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How to cut it

Image Making an impact

Do we really judge books by their covers and people by their clothes? Fashion consultant Annabel Hodin had a day to transform scruffy Paul Wheeler a into a credible, smartly dressed businessman.

With a mortgage and four small kids I buy most of my clothes from charity shops.

Over the last couple of years I estimate my annual clothing and grooming spend has been around £100.

I'm also very low maintenance.

My four-year old daughter was dumbfounded when she found me ironing a shirt recently - 'what's that?' she asked, pointing at the iron. I don't possess a hairbrush or comb.

According to a recent survey, I am a fashion phobe.

But am I a lost cause? Could a session with stylist Annabel Hodin improve my appearance and pull me out my fashion indifference?

More important, would a bit of personal grooming change the way people react to me in the work environment?

My first telephone chat with Annabel was unnerving. 'What are you, ' she asked, '42, 32?'

'Forty later this month, ' I replied.

'No, I mean waist - do you carry a paunch?'

On revealing my 32' waist, five foot eight height and inside leg she accurately predicted my chest and collar measurements - spooky.

I decided to do the day in my normal 'important meeting' outfit - my 14-year old M&S suit (which still fits! ), an un-ironed Next shirt, blue silk tie (bought about 10 years ago from Tie-Rack) and scuffed Clarke's shoes (last year's sales).

Annabel put me at ease with her opening comment: 'You look pretty good - you don't really need me - wonderful eyes, great nose.'

She'd obviously chosen to ignore what I was wearing.

Over coffee I revealed some of my slovenly dress habits. 'You're a natural scruffy, ' Annabel declared, 'but that's a look we can work with.'

She identified my existing style as youthful, but dated. Her task was to give me a contemporary look, but classic and understated, perhaps with hints of individuality; a look 'at the other extreme' of my natural tendencies.

She felt my 'wispy hair' detracted from my features - but I was pleased that she dropped the idea of it being cut much shorter when I told her short hair made me look thuggish. It was important, she said, that I felt comfortable with my resulting 'look'.

Primrose Hill hairdresser Tony, at the salon Mowgli, also wanted to keep my hair long, but insisted it needed reshaping, as it was so fine and dry.

Tony and Annabel spent 20 minutes discussing the cut, telling me how to wash my hair properly.

I was pleased with the result - and the pampering - which included a session in an electric back massaging chair. That's something my local barber can't offer: but then again he only charges a tenth of the price.

At Mowgli I paid £50 for the cut and a further £30 for some fancy shampoos, conditioners and gel.

We then piled into Annabel's Discovery and headed for the West End.

First stop was Japanese design house Comme des Garþons - so grand you have to ring the doorbell to get in. The clothes here weren't right for me, more leisure than business and the suits were too edgy - with white stitching, which I hated. Still Annabel insisted I try on a few jackets to 'get a feel for the proportions, cuts and colours'.

She nevertheless concluded that the clothes here were neither flattering to my shape nor appropriate for my needs.

Good clothes, Annabel explained, hide or improve the bad points and emphasise good points.

So the task was finding a cut that would give me squarer shoulders, longer legs and bigger feet (once it had been pointed it out, I realised that my round-toed Clarke's make my small feet look like trotters).

Next port of call was Browns in South Molton Street, which stocks a number of designer ranges and boasts, according to Annabel, some very good buyers. While the threads were much more promising aesthetically, I was suffering from increasing queasiness at what I was getting into in terms of expenditure; shoes were hundreds of pounds, shirts well over a hundred and suits started at around £700.

I was in danger of blowing £300 on two shirts and a pair of socks.

But Annabel assured me you have to pay for detail, cut and finish - 'it's not just overcharging'.

We then moved to Chiltern Street north of Manchester Square.

First stop Mercer was a delight, with really useful feedback and a very soft sell. I felt we were starting to home in on the look - but we still couldn't find the right suit.

We set aside a pair of shoes and a shirt and moved next door to Grey Flannel. This is more of a traditional gentlemen's outfitters - offering similar quality, but more formal than Mercer.

No one asked for my measurements - but an Armani suit was handed to me that fitted almost perfectly. Instantly I knew this was the one I wanted.

Annabel then revealed that she had me down for an Armani as soon as we met. But if we had gone straight to Armani I wouldn't have recognised it was right: we had to go through the process.

Having got so far, I felt compelled to see the process through, mentally totting up how much plastic credit I could access.

My suit, two shirts, shoes, tie and socks came to something over £1,200.

Was it worth it? It was certainly an eye-opening and entertaining day, and it had an immediate impact on how I now dress and combine my existing wardrobe. And two days later, I found myself in Selfridges, fighting a desire to buy more shirts - a snip at £80 each, sale price.

As for giving me added poise, The first time I wore the new suit/ shirt/tie/shoes combo to work, colleagues reacted variously from: 'My God, you look like a car salesman, ' to 'You're oozing charm and style'.

Most were surprised that the result was so understated. I think they assumed I'd be wearing red braces and have purple silk lining to my suit.

The suit has been out a fair bit over the last two weeks and I've worn it to interview some pretty important people. For the first time in years I didn't feel like a scruffy hack and, just possibly, I was taken further into their confidence.

Annabel Hodin's sartorial rules

Be realistic; come to terms with what you look like and make the best of what you've got

Looking your best is about wearing clothes that suit your proportions and body shape - get help identifying this if you need it

Find someone whose look you like, preferably someone who has some resemblance to you in terms of size, body shape and colouring - and work out why their appearance 'works'

You can cheat your body shape; the right cut of suit can lengthen legs and square off sloping shoulders

Look after your clothes

Don't expect clothes to look top-notch for more than two years

Find colours that are flattering to your skin and hair colouring; when others compliment you on your appearance, make a mental note of the colours you are wearing

If you find something that suits you well, buy three, perhaps in different shades

Once you've got your eye in and established what cut or style works best, economise and buy cheaper versions

For business purposes, dark suits look better and are more timeless

Buy certain items at cheap shops such as Primark but never go for the overall 'Primark look'.

Annabel Hodin advises individuals and companies on all aspects of looking good. You can contact her on (020) 794 3609.

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