Friday, April 29, 2011

Et tu, beauty: In and out of the closet with Jennifer Burnley

A few weeks ago, my sister-in-law offered me the services of a beautiful woman. My sister-in-law has the warm, comforting look of the psychologist and mother of three boys she is. She is not a fashion plate. But one day, she showed up to a family party wearing a black tank top under an almost transparent white chiffon blouse. She was rocking a pair of big, gold earrings and she looked gorgeous---hot, yet totally appropriate. How had she come by this outfit? I asked. She said her sister had given her a personal stylist as a gift. Did I want a personal stylist as a gift too?

Yes, I said. Immediately.

Jennifer Burnley, owner of "J Chic," arrived at our front door one morning. It was one of those balmy spring days and she was wearing a beautiful green wrap-dress, high-heeled black boots and big gold-and-silver earrings. She was tall, blonde and willowy. Her long hair fell past her shoulders. I wanted to look just like her. Unfortunately, that's not going to happen. I'm short, have brown hair, and that morning, I was wearing a red hooded sweatshirt from my older son's bar mitzvah. I've never wanted to look like I'm trying too hard, but as the years have crept up on me, sometimes I look like I'm not trying at all. When I turned 45, I finally started taking my grandmother's advice: Don't leave the house without lipstick, comb your hair, wear dangly earrings to draw attention to your eyes, buy comfortable shoes. That all worked fine for the daily grind, but I was hoping Jen could give me some pointers on how to occasionally look smokin' before I entered my dotage.

We made small talk, then went upstairs to my closet. She asked me where I liked to shop. "Willow Street in Summit," I said.
"Anywhere else?" Jen asked. I occasionally shopped at Searle in New York and once or twice a year, I shopped at Deborah Gilbert Smith in Millburn but that was it. "So, you don't like to shop," Jen said.
"No, I like to shop," I said. "I just go to the same place over and over."

Jen works full time as a stylist at Anthropologie at the Short Hills mall. She’s a 40something mother of two and used to work as a buyer for Belks Department Stores and a trend forecaster for Frederick Atkins. Her looks are a little intimidating---she's a knock-out---but she knows what it's like to diet and exercise, feel frustrated with the results and still want to look better than usual on a Saturday night. She asked what I did and what I wore when I did it. I told her I teach one or two days a week, and during class, I wore black. I showed her my black pants and loose, black shirts. She didn’t try to talk me out of them. "Black is your uniform," she said. When I wasn't teaching, I wrote from home, ran with my dog, and ferried my children around. On writing days, I wore jeans and a turquoise shirt, scarf or earrings.

"Turquoise stimulates my creativity," I said.
If Jen thought I sounded batty, she didn't flinch. "Let's look at your jeans," she said diplomatically. I pulled some down. My weight has fluctuated wildly over the years, thanks to pregnancies and various mood swings, so I had about ten pairs of jeans in various sizes. A few pairs were teeny-tiny, from my post-pregnancy days, when I was hell-bent on not gaining back the weight I had lost. Unfortunately, it took a ridiculous amount of exercise, many nights of skipping dinner, and a metabolism that is ten years younger than the one I have now to maintain the weight required for those jeans. To wear them, I had to be hungry, cranky and mean. Jen and I had a brief therapy session, discussed the trauma of growing out of your pants, and then tossed them.

"Show me the jeans you like the most," Jen said. I showed her two pairs. She approved. "Do you have any skinny jeans?" she asked. I did but never wore them. I had bought them when I was training for a half marathon. The jeans clung like saran wrap to my legs. "Try them on," Jen said. I did. "Tuck them into those high brown boots," she directed, pointing to a pair of boots that I didn't wear much. "Now, put that blouse on top of it." The blouse she was speaking of had an unflattering, round collar but was made of a beautiful navy blue silk with turquoise and pink peonies on it. I had tried to hide the neckline by wrapping a pink-and-blue scarf around my neck and then throwing a navy blue poncho over it. Jen waved the poncho away and told me to put a pink tank under the blouse. She unbuttoned the top button so the U-shaped neckline became a flattering V-neck. "Look in the mirror," she said. There I was, in a long blouse, high boots, and flattering jeans. I looked better than I had in a long time and I hadn't lost weight or spent a dime. We both smiled.

"Let's look at your shirts," Jen said.
"Okay," I said. Here I felt strong. I'm short-waisted and my waist is practically at my chin, so when those tunics and empire shirts came into style a few years ago, I rushed to get them. I tried a few on for Jen. "Hmm," she said. "Most of these look like maternity clothes." Uh oh. She suggested I bring four blouses to the tailor to be altered and made a large pile of shirts to give away. Then she spotted my belts. "Let's look at those!" she said. I know that a good stylist is all about accessories, so I handed her the ring of belts. I have a zillion. When my grandmother died, I inherited hers. My grandmother was a chic, frugal woman who loved clothes and accessories. She rarely shopped anywhere but Loehmann's in Brooklyn, and when she died at 98, she had assembled a large collection of belts. She was partial to narrow strips of leather and snakeskin, their ends held together by elegant clasps of chains, medallions and intricately carved gold and silver hardware. Grandma's belts are like jewelry; I never wear them. Jen hooked a couple around my waist. I admired her tenacity and it would have been lovely to wrap myself in Grandma’s karma, but as long as I was conscious, I would never draw attention to my waist, which is really my neck.

"I don't think I'm a belt person," I said. Jen agreed. Her eyes moved to the floor. There were rows of shoes. My stomach lurched. When I first moved back to New Jersey, I fell in with a chic crowd. The women bought Prada bags, and shopped at Neiman Marcus for shoes. I wanted to fit in. Yes, I was thirty-five and should have known better but I panicked and bought Prada. I don't know what I was thinking. I had just finished graduate school and was pregnant with my second son. My older son was in nursery school most of the day. I was supposed to be working on my thesis. Instead, I was shopping for shoes. I finished my pregnancy with nine new pairs. Two of my friends moved away and two got divorced; the trips to the shoe store stopped; eventually, I finished my thesis. But here was evidence of my profligacy and sloth: Several pairs of low-heeled Prada sandals, some brown suede and black patent leather Tod's "driving shoes," a kick-ass pair of high, black, don't-mess-with-me-and-my-baby platform sandals. Jen persuaded me to give away everything that was covered with dust.

Then, she spotted a pair of beige, patent-leather, high-heeled, sling back sandals. I mumbled I had worn them the night before my older son's bar mitzvah---eighteen months ago. "Nude shoes lengthen your legs," Jen said. "They're sexy." True, though if your shoes are eating your feet, by the end of the night, you're not feeling all that sexy. I promised to wear them when I had plans to sit down.

Jen asked about white jeans; I had two pairs, and one actually fit. "I have some khakis too..." I said and started to pull out a pair from last spring. "Do you want to get rid of them?" She sounded a bit too enthusiastic.

"No," I said. I knew that khakis screamed, "Suburban-Mom-Bomb-Mini-Van-Wear" but they come in handy when you have to go somewhere other than your kitchen. I tried them on. Jen said I could wear them to the supermarket, which I interpreted to mean under cover of darkness. She liked another pair of khakis with tapered legs; she suggested I sew the pockets down to "flatten and flatter." Then she set about fixing other problems I couldn't solve: A white, short sleeve cardigan, which made me look like a little girl on her way to Communion, and a long, crocheted Missoni-esque cardigan sweater that I had worn on fancy occasions but wanted to downgrade to every day. Jen jazzed up the white cardigan by buttoning the top two buttons and leaving the rest open, and suggested a loose, sleeveless cowl neck for the crocheted sweater. She thought I could use a black, knee-length pencil skirt, black patterned stockings and some strappy black sandals but otherwise, didn’t think I needed much. “You have a lot of clothes,” she said. “You don’t need more.” A personal shopper who doesn’t think you need to shop? Mind-blowing.

After two and a half hours, Jen had to leave. "But we're not done," she said, and offered to come back in two weeks. For free.
I couldn't wait. The morning of her arrival, I combed my hair, put on makeup, threw on a pair of jeans and a blue shirt with a cowl neck, and drove my younger son to school. My friend was coming over and we were going to play dress up! Jen arrived, looking improbably gorgeous in a three-year old ruffled black dress from Anthropologie, high-heeled black boots and no jewelry. I would never resemble her in the slightest, but at least she had taught me how to dress like some approximation of her. "Fashion is all smoke and mirrors," she said. "Clothing can be your best friend or your worst enemy. You can camouflage a lot of sins."
Rule number one: Find a flattering silhouette. Rule number two: Don't stick with boring classics. Rule number three: Know when to get rid of things.

She asked to see my jewelry. I showed her the necklaces and bracelets I had inherited from my grandmother, plus some pendants, chains, pins and pearls. I never wear any of it, except to the occasional bar mitzvah. "Your challenge is to wake up every morning, and ask, 'What necklace can I wear today?'" Jen said. To help me meet that challenge, she hung necklaces around the necklines of several shirts. She demonstrated how to wear three delicate turquoise bangle bracelets together. One was what my grandmother would have called "an important piece." The other two were from flee markets in Jerusalem. I never would have put those bracelets together but when I put them on, I felt like some combination of India Hicks and Kate Moss: a little bit British gypsy by way of New Jersey.

After Jen helps "edit" your wardrobe, her magical powers kick in, and she helps you re-invent it. She has a terrific, resourceful eye and creates brand new outfits, out of your old clothes. I had a knit, red-and-blue cotton knit shrug that I didn’t know what to do with. Jen took a swingy, black cotton shirt, and put it under the shrug. Then she took an old broach and brought the "shoulders" of the shrug together. It worked. Go ahead and argue with her; she’s right and you’re wrong. (I learned this the hard way when I showed Jen a pale lavender Splendid cotton shirt I had just bought. Jen said the color and collar were wrong; she told me to return it. Instead, I wore it on the first night of Passover. My sister-in-law and her sister looked at me with pity and said I should have listened to Jen.)

When Jen leaves, you will have at least five new outfits and a mountain of confidence. By the time she was done, I had filled five bags with clothes and two bags with shoes to give away. The effect was strangely liberating. Though I had fewer things to choose from, Jen had given me so much more.

Places to donate clothes and shoes: Dress for Success, Bridges Outreach.

J Chic: Jennifer L. Burnley,
Telephone 917 837 8356
Closet Makeover Rates:
$125 for closet makeover. Estimate three hours
$50 per hour for personal shopping
$165 for closet makeover and 1 hour of personal shopping. Custom packages available


  1. Oh my! I must find her twin in Detroit. Do you think she charges extra for travel? Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. She probably does charge extra for travel but she probably could also recommend a twin in Detroit. She's a doll, give her a call! And thank you so much for reading, as always!