Deputy Style Editor Jemima Carr-Jones interviews Bristol-based Stylist and Image Consultant Karen Lowe
Last week I had the privilege of interviewing Karen Lowe, the Bristol based personal stylist and image consultant responsible for instilling new-found confidence in the lives of men and women across the West Country. Whether you’ve lost your style mojo, find yourself with all the clothes, but nothing to wear, or are simply suffering from a lack of inspiration; Karen champions the power of a well-put-together outfit, offering consultancy and advice about how to reinvigorate your wardrobe... and life.
I started following Karen on Instagram about a year ago and a few months later chanced upon her while shopping in a little boutique in Clifton. We started chatting, thankfully (!), and I have since been lucky enough to have the opportunity to pick her brains about what it's like being a personal stylist.
Bearing in mind that designer brands aren't totally suitable for a student budget, I've had to reluctantly resign myself to the fact that, as stylish as I hope to be, I just don't have the cash to splash. Yes, high-street brands usually look like a lot of the stuff on runway, but I often struggle to find cheaper clothing that is as durable and has the quality which the more upmarket stores offer. At least... this is what I thought until I spoke to Karen. Just from talking to Karen for an hour in Boston Tea Party, I was changed. Despite using clothing predominantly from high-street brands, Karen's outfits are both stylish and well made; something that I couldn't reconcile with the price tag. In my interview with Karen, she reveals how a carefully chosen Primark jumper matched with the right accessories can suddenly look as though it were straight off of the rails of And Other Stories. I am a Karen convert and will now look at clothing through fresh, scrupulous and frugal eyes!
Jemima: First of all can you introduce yourself and explain what it is you do?
Karen: My name is Karen Lowe, I’m an image consultant and personal stylist, and I’ve been doing this in Bristol for about 7 and a half years.
>'Work wise, I wanted a job in something fashion related and clothes related, but also a career that would really help people'
J: So how exactly did you wind up doing this job?
K: Well I studied textiles design at university, and I specialised in machine embroidery for fashion and interiors, and then I moved to London with all hopes of going into the fashion industry. But, when I moved to London reality struck. I needed a permanent job because I couldn’t survive otherwise. I applied to work at Habitat and really wanted to go into their buying department, but they wanted people on the shop floor to get experience first. Funnily enough, I ended up doing wedding list consultancy - which was brilliant - I was on Kings Road, and it was just so much fun. Anyway, to cut a long story short I then later fell into marketing in the commercial interior design industry for ten years, I'd been a marketing manager for the same company for seven years but after my maternity leave, I returned to work part time and within that year was made redundant.
So, I’m still living in London, but my husband is feeling a bit fed up at this point, so I am like, err, what do I want to do? So I went a did a couple of courses back in textile design because that was what I had always wanted to do, and what I had really loved and enjoyed… I loved the creative process and the work that I was producing, but I just thought, the reality is me sitting at home on my own with a sewing machine and it just wasn’t what I wanted to do because I like being around people. While this was happening… we moved to Bristol. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do and I was racking my brain, what am I going to do? I wanted it to be something that I would really enjoy, something that I was really interested in and something that would fit around my family. And then one day I was watching Gok Wan, and I just went PING! That’s what I want to do! I want to become an image consultant! So I went and researched courses, and there was one in Nottingham for 5 days, and that was that! A lot of the job is learning as you go, but from the course, you get the basics. I’ve been doing this job ever since, and I love it!
>My other piece of advice would be if it scares you do it anyway!
J: So would you say that this is this your dream job?
K: It is. In loads of ways it definitely is. I’ve always loved fashion, from a really really young age. My mum used to make clothes for me, she used to make jumpers for me, and I’d design them. I remember I once designed a pair of trousers with a skirt over the top of it and she actually made it for me! It was very cool. I just always loved having pieces that nobody else had. It was all about having a really unique sense of style for me. Work wise, I wanted a job in something fashion related and clothes related, but also a career that would really help people. There are so many women out there and men actually that just have no idea how to dress. They don’t like the way they look, they feel invisible, they feel frumpy, they just don’t know how to put clothes together that they feel good in. So it’s all about confidence for me, and that’s the best part of my job, you know, giving people their confidence back, helping them to like how they look so that when they see themselves in the mirror, they think, yeah, I like this, I feel good in this. That’s what it’s all about for me.
> 'Sitting at home on my own with a sewing machine wasn’t what I wanted to do because I like being around people'
J: I completely agree with that philosophy, I think self-confidence can really be found in your clothing and your fashion choices, feeling as though your style really expresses you. On that note, what do you think a person’s style says about them?
K: Everything. You can learn so much about someone from their style. When I give talks, I always talk about how clothes alter the perception people have of you and often reflect phases or things happening in your life, people usually dress how they feel. And that can be like if you’re going through something traumatic or you’re ill, or you’re just not feeling great, you dress how you feel. That can be like big baggy, shapeless clothing, and you can see people who are uncomfortable in themselves because they wear this like hide-away clothing.
I would like to point out at this point that I'm here, sat in an oversized black chenille sweater that I rushedly grabbed off a male friend. I point down to it giving Karen a guilty smile.
K: No! You have leopard print leggings on! Definitely not hide-away! But I think everyone is different and unique and your style should express your personality in a way that is individual to you.
J: So, Karen, what would you say is the most challenging part of your job?
K: I’d say it’s quite a tiring job. It’s emotionally exhausting because you’re handling people who might not have much confidence or they might have self-esteem issues, or physically they may have body image issues. There’s a really tricky emotional side to it that I had no idea had anything to do with personal styling. I meet so many women who, for whatever reason, are unhappy with the way they look, whether it's through weight loss or gain, illness, change in circumstance and have lost confidence in themselves. You’re buoying them up throughout the process and hope that at the end they come out of it and go wow you’ve given me so much confidence, I hear that all the time. So you have to be on the whole time, if you have a four-hour shop you don’t stop talking, you don’t stop moving, your head is continuously thinking what goes with this, what goes with that. It’s quite a demanding job, the best job, but really demanding. Having said that, it’s brilliant, its fun and I meet amazing people.
J: What would you say the takeaway message is that you give your clients?
K: Ultimately, I always say to my clients, I can give you the knowledge to dress well, to dress to your body shape, to look interesting, to look the best version of yourself. But tomorrow when you wake up, and I’m not here, you have to make that decision on what to wear for yourself. So a lot of it is re-educating somebody but then them going off and putting it into practice after we’ve set the guidelines.
J: And how do you gauge what it is a client is after look-wise?
K: I have absolutely no preconceptions about my client. I never ask their age, I never ask what size they are- I don’t really need to know that much about them initially. But once I meet them for the first time, I will ask loads of questions.
People often say don’t you just dress people in what you like? And I just say it’s got nothing to do with me. I always say its a bit like you become your client, from getting to know them a bit by asking loads of questions. What they like, what they don’t like, what their job is, what they do at the weekends, what their hobbies are, what they’re naturally drawn to, what would be an absolutely no-way, do they want to stand out, do they want to be stylish or classic or elegant, all of those things. I basically just get as much information as possible and then I personally just start to build a visual idea about what style would go.
J: Ah! Like a mind-mood board?
K: Yeah! Exactly, it is a bit like a mind-mood board! Because it’s so much about them and their lifestyle and what is going to work for them.
J: What would you say defines your style?
K: My hair has always been a ‘thing’, and people have always commented on my hair, I feel its a real part of my style. So when my hairs not right or if I’ve ever had a haircut that I’m not happy with I am just not comfortable, and it’s like that with your clothes because if you don’t like what you’re wearing you just feel a bit deflated all day.
J: Yeah I totally can relate… When I’m not sure about an outfit, I just have to keep changing until I’m confident about it and then I know I’ll have a good day and whoever I bump into I’ll be able to be my best self... I'm more productive as well!
K: Absolutely! Change! And anyway that’s how most of my clients feel every day. Our bad days, for them, are every day, and over time it really affects their self-confidence.
J: Actually, your role in people’s lives can completely change their lives in lots of ways...
K: Well when you feel more confident in yourself that then feeds into other areas of your life, so you might be more confident to go and do an exercise class or go on a date or whatever it is for you! So, you know, people often say oh fashion is shallow and taking care of yourself is shallow or vain and it’s just not. It’s about expressing yourself, and it’s about confidence and feeling good! There’s nothing vain about that.
J: You always seem to have such a knack for finding things in high street brands that range from fairy to seriously inexpensive but look really high brow, what is your trick? How do you spot the steals?
K: Thank you! Haha, I’m a real high street girl, I always have been. I mean my whole outfit, this jumper is Primark, my trousers are Primark… my shoes and coat Zara.
J: My jaw drops There is absolutely no way that the gorgeous dark brown knit jumper is Primark.
K: It is! It doesn’t look Primark, it seems like it is from And Other Stories doesn’t it! So I think if you’re careful about the choices you make you don’t actually have to have a massive amount of money. Accessories and how you style something makes a big difference, choose carefully, choose your fabrics, don’t go for cheap fabrics.
J: Your jumper, it's from Primark so surely it’s a worse quality fabric?
K: Well its acrylic, but you still buy acrylic in more expensive stores! One of my favourite pieces is a maxi pleated leopard print skirt, and I’ve had it for years, every time I wear it someone will stop me in the street and ask where did you get it from?? And its Primark! And because I’ve chosen it carefully, it just doesn’t look it. Also, how you look after your clothes is another key component in how long they will last and look.
J: So what would you recommend you should bear in mind when buying cheaply but maintaining an expensive look?
K: Material, cut, how it fits you, can you add slightly more expensive accessories to it? Can you add a coat on top? Put nail varnish on, clean your shoes, put a bit of makeup on, don’t make the look too baggy, tuck it in to make it more formal - it’s all of these little things that can make a big difference. And look in charity shops!
For accessories, they can be great. I’ve found a Burberry handbag in a charity shop and Jaeger belts - things like that are what is just going to lift your outfit to the next level. I volunteer at St Peter’s Hospice, the charity shop on Cotham Hill and I’ve found so many Jaeger belts in that shop!
J: What one piece of advice would you suggest for a student about to go into the working world?
K: I was talking to someone about students going into the working world and going for interviews and stuff, and it is so important you wear the right clothing because you’ve got to create the right impression. I always say when I give talks if I'd have come here in a white shirt gone grey, my hair a mess, my clothes baggy and I had old jeans on that were slightly too short in the leg, and my shoes were scruffy, you wouldn’t believe anything I had to say! As a stylist, you wouldn’t have any confidence in anything I had to say at all because you’d look at me and think - yeah right. And that’s what you can do, you can make people believe that you’re something you’re not just by what you’re wearing.
J: So where do you shop with your clients in Bristol?
K: It really depends on where I feel is right for the client and their budget. I'm mostly at Cabot Circus, I occaisonally go to The Mall, but sometimes clients may specifically ask to shop exclusively in charity shops or maybe they want to invest in higher-end pieces! It really depends on what the client is after, so with one girl she had a budget of about £200, maybe less, and we went to Gloucester Road to the charity shops, we found everything! We did it all there and found amazing things.
J: If you could only shop in one place for the rest of your life where would it be?
K: It would probably have to be Zara.
J: Me too. Your job, in one respect, is like being somewhat of a therapist because it can make such a difference to people’s lives, do you find that’s quite a big responsibility?
K: It absolutely is therapy, you learn so much about somebody and like I said it’s quite tiring because you have their emotions in your hands. But it's also a great joy and privilege to be able to help someone overcome negative body image issues and learn to love themselves exactly as they are. The realisation that they don't need to be a certain size or to lose weight to be happy with the way they look can be life changing. Clients always come back to me and tell me how much more confident they're feeling, how they've started to love choosing clothes for themselves again and that they now enjoy going shopping instead of hating it and being overwhelmed by it. That for me is why I believe I have the best job in the world. To make that positive difference in someones life is amazing.
J: Do people ever cry when you’re with them?
K: Yes! Tears of happiness, tears of sadness! In that way, it really is like therapy. Part of the job is sort of like coaching people, and I always say to be a really great personal stylist it’s not all about knowing how to put clothes together it’s about knowing how to talk to people and being good with people, so it is very much like therapy. I'll say 'you absolutely can wear this, there’s no reason why you can’t', but at the same time I don’t ever want to pressure people into wearing or buying anything, if they express doubt, I'll say that it’s totally fine. If you don’t feel awesome in an outfit, I’m never going to talk you into buying it because I know you’ll get it home and you won’t wear it!
J: What happens if you go on a shop and they just don’t like a single thing that you’ve chosen!
K: It never happens… people always ask that question and it just never happens. Maybe I’m just really lucky - I don’t know!
J: How many hours do you spend shopping with a client usually?
K: So my longest client, she’s amazing, our longest shop was 10 hours. We started at 10am and finished at 8pm. We had a little break for lunch, and that was it. All her clothes were too big for her because she’d lost weight, so she basically needed to start again with all of it. So we did a 10-hour shop, then two 7-hour shops then a 5-hour shop for the last one!
J: Finally, I’d like to ask for a last pearl of wisdom please! - What advice would give the younger people who are interested in entering the fashion industry or styling or really any job?
K: Get a job that you’re passionate about because you spend so much time doing it! Doing a job that you just don’t enjoy is soul-destroying because you do that more than anything else! You’ve got to love it. My other piece of advice would be if it scares you do it anyway. Fear stopped me from doing so many things when I was younger... My life could be totally different if I had not listened to that fear! After uni, the costume designer of the new Star Wars films saw some of my fabrics and was interested in my work but I never followed the contact up because I lacked that confidence in myself and my ability. Don't let fear hold you back. Be open to all opportunities. I might have been a costume designer on the set of Star Wars! So if it scares you do it, what's the worst that can happen?
Image: Karen Lowe
For some style inspiration of your own, take a look at Karen’s Instagram @karenlowestylist.
Or, equally, if you want to get in touch, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured Image: Karen Lowe/ Instagram
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