Saturday, June 5, 2010

Coffee + Stranger #7 - Coffee with Northern Hands and Consulting Your Image

Have you ever noticed that the word nude sounds a bit like the word new? Personally, I hadn't given it much thought until my conversation with Stranger #7, Denise Sims, at Blue Dot Cafe in Alameda, CA. Within the first five minutes of sitting down with Denise, I mentioned that a lot of the strangers I've met happened to be "new to San Francisco's Bay Area." Denise gave me an odd look, but obliviously I nattered on until suddenly she interrupted me: "Ohhhh, you said new to the Bay Area! Sorry, I thought you said nude."

Wouldn't that be something? I bet Coffee with a Nude Stranger would probably get a few more hits on the old interwebs. It might be difficult, though, to find a coffee shop that would allow such a project within its walls. Unless, of course, I moved to Vassalboro, Maine and hung out at its Grand View Topless Coffee Shop. Not a bad idea, I guess, although I could do without the controversy and, I'm not joking here, ARSON.

Initial miscommunication aside, Denise and I had a lovely chat. I think we ended up talking for more than an hour. Native to the Bay Area and a mother of two teenagers, Denise described herself as someone who's "pretty good at personality profiles and picking up on visual cues that tell me a lot about a person." When I mentioned early in our conversation that I'm originally from Canada, she remarked that that made sense. "Yes," she said. "I would have guessed that direction."

Surprised by this comment, I responded, "Wow. That's almost intimidating, like you're looking into my soul as we speak."

Denise and I had a good laugh about that. My soul, however, remained weary and suspicious. What other deep, dark secrets could Denise be gleaning from my appearance? Curious, I pressed her to tell me more about my northern visual cues. Was it my accent? My unibrow? My ratty brown shoes with tattered laces, which are pictured on the right?

Denise told me that she did pick up on an accent, but it was more my "demeanor and disposition" that hinted at my homeland. Furthermore, my "color, bone structure, body type, and hands are more typically from that area."

My hands? Who knew? Looking at my hands now, they reveal, well, nothing to my untrained eye. All I see are blisters, bony pokers, and some unusual angles around my knuckles. What am I missing?

Denise, for her part, wasn't going to reveal any trade secrets. When I asked her to elaborate some more on what was particularly Canadian or northernly about me, she responded: "That's a hard question. I don't think I can answer it because it deals with this whole body of knowledge I have and it would be, like, an hour and a half answer. It's very detailed in a way that's not very interesting."

Fair enough.

Which brings me to Denise's line of work. Considering how she described herself above, what would you think she does for a living? Gumshoe? Psychic? Therapist? Well, in a weird kind of way, she's kind of all three wrapped into one. When talking about her work and her clients, Denise had the following to say: "People say, you know, God this is the best thing. It's better than my shrink, it's better than astrology, this is so cool, and I get clothes at the end!"

Seeing as your conventional gumshoe, psychic, and psychiatrist won't give you clothes when they're done working with you, we can confidently strike those off the list of possibilities. Denise, in actuality, is an image consultant. In fact, she has over 30 years of experience "working with thousands and thousands of people, very intimately, sitting in closets and fitting rooms while clients are in their underwear, finding a look that will make them feel great about themselves!" Simply put, you hire Denise to change or update your look and your wardrobe. She even has a spiffy, new website for her business, which you can take a look at here.

I was pretty blown away by the idea of Denise's profession. I guess I've always known that such a job existed, but I'd never given much thought to how it might actually work. What, for example, is the state of mind of people who seek an image consultant? Not to pigeonhole or stereotype, but I picture people who just got divorced or broke up with a significant other and now want to get all sexied up. What better way is there to show an ex that you're TOTALLY over them then by hitting the town with a snazzy new look?

Obviously, I'm over-generalizing and over-simplifying here. Denise did, however, have this to say: "The key to many of my client's visits is some sort of life pivot." She does get a lot of men and women who are recently divorced (see? I'm kind of right!), but there's also lots of people who are facing other big, transformational life experiences. Examples include losing a bunch of weight, taking on a new job that requires a more professional or edgy look, shaking things up because you've moved to a new (not nude) town, or simply because you wake up one day and realize, hey, my clothes are looking a little dated.

Personally, I can see myself falling into this last category somewhere down the line. I hate shopping and if it weren't for kindly (or maybe embarrassed?) girlfriends who took me shopping and friends (and occasionally strangers) who mocked me, I'd still be wearing ties for belts, moccasins, and ill-fitting, thrift-store polyester pants that an old man had likely died in.

As you may have guessed, I used to be quite the high-fashion trendsetter. And as my tattered brown shoes pictured above indicate, now more than ever I'm still quite the high-fashion trendsetter. I'm a fashionista!

Since I'm male and clearly not much of a shopper, I was also curious if Denise's clients fell in step with some of those obvious gender stereotypes. Fifteen years ago, the majority of Denise's clients were men and they were mainly looking to be fitted for suits. Fast forward to the present day and everything's turned on its head: now the majority of Denise's clients are women and the men that she does see are less and less interested in suits. Denise blames the era and more casual clothing attitudes for this "major cultural shift". "Now you've got all these renegade people who are really good at what they do," she said. "You've got some surfer dude, roller skating, skate boarding guy who's brilliant at what he does, so employers don't care what he's wearing because he's brilliant." As a result, you've got guys in flip flops and long shorts shuffling around the workplace, instead of guys wearing beautifully pressed, Mad Men-esque suits.

Although Denise really enjoys working with males, this shift from mainly men to mainly women may actually turn out to be good for business. Male clients, it turns out, don't refer their friends and coworkers to Denise. "Men," she said, "are looking for any competitive edge they can get, whether it's work or dating, so they don't tell anyone about me." Women, on the other hand, don't begin to think of image consulting in this way. "Women think it's fun and feel great doing it," said Denise. "So they tell everyone about the services they get from me."

Complicated stuff, right? Denise gets to see first hand some of the prevailing ideas our culture has created about self-image and gender identity, which I think is really interesting. Needless to say, there's a lot more to this image consulting gig than first meets the eye. One thing's for sure: it's definitely not as simple as a 1980's dressing room montage.

The Griswold's are looking sharp!


Coffee with a Stranger said...

Denise brought to my attention that she actually has a blog post on her website that is HIGHLY applicable to my shoe situation:

Coffee with a Stranger said...

Denise is having some trouble with the "Comments" section, so she asked me to post the following anecdote:

Hi Mike,


This is high-larious! I will post it on my blog on my website. This will be totally fun entertainment value.

You soooo have to read my last post on my website/blog. Your going to crack up!

Also, I'm too much of a techno weenie to understand how to sign in or create an account to be a member of you blogspot.
But this is funny! You may want to post it.

Many years ago I saw my favorite Tee Shirt EVER! This was when 80% of my clients were male. I bought 100 of them in different sizes and gave them to my favorite clients.

The tee shirt had a black and white picture of Mark Twain on it. It was a picture of the 'nude bust' sculpture he had posed for. During this time
frame this simply 'WASN'T DONE'!!! It caused huge controversy at the time, Mark Twain posing for a bronze sculpture in the NUDE! NO SHIRT, TIE AND

On the footer of the TEE it said this;

"Clothing makes the man, as naked people have little or no influence in our society." Mark Twain

This is Rich.

Warm thoughts,

ellison said...

Reading your blog is almost as distracting as wikipedia (im referring to the links everywhere) - choose your own adventure reading. im so 19th century linear, i get overwhelmed.

You mean you dont wear ties for belts anymore??

Coffee with a Stranger said...

Unfortunately, the tie belts have fallen to the wayside. Shame, isn't it?

Choose Your Own Adventure was great: "Turn to p.96." Flip, flip, flip. "A ninja jumped out of the bushes and pushed you off a cliff. You are dead. You will never know the secret of your brother's death. The End."


Erik Benson said...

Your hands do look canadian. I wasn't going to say anything, but they do.

Coffee with a Stranger said...

My ankles, however, area ALLLLLLL Yankee.

ellison said...

my sass is all yankee. SWAMP yankee.

Coffee with a Stranger said...

What's a Swamp Yankee?

ellison said...

Wiki can solve any problems...

Coffee with a Stranger said...

I guess it's true what they say: you can take the Swamp Yankee out of the swamp, but you can never get the swamp out of the Swamp Yankee.


Day After Day said...

Another well done post.

Coffee with a Stranger said...

Day After Day: Thanks! I tried checking out your blog, but it's password protected?