1-on-1: Confidence Never Goes Out of Fashion

If you’re an entrepreneur who enjoys marching to the beat of your own drum, fashion may be near the bottom of your list of things to think about in this lifetime. But Clinton Kelly, co-host of TLC’s What Not to Wear, says your wardrobe deserves a little more attention.

As a successful businessperson, you already understand the importance of brand image. Kelly says you are the brand, and your clothes present the image.

In addition to co-hosting What Not to Wear, which has an estimated 1.2 million viewers and enters its ninth season in August, Kelly will co-host ABC’s upcoming daytime talk show The Chew, premiering in September. Before his TV debut, he worked his way through the ranks at fashion magazines Marie Claireand Mademoiselleand served as executive editor of DNR, a respected menswear trade journal. Kelly also is the author of Freakin’ Fabulous: How to Dress, Speak, Behave, Eat, Drink, Entertain, Decorate and Generally Be Better than Everyone Elseand the co-author of Dress Your Best: The Complete Guide to Finding the Style That’s Right for Your Body. He also has a successful line of women’s casual wear, Clinton Kelly for Denim & Co., sold through QVC.

SUCCESS: Let’s start with the basics. Why is style important?

Clinton Kelly: Style is an important tool in conveying your message to the rest of the world. We tell the rest of the world how to perceive us by the things we say, the things we do and by what we put on our backs. Hopefully you say and do the right things. But you should also wear the right clothes. What you wear really impacts your message, and you need to control the message you’re sending other people.

It’s about control. When you take control of your message and of how you want to be perceived by other people, it’s empowering. You’re driving your own bus, so to speak. People make snap judgments about you. What you don’t want is for people to make snap judgments about you that are not what you’re all about. You want people to sum you up as a successful, confident person.

You’re asking people to put a lot of faith in you when you’re asking them to spend their money with you if you look like garbage. You want to present the complete package. You want to show people that you have it all together—especially if you’re dealing with strangers.

Does the rest of the world really notice or care what other people are wearing?

CK: There’s not a doubt in my mind that people treat you the way you tell them you expect to be treated, whether it’s with your mouth or with your clothes.

If you walk into a bank for a loan, do you wear sweatpants, or do you wear something nice? You wear something nice because you know it matters. If you go to a wedding, you wear something nice because it matters. That’s it, it just matters.

You deal a lot with people’s confidence issues on What Not to Wear. How does image impact a person’s attitude?

CK: It’s a human desire to feel attractive. That doesn’t mean sexually attractive, just attractive. When you feel as if you look good, you feel better.

Spend the day in sweatpants, and then spend the day wearing something that looks really great. Then ask yourself, Which day did I feel better about myself?

Anytime we pass a mirror we look at ourselves. When someone who looks put-together looks back at us, it makes the day a little better.

Does following fashion rules negate personality? Does being “in style” mean that everyone has to look the same?

CK: Do you know how many clothes there are in the world? Fashion is about trends and to a certain extent labels and designers. That’s not what style is about. Style is about a point of view. It’s taking what’s available to you and putting your own spin on it.

If your personal spin is to wear things that have holes or are dirty or shapeless, you’re going to give the impression that you’re schlumpy. Wear what you want to wear, just make sure it’s sending the message you want to send.

We all have go-to items in our closets, clothes we fall back on because they’re comfortable or easy to wear, even if they’re not sending the right message. What are your tips for breaking out of clothing ruts?

CK: What people don’t get is that clothes are tools. Your clothes help you get what you want out of life. Ask yourself if this rut is helping you get what you want.

For example, one rut people fall into is wearing black all the time. You know, black clothes can look professional. But if you wear black clothes that have no shape you might as well be wearing a garbage bag. Some people wear black because they’re trying to hide, but black isn’t the best color for a lot of people because it brings out shadows in the skin, dark circles, wrinkles. Whatever the rut is you have to ask yourself, Is it bringing me what I want?

Style involves work. People get busy, and they don’t want to put the work into it or they don’t believe style is a tool to move them forward. Sometimes people just really hate their bodies so much that they prefer to pretend they don’t have them.

So you have to ask, what is your priority? If you want to break out of a rut, make the decision and make it a priority.

Any final words of encouragement regarding wardrobe style for entrepreneurs and business leaders?

CK: Your wardrobe helps others figure out what you’re all about; it’s a nonverbal communication tool. I don’t know why everyone else doesn’t see this as blatantly obvious. You wouldn’t go into a job interview with your résumé printed on toilet paper. It would say that you’re crazy. You don’t walk into a pitch meeting with half a cheeseburger in your mouth. It would be inappropriate. It’s just as inappropriate to walk into a business meeting dressed the same way you would dress for your kid’s soccer practice.

Nobody wants to be associated with an unsuccessful brand. So why would you want your brand—you—to look unsuccessful when you are indeed successful? Could you imagine inviting people over to your office when it looks like a bomb went off in it? That’s not so smart. You’ll give people the impression you can’t handle your work. When you dress inappropriately for the type of work that you do, you give people the impression that you’re not fully committed to your work

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