Fashion Your Identity: A Talk with NYU's Anna Akbari
Anna Akbari describes herself as “the thinking person's stylist.”
But really, everyone should be thinking when it comes to what they wear, says the sociologist and New York University professor. Why? There’s great power in our style, Akbari believes, personal power that we should be harnessing to express our sense of self and communicate it to the world, building our personal “brand” along the way. Dressing to impress isn’t just for the day you have an interview or a big presentation. “Fashion is a very powerful social tool, and one that every person should reflect on and use to their advantage,” she explains.
Akbari earned a PhD in visual sociology, spent a decade in the fashion industry, and now owns a wardrobe consulting company, Closet Catharsis. She believes that stylists aren’t just for celebrities—and that, surprisingly, we can actually save money revamping our wardrobes.
We sat down with Akbari to hear her insights on how fashion can empower us—and why paying attention to what we wear might have a bigger impact than we think.
How did you come to work in fashion and wardrobe styling?
I started working in the fashion industry around 12 years ago while on Nantucket. Bob Pollack hired me to work in his beautiful, high-end boutique, though I had no experience in fashion at the time. I was dressing in all black, with splashes of colorful, flea market jewelry—the aesthetic antithesis of the Nantucket uniform of Lilly Pulitzer, whale pants, and popped collars. From there, I began to experiment with my own appearance, integrating a few key preppy details and analyzing their effects on my interactions with others.
While in grad school, I continued to work on all sides of the fashion industry, always feeling like an outsider doing inside observational work, and with a hyper-awareness of the power of aesthetic manipulation and body consciousness.
Through this unofficial field work, I contemplated the relationship between fashion and our ability to gain power in public, and made it the subject of both my MA thesis and my doctoral dissertation.
During grad school, I started to take on styling clients. Having worked in the industry for years, I knew that my approach to fashion and styling was not that of a typical fashionista. I am less concerned with trends and color analysis, and more interested in creating visual consciousness. Does the image you’re giving off match your idealized self? It’s not about an extreme makeover, it’s about perpetually imagining and re-imagining ourselves while attempting to create cohesion and consistency.
What have you learned about the connection between fashion and power?
The link between fashion and power is not about a particular garment or a specific designer. Rather, I believe powerful fashion is about cultivating a tenuous balance between expressing individuality (standing out, getting noticed) and demonstrating group belonging (expressing some element of conformity, showing you’re part of the team). You want your sense of self to be communicated, but you must also be mindful of your audience.
People who say they dress for themselves are doing themselves a disservice—you don’t want to come across as intimidating or disrespectful through your visual self-expression. It’s not about ignoring personal preferences, but rather visually acknowledging that you also exist within a structured social environment. Balance is necessary.
The motto of Closet Catharsis is: “Fashion your identity. Empower your life.” How can we can use fashion as an asset and navigate its potential challenges in terms of our career?
Over the years, I’ve encountered many individuals who consider themselves “fashion agnostic” and claim that they don’t think about what they’re wearing. My response is always, “That’s too bad—because everyone else is paying attention.”
The way we self-present in our careers is of primary importance, and therefore worthy of investment. You wouldn’t submit a report with typos and grammatical errors, so why settle for the sartorial equivalent of sloppy communication? Our appearance represents the brand we’re creating for ourselves, and into which we want our superiors and co-workers to invest and believe. Conscious dressing is key to empowerment.
How do you help your clients create a style statement through Closet Catharsis?
The process I’ve created for my clients is very comprehensive and personal, and it’s more of a mutual discovery than a style imposition. We begin in the closet, dissecting pieces and wardrobe categories, and using those individual garments as a springboard to discuss lifestyle, aesthetic preferences, areas of body consciousness, frustrations, and comfort zones. Both the client and I come to understand her target image and the practical opportunities and challenges we have to work with.
From there, I start creating a categorized wish list, identifying the key pieces we’d like to acquire, and noting stores, brands, and designers that would be a good fit. I then analyze that list and plot a strategic shopping trip. The dialogue we have while shopping is as helpful as the items I co-select for my clients. With that dialogue, they are not blindly following my selections, but rather are empowered and able to reflect on the selection process when making future purchases and when dressing independently.
You say that we can actually save money by revamping our wardrobe. Do you have any tips on how to do that?
Revamping includes consciously caring for the wardrobe you already have and using free or low-cost tactics to re-imagine and rework existing pieces.
For example, I encourage all my clients to put rubber soles on their shoes immediately after they purchase them. While this may be an additional initial expense, it greatly extends the life of your shoes and pays off very quickly.
I also examine pieces with particular features that are no longer in style and consider taking them to a tailor to update them. Bootleg jeans are a great example: If the jeans fit well and are in good condition, tapering the legs is a very economical and sustainable way to keep current.
Any additional thoughts or words of advice that you’d like to share with readers of The Daily Muse?
I’d encourage people to rethink their relationship with their wardrobe and the image they’re projecting as a result of that union. Don’t take your personal aesthetic for granted, or make the mistake of thinking that even if you’re disinterested in your appearance, that people around you aren’t noticing and reacting to it. Because they are.
Find out more about Anna Akbari at www.closetcatharsis.com or follow her on Twitter @annaakbari.