Laurie Morris, professional closet editor, brings tough love to the wardrobes of busy women. She is brought in to consult on what-to-wear issues by high-flying executives, but also by their lower-echelon colleagues, professionals, business owners, and PTA presidents. By the time that she gets the call, there is often closet chaos. “Most people wait too long to get in touch with me,” says the perfectly-put-together Morris, who worked in the fashion industry for 15 years before launching LLM Style from her Princeton home 10 years ago.
Morris begins with a closet analysis and purge, a process that takes some three hours. Her client works right along with her, and as they edit down years of random purchases, they talk. “She tells me about who she is, what her life is like, what she likes wearing.” The next step is a shopping trip, and, perhaps surprisingly, Morris says that this will not be a pleasant jaunt.
“Shopping is not fun,” Morris says. “It is hard work.” The perception of shopping as recreation, in fact, is the very reason that so many otherwise sensible, successful women, are in wardrobe trouble, she insists.
Morris did not grow up in a fashion hot spot, a Milan, or even a Manhattan. She is a native of East Lansing, Michigan, where her father was an executive with International Harvester, and her mother was a homemaker. While her family was not involved in fashion, its make-up did lead her to her career. “I was a twin,” she says, “and I had two older sisters.” One sister was 12 years older, and one 11 years older. “When we were born, my mother said ‘you each get one,’” she recounts.
Her mother remained in charge, of course, but each older girl was given a baby to mentor. Morris was paired up with her oldest sister, Beth, an artist and jeweler who lives in Kirkland, Washington. “We’re super close,” says Morris. She is even closer to her eldest sister than she is to her twin.
It was Beth who saved her from a life of career malaise. Although she had always had an interest in art, she had no idea of what she wanted to study, and did little research into colleges. “I had a friend at the University of Arizona at Tucson,” she says, “and that sounded good to me.” She attended that school for two years, taking courses in the random way that her clients tend to buy clothes, and was miserable. Then Beth sat her down and persuaded her to transfer to an art school. To this day, Morris thinks this was excellent advice, not only for her, but for all students. “I really think it is important to focus in the second two years of college,” she says.
Her focus took her to the Art Center in Pasadena, where she fell into a rigorous routine of “producing and talking art every day.” She emerged from that school with a portfolio of illustrations, and began her career as a freelance illustrator for magazines. Then one day a friend asked her to work at a trunk show, a fashion event where samples of clothing, often designer clothing, are on display. Morris became hooked on the fashion industry instantly. “After one weekend, I knew I liked it a lot,” she says.
The company conducting the trunk show was looking for a West Coast salesperson, and hired her for the position. She would work from New York City and make frequent trips to visit buyers on the West Coast. She thrived on the work, and in an industry she describes as unusually fast-paced, she was quickly hired away from her original employer. Through the grapevine she heard of a job at Perry Ellis, and was hired for it. “It was so fantastic,” she recalls. Nevertheless, she soon moved on, working, in turn, for Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Donna Karan.
She says that some people think that selling clothing collections is an odd occupation for an artist, but she sees it as a perfect fit. “Sales can be wonderfully creative, especially when a fashion house is doing well,” she says. It involves working with color, and texture, and form, and pulling it all together as a story. The eye of an artist is necessary in assembling outfits that will appeal to the clientele of the many different department store buyers with whom a fashion salesperson works. Taking it up a notch, Morris says that this artistic sense needs to be coupled with a flare for the dramatic in putting together runway shows. “Thinking back on it,” she says, “I realize that it really is theater.”
Living in a New York City loft, traveling extensively, and feeding off the energy and creativity of some of the country’s most successful designers, Morris was in her element. But, after a decade-and-a-half on 7th Avenue, she met and married Jeff Morris, an engineer who evaluates potential acquisitions for the Starwood, a developer of hotels and shopping centers. Jeff did not want to live in New York City, and so the couple moved to Atlanta, where Morris noticed in no time flat that there was nothing even remotely resembling a fashion industry.
She was thinking that her career in fashion was over when a friend asked for her help in untangling her closet. Morris, using 15 years’ worth of top-level experience — and a degree of organization that would fall above the 99th percentile were there charts for this trait — did such a good job that more requests for wardrobe help quickly followed.
Morris’ new business had been born. After moving to Princeton, where she and her husband are raising three children, the oldest of whom has just left for her freshman year in college, she picked up where she had left off in Atlanta.
Clients come mainly through word of mouth, but also from auctions held by Princeton area schools and non-profits. She puts her services on the block, with bids beginning at $75 an hour. The non-profit reaps an immediate financial reward, and she often earns new referrals.
Morris has worked with men, generally the husbands of clients, but she says that shopping for clothes and maintaining an appropriate wardrobe is a snap for men compared with the challenges it presents for women.
“Just find a good tailor,” is her advice to men. Salespeople in high-end men’s clothing stores and in the menswear departments of high-end stores are generally far more well-informed and helpful than their counterparts in women’s departments, says Morris, who frequently “tests” salespeople on their knowledge and level of service. Besides, dressing for a man in relatively simple. If the suit is well-cut and fits, the shirt is starched, and the shoes are in good shape, a man is ready for almost any business or social event.
For women, it’s a lot more complicated. But also very important. Morris asks, entirely rhetorically, if Hillary Clinton would be a second-term senator with serious presidential aspirations if she still looked the way she did when she first arrived on the political scene as a governor’s wife. “Hillary is obviously listening to people,” she says. Praising the senator’s put-together, age-appropriate look, Morris says that an unkempt, out-of-step style is a hurdle to any woman’s career progress.
But how does a woman without Clinton’s resources get her look together? Morris has some suggestions:
Get a good hanger. Drilling down to the smallest detail, Morris says that you can tell a lot about a women’s wardrobe just by looking at the hangers in her closet. A tangle of dry cleaners’ wire hangers, red, pink, and green plastic hangers from the dollar store, and a couple of wooden hangers signals dysfunction. On the work table in the immaculate office of her elegant, yet understated home, Morris has laid out an array of gorgeous wooden and padded hangers. Choose one — only one — type of attractive, well-made hanger, she insists. This one step will make a huge difference in the look of the closet.
Pare down the closet. What does Morris encounter when she goes out on a wardrobe 911 call? Serious, business-like, and one not given to wild exaggeration, she nevertheless conveys the image of clothing desperation, of closets just barely able to function as anything but sinkholes of mis-matched, multi-season pieces, many unfit even for donation to the Salvation Army.
“Look at this before and after story,” she says, pointing to an article on closet rehabilitation in O Magazine, Oprah Winfrey’s publication. “I’ve seen closets that are worse than the ‘before’ picture.” Thumbing around some more, she finds a shot of a closet that could be more properly described as a fabric puddle with shoes sticking out here and there. That, she says, is often what she finds.
It must be said that Morris is not at all judgmental. She is in total sympathy with busy women who have not had time to give attention to their wardrobes until the untended outfits morphed into undisciplined, largely useless piles.
With her client at her side, she wades right in. The first target is out of season clothing. There is a sign on her work table that says “You won’t wear what you can’t see.” A proliferation of sun dresses, seersucker suits, pink cotton dresses, bathing suit cover-ups, and short-sleeve blouses does not belong in a closet in the winter. All out-of-season clothing must be removed and stored away. No one needs to be peering through a pastel maze while trying to find something to wear on a dark February morning.
Next out are all of the clothes that don’t fit. Not one to dash hopes — false or otherwise — Morris tells clients not ready to give up the dream of once again wearing a size 8 that they can store the too-tight clothes, “and try them on again next year.”
Worn clothes are also on the hit list. If the sweater is pilled, the skirt is shiny, or the jacket has a little tear, it’s out.
With the distracting, space-sucking clothes out of the closet, the picture becomes more clear.
Evaluate the body type. Before a closet can fill up with flattering outfits, the client must come to grips with her bad — and good — attributes. “Most people have no idea of their body type,” says Morris. Many of her tiny clients buy too big, and become lost in their clothes. Others buy jackets that hit them in the wrong place, making them look chunkier than they are. Women with great legs fail to take advantage of them by wearing short skirts, which, paired with dark leggings, are a major trend this winter.
“Fit is the most important thing,” says Morris. She helps clients to determine just what type of clothes will fit them beautifully, and highlight their best attributes, before working with them to restock their closets with just the wardrobe pieces that they really need.
What’s missing? “I ask people what they wear to work each day,” says Morris. For most women, the answer is a suit. “But there may be only three suits in the closet,” she finds. A business woman needs more like seven suits. She also needs the accessories to go with them. Are there enough shoes? Are they the right height? What about pocketbooks?
If the client is a woman who does not work at a 9-5 job, but rather spends much of her time volunteering or serving on boards, there should be a good collection of blue jeans. While the suit is the core garment of a corporate executive, Morris says that blue jeans are the core garment of the suburban woman who is involved in her community. This woman needs a substantial wardrobe of jeans — in different colors, washes, and styles — and complementary pieces that can dress the jeans up, perhaps leather jackets, blazers, or stylish blouses.
Hit the stores. Shopping with a gaggle of girlfriends is to shopping with Morris what having drinks with a best friend is to having an interview dinner with the vice president of a multi-national corporation. Fun? Morris scoffs at the very notion. “Shopping is not a social event,” she declares. She is genuinely puzzled at the idiocy of spending a giddy afternoon with a group of buddies who urge you to buy anything that catches your — or their — eye.
Maybe the color is fabulous. Maybe, even, it looks great on you. “But do you have anything to go with it?” Morris asks. Recreational shoppers think in pieces, she says. They buy a fuschia skirt only to find that it matches none of their blouses. They buy down parkas despite the fact that they are never outside for more than three minutes a day. They buy rise ultra low-rise jeans, not realizing that three inches of their stomachs will be exposed, a look that is instantly shot down by their teen-age daughters.
When Morris and a client go on a shopping trip, they go with a well-thought-out list. They are filling in wardrobe gaps. They are updating outfits. They are more like snipers than foragers. But, still, it isn’t easy.
Complete the mission quickly. “Department stores are so confusing,” says Morris, who heads straight to Manhattan with her clients. They are so difficult to navigate. “The blue jean bar at Saks has hundreds of options,” she says. “There is music blaring. It feels very young, and my clients think there is nothing there for them.” At 50, she falls mid-way in the age-range of her client base, which tends to be between 40 and 60. But all of them can find flattering jeans somewhere in that bewildering selection, she insists. It’s a matter of knowing the designers, knowing the manufacturers, and knowing the range of styles.
Morris makes it her job to be up-to-the-minute on all of that information. She spends at least one day a week people watching in Manhattan, where her favorite perches include the bar at Barney’s, the restaurant E.A.T., at 80th Street and Madison Avenue, and the streets in SoHo. She reads — no, studies — every fashion magazine. Every season she puts together a six-inch thick tabbed binder with sections for make-overs, closets, jeans, packing, jackets, suits, pants, coats, and shoes and bags.
Knowing what a client needs and which manufacturer is most likely to have it in a style and fit that flatters her, Morris aims to get into just the right store — and to get out quickly, perfect outfit in hand. “I meet the client at 10 a.m.,” she says, “and we spend three or four hours. If we need two black skirts, we get them, and have them altered that day.” One reason that she likes to shop in New York is that many department stores in the city have large alteration departments. Saks, in particular, she says, is an excellent choice for on-the-spot alterations.
Alterations arranged for, Morris and her client find just the right shoes, pocketbook, and accessories. “She’s complete,” says Morris. “She doesn’t have to wonder what to wear.” Some of her most high-profile corporate clients even lay out the outfits and take Polaroid pictures of them. Then, in the deep dark that precedes the trip to catch the 5:20 a.m. train into the city, there is no guesswork whatsoever.
Shun the sales. Reluctance to spend is a big factor in the wardrobe decisions of non-executive women, says Morris, and she doesn’t understand it. “They spend on their cars, their homes, on everything else,” she says, “but they won’t spend on themselves, and it’s how they present themselves in the world every day.”
The woman who blanches at the thought of paying $800 for a well-cut dress or jacket, however, will spend that much — and more — at the sale rack, says Morris. She is opposed to sale shopping, the exciting sport, where trophy 75 percent-off dresses, and double-discounted mohair sweaters can be carted off on the spot, and bragged about for weeks. These are items that tend to be short-lived enthusiasms, says Morris, and that almost never add value to a wardrobe.
Morris only allows her clients to shop at sales if they go in knowing exactly what they need and exactly which designer is likely to have the item in a fit and style that flatters them. Her own discount strategy involves building relationships with salespeople, and then asking for a call when an outfit she is targeting is reduced in price.
Shop in your price bracket. “I’m not an elitist,” says Morris. “I ask clients what they would like to spend. “They may have budgeted $2,000 or $500.” She can work with any price point. She does point out, however, that quality escalates right along with price. A more expensive suit will be made of a better fabric, will fit better and have better detailing. It will dry clean better, and it will last longer.
Why fashion is different. The exception to the better is more expensive rule is clothing in the “fashion” category. Clothes in the hottest new styles — and often the more extreme styles — cost more because of their fashion cache. Morris flips through her fashion binder and points to micro-mini dresses in bold prints with huge sleeves, drape-like dresses with necklines down to the navel, and layered-outfits in an ultra-casual mix of textures and colors. These, she says, are examples of fashion. They aren’t necessarily made better than less expensive outfits, and they almost certainly will not become wardrobe staples. “You’re paying for fashion,” she says.
That is not what Morris’ clients want. “They don’t want to be fashion-y,” she says. “They want to look better. They want to look like they are paying attention.”
A good way to do this, she says, is to take just one element of what is currently hot, and to make it your own. She turns back to that bold print mini-dress, and says that buying a blouse in a bold print, and wearing it with a black skirt already in the closet would signal that you understand fashion, but are being true to your own style.
Follow the leaders. In another twist, it is essential to be true to your body type and to your own personal style, but it is also a good idea to pay attention to what your boss, and other influential people in your field, are wearing. “All of the powerful women in Washington are wearing lapel pins now,” Morris gives as an example. An assistant to one of these women might want to shop for lapel pins herself. “If I were at Donna Karan and my boss started wearing a certain type of suit, I would wear it too,” she says. “It’s flattering to her, and she’s paying my bonus.”
Playing copy-cat can be more than a smart strategy, it can be a fiat. Corporate women must wear jackets, says Morris. They can be somewhat creative in accessorizing — but not too creative. “These yellow shoes would look great with a suit,” she says, pointing to a picture of a stylish pair of medium-high heels in her binder. A pair of six-inch heels in the same hue, however, would be a no-no. Corporate dressing rules don’t appear in a handbook. Despite the fact that she is anything but far out, Morris has had creative dressing suggestions shot down by corporate executives in the pharmaceutical and financial industries. You can only go so far, they tell her.
Go from day to night. Morris’ clients often have to go straight from the office to social events. She shows them how they can do so without having to bring a complete change of clothes to work in the morning. A different jacket, a dressier pair of shoes, and a more dressy handbag can effect a transformation. She turns to her binder again and points to a brown pants suit in a soft fabric, worn with a tailored blouse. Switch the short jacket for a knee-length embroidered cream-colored coat with bright stitching, add a small pink handbag and a pair of coordinated heels, and the outfit looks entirely different.
Clothes make the man, but do they make the woman? Morris thinks so. “If you’re unkempt, it’s a distraction,” she says. “People don’t hear what you’re saying. They don’t take you seriously.”
The advice worked for Hillary Clinton. Morris thinks it can work for Princeton-area women, too, whether they are running a company, running for office, or running to make it to a board meeting on time.