidence, we knew the only way to feel like that would be to look like that. Sure our credentials speak for themselves. Sure we have the savvy to do our jobs and run our businesses, but what's substance without style?
Our model was still sashaying, when her image magically started to meld with each of our own.
"Ah, the pea jacket and stretch trousers are so you, Chiara, " I said.
"And the black, silk brocade coat is so you," she replied.
Bingo. This marked that sublime moment that fashion marketers live for: the instant that we, as consumers, are so immersed in the image they are selling, that nothing will stop us from having it. Nothing. Not even price.
I'm always amazed at how clothes become extensions of our personae. A signature piece could easily trademark each one of us. There was no denying that the flawless, leather jacket was so Mary Ann. It was soft and sophisticated, just like her; and nothing captured the essence of Sylvia better than the Kimono-wrap, halter-top: seductive yet serene. It was so her.
After the model left the showroom, I sipped some French wine, nibbled on Brie, and drifted into the philosophical state that only French fare can induce. I wondered if clothes simply complement who we already are, or shape us to become who we want to be. Did Sartre ever contemplate such sartorial issues? I pondered the ultimate existential question: Would our identities cease to exist, if not for our clothes?
It's all a matter of perception and expectation, I've concluded. It seems to me that one of the most valuable skills we can rely on, in both our social and professional lives, is the ability to adapt our personal image. There's a startling correlation between wanting to make a positive impression and the lengths we'll go to in order to do so. It's our desire to impress critical others which will determine whether we conform to their expectations or rebel and shock by going against them.
It's undeniable that clothes do have the ability to reinforce and influence the way others perceive us. Just witness the many makeover transformations that leave Oprah audiences weeping with joy. In our nonobservance of the old adage, "never judge a book by its cover,'' we as members of a modern, image-driven society often buy books just because of their cover. It's no secret that glossy covers sell better than matte ones. And it's no secret that corporate recruiters will usually give the job to the person who not only can play the part, but also looks the part.
Back at M Galleria, my philosophical exercise proved useful, as it turned what could have been a frivolous shopping spree into a meaningful experience. After rationalizing the necessity of so many new items, it was easy to justify their expense.
I convinced myself that I was shopping, not just for the pleasure of it, but out of sheer self-preservation. Let's face it, it's taken decades of life experience and character building to shape my image and, as the spokesperson says in the familiar television commercial, "I'm worth it.'' How could I let my image down, and disappoint those who care to judge me. In the name of personal empowerment (and social responsibility), I found myself giving in to the must-have clothes that before my enlightened standpoint were simply nice to have. As for the brocade coat, how could I resist something that was so me?
Loretta Di Vita is a professional image consultant in Montreal.