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Image-Consultant Industry Comes of Age

WHEN Democratic strategists learned that Hillary Clinton was lagging in the polls because she sometimes appeared to be high-powered and ambitious, consultants quietly began to soften her image. They replaced bright-colored clothes with pastels and muted shades, and added knit ensembles to her wardrobe of power suits. They also suggested a shorter, sleeker hairdo. The new look, consultants hope, will make Mrs. Clinton more "approachable" and a greater asset to her husband's campaign.

This kind of transformation, however subtle or dramatic, is all in a day's work for image consultants. Hired by everyone from candidates and CEOs to receptionists and homemakers, they work individually to improve clients' wardrobes, color choices, grooming, and confidence. At the same time, image consultants are working collectively to polish their own image, seeking to bring greater professionalism and respect to their field through training, accreditation, and membership associations.

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"We're no longer the housewife just doing this as a hobby," says Coralyn Lundell, an image consultant in Saratoga, Calif. What began decades ago with a focus on color analysis, often done by women working part time with little formal training, has broadened into full-time careers in what professionals call the "image industry." About 20 schools across the country now offer a two-year accredited program for image consultants. And last weekend 200 members of the Association of Image Consultants Internation al, the field's largest professional organization, gathered in Boston for three days of seminars and workshops.

Lisa Cunningham, a New York-based image consultant, describes the field as "a growth industry of the '90s," noting that business has improved during the recession because many people are either looking for a job or trying to hold the one they have. "We are also the service industry of the '90s," she continues. "People don't have time to shop, and it's getting harder and harder to find good clothes." How the 1960s created a '90s industry

Diane Parente, an image consultant in San Francisco, offers another explanation for the popularity of these services. "Many of the effective business people out there now came from the '60s, and they had no dress rules," she says. "If we hadn't had the '60s and early '70s, we wouldn't need this field. The '60s got rid of all ideas on dressing appropriately. We are more casual than we've ever been before. Casual clothes reduce stress, but people have taken them into the workplace, and they're inappropriat e."

Almost all image consultants are women, as are a majority of clients. But men who use these services often become enthusiastic converts as well, according to Carolyn Gustafson, an image consultant in New York who says that 30 percent of her clients are men.

Ms. Gustafson notes that the industry is most popular in the South and the West. "Southern women are more comfortable with femininity and color and paying a lot of attention to that," she says. "Whereas New Yorkers are often high-powered career women. They think they're supposed to know this."

That may be one reason consultants cannot count on word of mouth for referrals. "People will admit to having a therapist before they'll admit to having an image consultant," says Gustafson. New Yorkers in particular, she finds, "like to have people think they did it themselves." What female politicians should not wear

Image consultants acknowledge that working women have made considerable strides in dressing well. But they caution that as more women enter politics, polished images become even more essential.

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"A lot of female candidates need to think about how they present themselves," says Ms. Parente. "If their clothes are too soft or rumpled, they look tired. They need crisp clothes to make them look efficient and in control."

Cunningham and Gustafson suggest that women on the campaign trail choose well-cut suits, paying attention to fit, jacket length, and hem length, which should be just below the kneecap or just above. They advise candidates to avoid prints and girlish clothes. They caution against noisy jewelry and jewelry in motion, both of which are distracting. And they find blue the safest color. "It's powerful and authoritative," Cunningham explains. "It photographs beautifully and doesn't send any negative messages."

Emphasizing how important it is for candidates - and everyone else - to send positive messages, Gustafson sums up the philosophy of her profession by saying, "Wardrobes and grooming choices serve as a silent introduction. Your clothes are going to speak before you open your mouth."

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