I'm the furthest thing from a fashion plate or style guru. My go-to wardrobe is jeans and a T-shirt. "Dressy" for me is a golf shirt.
Would I like to dress better? Sure. But to me -- and to most sartorially challenged men I know -- the idea of undergoing a total wardrobe makeover is too daunting. (And would make me feel too conspicuous... and like I'm trying way too hard.)
Here's a better approach from Scott Dunstall, a market researcher, real estate investor, and style advisor who coaches and mentors "everyday guys" to a sharper and more confident self. (I love his mantra: "Leap and the net will appear.")
Face it. You have a higher chance of success if you look better than the next guy. In business, in love, in general. There are lots of studies that prove it: first impressions count.
Then why do so many men get stuck in the same rut? Black this, brown that; brown that, black this. Not that there is anything wrong with those colors -- it just depends on how you use them. The biggest obstacle for men moving from clothing to fashion to style is that it overwhelms us.
Here are some things you can do without blowing your mind, looking like an idiot, or skipping a mortgage payment.
1. Don't be intimidated and don't be rushed.
You can do this, and on your terms.
Most men buy clothes when they have to: wedding coming up, party, business conference... something. So what happens? You're rushed, and you fall prey to salespeople living on a commission. They love guys who don't know what they're doing and are under a time crunch.
Many of us have been there. You walk in, and 45 minutes later you're walking out with a bunch of crap from last season that's too big or too small -- all the stuff they want to get rid of.
Look at clothes when you have nothing else to do. Don't visit high-volume commission-based chain stores... yet. The secret is to create a foundation you can slowly build on. Think about the season you're in, the occasions you need to cover (office or casual -- most events can be selected from those two categories), the colors that appeal most, fit, and most important, versatility.
I have a rule: I buy something, take it home, leave the tags on... and if it doesn't work with at least three outfits, I take it back.
2. Use your local department stores.
This is your safe zone. Very rarely are you hassled by salespeople. Take your time and a deep breath. There's nothing to be afraid of.
Start by looking at the mannequins. These guys are no dummies. They're usually near the racks/tables/shelves of the goods they're wearing. An expert has taken the time to coordinate them: shoes, pants, belts, shirts, jackets. Look at the fit and style. Does the belt match the shoes? Does the shirt color pair or offset the pant color.
Look at the way the clothes are hung. Is the shirt one you tuck in or not, and depending on which, how does the rest of the outfit reflect that look? Look at the photographs of the models on the walls. They aren't there for decoration. Look at the way the models wear the clothes. You'll notice that the merchandise is close to or under the pictures.
Then go to the where the clothes are displayed and pick out what the mannequins are wearing. Take them into the dressing room and try them on. Nobody is watching. Nobody will laugh.
One thing is for sure: if you picked the right size (next paragraph if you didn't), something electric will go through your body. You don't know what it is, but man does it feel good.
3. Know your right size.
You're standing in the dressing room and your stomach is popping through the shirt, and yet the jeans you've tried on just fell to the ground.
This, to me, is the most challenging aspect of moving from clothing to fashion to style. Clothing is the paint, fashion is the canvas and the way you wear it, and style is the finished picture.
Once you know your size in shoes, boots, shirts pants, jeans, jackets, belts, coats, suits, activewear and underwear, then you're off the races. I can tell you my size in all of those categories, as well as the designer, style, and fit that I prefer for each.
There is only one way to do it, though: you have to try things on. Remember, for jeans there are many different leg styles and fit. Same with shirts. Even shoes.
For me it was trial and error. Go to your department store every two or three days (or whenever you can) with a mission and a desired outcome. For example, "Today I'm going to try on shirts and I'm going to find out what size, fit, and designer I like."
Once you know this, you can go straight to that table and see what's new in colors and patterns and buy what you like.
Keep in mind that when I say "designer," there's no cause for alarm. I'm not talking about Euro designers you've never heard of. I'm referring to everyday recognizable labels.
For dress and casual shirts (you can find all of these at your department store), I would include Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Vince Camuto, Kenneth Cole, Perry Ellis , Nautica, Michael Kors, and Ben Sherman. My absolute favorite for fit, durability, color/pattern and price: Sondergaard.
4. Pay attention to what others wear.
Look around; the men who know a few things about style will stand out. They catch your eye even if you're not sure exactly why.
Look at the detail. What color and style are their shoes? Do they match the belt? How wide is the belt? Does the belt have a tail? (It shouldn't.) Are they wearing jeans, slacks or dress pants? How long? Are they bunched up at the shoe? (They shouldn't be.)
What is the cut of the pant? Relaxed, slim, or tapered? Is the shirt slim fitting or classic fit? What kind of detail is on the collar and sleeves? How does it all fit and hang?
Don't stare. Observe.
5. Go online.
Look at designer sites. Look at retailer sites. Even look at expert sites. Just start looking.
Besides store mannequins and photographs, looking online is a great way to see new seasonal colors and styles without getting out of your chair. You'll also get a feel for cost by designer.
6. Buy smart.
You don't have to break the bank to look good. I mentioned at the top to use your department stores. My suggestion is to plan your spending around scheduled sales.
In Canada, my go-to is Hudson's Bay. (Its parent in the U.S. is Lord and Taylor.) I own quite a bit of its house brand, Black Brown 1826. My favorite time of year is "Bay Days."
What I like about the Bay is that they make a determined effort to bring a wide variety of brands to their stores. I'm at the point now that I have a running list in my head of the next five pieces I want to buy, in priority order. When the sales hit, I'm online looking at the deals, and off I go.
If I'm not sure about the color or fit of a new line, I'll visit the store. Stores usually carry only a fraction of what they offer online in terms of breadth of lines and sizes. So use the store for fit and firsthand viewing, and go online to get exactly what you want if the store doesn't have it in stock. (Don't forget, the store will order for you if you're already there.)
Often I will take a style of shirt I want to the service desk, and they will ship my correct size to my office or house.
My other go-to for fashion are discount label stores. In Canada, my favorites are Marshalls and Winners. Marshalls is in the U.S., as well as T.J Maxx -- all are part of the TJX group of companies.
In these stores there are no mannequins, photos, or salespeople. Their model is to provide brand names at discounted prices all year long. I find their prices are often close to department store sale prices. But, they get what they get, and when it's gone it's gone. Their inventory is fluid in that they purchase lots from manufacturers who wish to liquidate. They may have excess inventory or leftovers from last season that are still in style in terms of either fit or color, if not both.
But you will have to take time to search through the racks as there is little merchandising. If I am looking for a particular piece, then I will be in my local store two or three times a week. These stores are a little overwhelming, so my advice is to just go in and familiarize yourself with the layout.
Also, I find they have some of the best selection at the beginning of the season, so for example in October I look for quarter-zip sweaters.
When I first started trying to dress better, I certainly didn't know everything about style and fashion. I still don't. But I have learned what it takes to stand out from the crowd and how to do it gradually and cost effectively -- and you can too.