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Stacy London: Dangerous To Call Style Superficial

Oct 2, 2012
Originally published on October 3, 2012 9:55 am



Now, we turn to the clothing industry, where finding the right style doesn't necessarily mean spending big bucks. So says Stacy London, at least. She's known for co-hosting TLC's hit TV show "What Not to Wear." We've watched her transform the looks and lives of hundreds of guests.

Now, she's putting some of that fashion advice into print. Her new book is titled "The Truth About Style," but it's about much more than blouses and slacks. She lays out the guidelines for dressing well, why that's important, and why many people don't dress their best. The book is out today, and she joins us now. Welcome.

STACY LONDON: Thank you, Celeste. How are you?

HEADLEE: I'm doing well. Thanks so much for being with us. You know, I've got to ask you about your - what you call, in your intro, the a-ha moment...


HEADLEE: ...when you realized what you wanted to write about; and it came when you were talking to your friend's kid, right?

LONDON: Yes. I have very dear friends in L.A. - Molly and David - and their young son, Zion(ph), very graciously explained to me their house rule, which was "yes, and." And I sat there, kind of stupefied, waiting for the rest of the sentence. But it wound up being - as David explained to me, it's the first rule of improv; meaning that you wholeheartedly accept what's been given to you, with a big "yes." And the "and" is sort of what you choose to do with what's been given to you.

And, you know, I thought that was a pretty amazing life philosophy. I also think that it's a great philosophy to put toward style and styling yourself.

HEADLEE: And that kind of feeds into the biggest theme of your book, which is why - the emotional reasons why people don't dress well - which often has very little to do with how much money they have or what kind of clothing they like.

LONDON: I think that's exactly it. You've just hit the nail on the head. It's - you know, what I say about this book, a lot, is that it has how-to tips, but it's certainly not a how-to book. It's a "why we don't" book. And part of that is that, you know, the way somebody dresses can be very symptomatic of what's going on with them. You know, it can be a symbol of overcompensation; it can be a symbol of being comfortable in your skin; or it can be, you know, a very telltale sign about hiding, or wanting to hide.And I have sort of become, you know, a detective when it comes to looking at somebody - scanning them - and sort of seeing what their style is saying about them, and then trying to find out what their intent might be. And...

HEADLEE: You call it fashion interpreter, which I find fascinating.

LONDON: Yeah. I mean, that's exactly it. You know, I'm sort of in the business of interpreting the difference - also - between what people think they're saying, and what they actually want to say. And, certainly, you know, that's from working with hundreds of women on "What Not to Wear." But it's also from my own, you know, personal - kind of love-hate relationship with style.

HEADLEE: Not just your love-hate relationship with style, but your love-hate relationship with your own body. I mean, you had a skin disorder from a very young age, which at times, seems to have made you feel like you were something of a monster, as a kid - which I can't even imagine. And then you talk about getting an eating disorder, and then having to deal with a fluctuating weight. I mean, this degree that you've gotten, comes from life experience.

LONDON: All of this is true. And I'm very candid, in the book, about my personal experience not just with my body but - I think - you know, with my self-esteem, in relation to my body. And I think that that is also, sort of why my trajectory was always toward something external. I do think that in some ways, my attraction to the fashion industry was out of a somewhat unhealthy impulse; in the sense that, you know, I had low self-esteem, and I really looked to an industry, to kind of make me feel like I was super-cool and an insider, and cutting-edge. All of that stuff really appealed to me.

And the funny thing was - was that, you know, I never really fit in when I got there - or maybe even the whole time I was there. And it wasn't until I started doing "What Not to Wear"; it wasn't till I took all of the amazing skills, and knowledge, that I'd acquired in the high-fashion industry - but couldn't apply it to real people - that I started to find meaning for myself.

HEADLEE: Nobody feels smaller than when they're stuck in an elevator with Anna Wintour; and she's - right? - looking them up and down, and not happy with...


HEADLEE: ...what she sees.

LONDON: Yeah. Especially when you're wearing turquoise stirrup pants made of polyester.


LONDON: You know, it wasn't the brightest day, in my history.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking with style expert Stacy London about her new book, "The Truth About Style." You know, I have to admit, Stacy, I didn't think I was going to enjoy this book. I'm not a fashion book...

LONDON: (LAUGHTER) Thanks, Celeste.

HEADLEE: ...person. I have to be honest with you. I don't - you know, I don't like fashion magazines, and I don't like fashion. But I haven't been able to put it down. And I think part of it is because these women that you're talking to, number one, are absolutely my family members, my friends, the people I see every day. But what you're doing, with each of them, is explaining to them why they should care about what they're wearing. Could you maybe give us an example of a couple of the women; and how you got this message across to them, of putting thought and effort into their style, and their fashion choices?

LONDON: Sure. I mean, first of all, I just should explain the way that the book is - sort of ordered; is that, you know, I tell a little bit about my story. And then each chapter is devoted to a different woman - all different socioeconomic backgrounds, different ages, different body types. And one of the things that I wanted to do was, you know, span as much of a - sort of cross-section of the population, as possible. So the women are 19 to 65, and the trajectory is, really, to kind of be able - in each section, to talk to them about what they're struggling with; and then talk about why I relate to it, and tell a little bit more of my story at the same time.

So, you know, one of the things that I found is that they're - over and over again, in all of my experience - and I have now been styling people for 22 years - the more pointed a question you ask to an individual, I think, the more it - use it has, universally. And over and over and over again, I found that there are certain things that get in our way, when it comes to accepting ourselves; really being our most authentic, and looking our most authentic. I looked for those universals in these women and that way, it was very easy for me to kind of talk about them in general themes so that - just as you say - you would recognize your mom, your aunt, yourself, your sister; and have a new language with which to talk to them, you know, about things that may be frustrating to them.

HEADLEE: Is this the part where you're - the truth about style sometimes hurts, as you say?

LONDON: Yeah, of course. I mean, the truth about style sometimes hurts more - even superficially - when I'm like, wow, those pants are really not working. You know, that's not usually something you want to hear. But I...

HEADLEE: Proceed.

LONDON: I'm a truth-talker. I'm a - you know, I want to be straight with you. It's not to be critical. It's to be as helpful as possible because I do see beauty and potential in everyone, and I think it is possible for anyone to dress well. You have to accept the terms under which you can do that, which is pay...

HEADLEE: But why - why, Stacy? Why is it important to dress well? It's - I mean, setting aside any career or profession in which you need to look good...

LONDON: Well, I think you always need to look good. I mean, you forget - humans are animals. You know, part of our brain is lizard. We make judgments every three seconds. You know, does he have a sports car? Does she have an Hermes Birkin bag? We're making different kinds of judgments. So you know, I think it would be naive to say that not caring about your appearance doesn't matter. It does matter. It matters, also, in terms of your self-esteem. And more importantly, I really think that it's a great way to reconnect with yourself. You know, I think it's very dangerous to say that style - as opposed to, let's say, the fashion industry - is superficial. I think this really goes to the heart of how we feel about ourselves, and showing ourselves self-respect.

HEADLEE: Well, the next time I want to buy a new pair of shoes, and I tell my husband that it's because I want to show myself self-respect, I need to have you around, Stacy 'cause that would really help me.

LONDON: I think that's important. Listen, I also would say it's not - you know, self-respect is maybe the most serious level, but I also believe very much that style is - you know, really, when you buy something, I'm not saying go out and buy whatever you want. That is really, not my feeling. What I'm talking about is not buying into what a fashion culture is telling you to do, but to find your own, true style; which doesn't necessarily mean you need to follow trends, which doesn't mean that you need a huge budget. It means that you need to dress in a way that makes you feel most comfortable, happy, joyous, and truly feel like you're proud of the way that you look. And to me, you know, that means that what you buy should really serve one of two purposes. It should serve a utility function, or it should bring you massive joy. And in the best cases, it will do both.

HEADLEE: Well, the book is called "The Truth About Style." It's for people who both love fashion and - like me - think they don't love it...


HEADLEE: ...Stacy London is the author. The new book - as I said - is called "The Truth About Style." I thank you so much, for speaking with us.

LONDON: It was my pleasure, Celeste. I'm glad you like the book - not liking fashion. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.