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Fitting Image

A Thetford consultant helps Vermonters dress with less stress


Published June 10, 2009 at 6:32 a.m.

“I’m a big fan of Farm-Way,” says Helena Binder. That’s a common sentiment in Vermont, perhaps, but not one you’d expect from a professional image consultant. Slender and black-clad, accented with a fashionably chunky necklace, Binder doesn’t look like the sort of person who would sing the praises of the Bradford-based outdoor-gear emporium. But in the year and a half she’s been living in Thetford, says the “New Yorker born and bred,” she’s learned the importance of having the right shoes to tackle the muck.

An image consultant in rural Vermont? Currently Binder sees “less than a dozen” local clients whom she charges roughly $70 per hour. But she’s expanding her business by reaching out to nearby colleges, where students need guidance in making the transition from campus casual to the business world. She’s already arranged to work with the Women in Business student group at nearby Dartmouth, offering group seminars on “everything from dressing for interviews to public speaking.”

Binder also likes to work with individuals, “particularly women my age who don’t have as many resources for fashion,” says the youthful-looking 54-year-old. “Women who are at the stage of life where they kind of feel they need a new look.” She notes that women in transition — recently retired, divorced, widowed or recovered from illness — often “need to feel good about themselves.”

Binder is in transition herself — getting ready for an August wedding to the man who brought her to Vermont, Jim Zien of Fairlee’s Aloha Foundation, a nonprofit that oversees several summer camps. Meanwhile, she’s splitting her time between the consulting work and directing the Lake George Opera’s upcoming production of Madama Butterfly in Saratoga, N.Y.

Binder comes to the image biz through a long career in the performing arts, including several years traveling around the country to direct operas and “20-plus years” as an actor and theater director. Back in 1980, she was singing with New Wave band Blotto when they hit it big with the song “I Wanna Be a Lifeguard.”

In those days, “I wore a lot of vintage,” says Binder, noting that the band’s logo featured her body in a ’50s Schiaparelli dress. “I used to keep a journal of what I wore to every gig so I didn’t repeat stuff.”

Throughout her stage career Binder was “very involved with fashion stuff, either in terms of costumes or my own fashion or doing stuff for friends,” she says. While her son was young, she took a break from the theater and worked as a retail buyer for a chain of New York specialty stores, focusing on accessories. “That fulfilled my lifelong dream of really getting into the fashion world and understanding what was happening there,” says Binder, whose grandfather was a haberdasher.

When her son went to college, Binder began doing image consulting in tandem with directing. She started out working with actors and singers, who came to her for feedback on their audition pieces, and she still offers her professional clients coaching in “speaking skills, public speaking and accent reduction.”

Projecting the right image, of course, is about more than wearing the right clothes — but a wardrobe makeover can help. Binder says many clients bring her their frustration with a closet full of clothes they don’t want to wear. “Very often people’s bodies have changed, and they aren’t sure why favorite things just don’t look right anymore,” she says. “I myself put on a jumper yesterday that I’ve worn and loved, and I said, ‘OK, this is over! I can’t wear this anymore.’ It just wasn’t right for me at this age.”

On the popular cable show “What Not to Wear,” a duo of snarky stylists throw out a bad dresser’s entire wardrobe and give her five grand to spend on better duds. That’s not an option for most of us in today’s economy. “I feel like people don’t really want to be shopping now,” says Binder. “People are looking for ways to revamp what they have without spending a lot of money, and I’m all about that. They want advice on how they can take what they’ve got and, with the addition of one or two things, make it look new.”

So Binder’s guiding principle is recycling — “a big theme in Vermont, I’ve found,” she notes wryly. On their first pass through the stuffed closet, she and the client “usually throw out half,” she says. Then they think about how to repurpose the rest: “I’m a fresh pair of eyes. I see something and say, ‘What about this? Have you tried putting a belt with this?’”

Accessories may seem like afterthoughts, but “belts are a strong investment that can really change a lot of stuff,” says Binder. Another technique she uses is to “ask people to put on an outfit they feel great in.” For instance, Binder recalls a client who wasn’t happy with the dress she’d picked out for her son’s wedding: “It looked really frumpy.” Binder asked the woman to go into her closet and find “a dressy outfit she liked,” then analyzed the result and tweaked it by tucking in a top. “And that’s what she ended up wearing to her son’s wedding. She didn’t buy a new outfit.”

Binder does sometimes shop with clients — or, more often, send them links to desirable items in online stores. She has “no affiliations with merchants — I like to keep it that way,” but is an unabashed bargain hunter, getting “a lot of stuff from online Target,” she says. “I don’t think you need to spend a lot of money to have a look.”

How has this stylish woman, who’s lived in Manhattan and D.C., adjusted to a place where fashions often seem to change as quickly as the silhouette of mountains on the horizon? Binder says that, unlike the TV stylists, she doesn’t try to push metropolitan trends. “My work isn’t about imposing a particular style or look. It’s kind of seeing what the atmosphere is and then helping someone find how they can be more put together.”

Good fit, she notes, is one constant in the world of changing styles: “A lot of women feel that if they wear something baggy, it hides their shape, but the opposite is true.” She doesn’t recommend tailoring, though, unless it’s a minor adjustment like raising or lowering a hem: “There is enough out there — unless you have a very peculiar body shape — to find things that really fit without making the additional investment.”

Binder believes “it’s really important to honor somebody’s personal style” — not to push skirts on a determined pants wearer, for instance. But, like all style mavens, she does have strong opinions and has even written some up in breezy advice-column format (see sidebar). Binder’s least favorite trends: flip flops and tank tops. “I cannot stand the bra strap showing. Hate it!” she exclaims, suddenly sounding like Stacy London on “What Not to Wear.” “The whole thing with overexposed bosoms does not belong in the professional arena.”

On the positive side, Binder is happy to see stores stocking higher-waisted pants after the low-rise fad of the past decade: “[The high waist] tends to be flattering on women, because you don’t have the problem of muffin top and that sort of thing,” she says.

Still, the essence of her business, Binder maintains, is not to serve up style dictates but to teach the fashion-starved how to fish for their own ensembles. “I try to show them what is a flattering cut-off line — what lines, what lengths are flattering,” she says. “I don’t want to just buy things for people; I want them to be able to develop an eye for their own wardrobe.”

Cole Haan may never replace Carhartt for a jaunt on dirt roads, and “business casual” is business as usual in Burlington. But Binder reminds her clients that, in style as in most things, knowledge is power.