Helping Clients Put Their Best Foot Forward

There's no doubt about who wears the pants at Maryann Bastnagel's small business -- all 14 pairs of the good black ones that are her signature outfit.

Image consultant Maryann Bastnagel.

As a professional image and wardrobe consultant, Bastnagel has built up a clientele among some of Washington's movers and shakers. While her clients work at both big and small firms, it's the small business owners and employees whom she believes need her help the most. "Working in a small business your image is more important because you are your business," she said.

Bastnagel launched My Good Black Pants in 2005 after racking up years of experience as a buyer in large department stores and boutiques. She also cultivated a future client base as a senior-level information technology executive at Marriott International, Fannie Mae and America Online.

After graduating from the University of Maryland with a dual degree in communications and American studies, Bastnagel quickly rose through the ranks at one-time Washington retail staple Woodward and Lothrop, which went out of business in 1995. She was the chain's buyer for ladies sportswear and accessories.

But her career took a turn when she complained to her boss about an outdated report that the store's buyers received every Monday. The document detailed how much money a buyer had left in his or her budget to buy goods.

"I said 'How are we supposed to be great buyers when this report is already a week old when we get it?'" recalls Bastnagel, noting that computers in 1980 weren't the speed demons of today.

Shortly after that conversation, the store's vice president of computer systems dropped by her office to let her air her grievances. Next thing she knew, Bastnagel found herself as the program manager for a revamp of the "open to buy" computer system. She went back to school at nights to obtain another degree from Maryland -- this one in information technology management.

While Bastnagel transition into a career in IT positions, she continued to shop for family members and colleagues throughout the years. Something clicked with Bastnagel a few years ago when her older sister pointed out that she could charge people for her wardrobe consults.

Bastnagel said she started her firm with a "soft launch" by contacting the professional men and women in her network and asking if they would be interested in an image and shopping consultant. Every single person agreed that they would pay for these services. She works out of her Potomac, Md., home, has no employees, and all of her business is word-of-mouth.

She takes a three-prong approach to her wardrobe makeover service -- a questionnaire, a closet audit and a wardrobe plan.

"I have to really understand a person's lifestyle," she said. The wardrobe needs of a "stay at home mom who volunteers versus a reporter versus a corporate executive are all very different."

She begins with a survey of 54 questions and a series of personal measurements. She tries to measure her clients at least once a year unless there's been a significant weight change. Most of her clients book her services twice a year, generally in the spring and fall, but some ask for her to drop by quarterly.

In a closet audit, which ranges from several hours to three days, she asks clients to try on every item they own. "It's sometimes emotionally draining," Bastnagel said, adding that most people "seem relieved" to have an outside opinion confirm what they often already knew.

"People say they knew there was some reason it was such a struggle for them to get dressed. They knew that something was wrong" with their wardrobe, said Bastnagel. Most of her clients are women ages 35 to 65 who make more than $100,000 per year. Bastnagel charges $100 per hour. She also offers a project-based rate.

"For some people, it's easier to have a dialogue with a stranger even though going through someone's closet can be an intimate situation, and the client often is in her underwear," Bastnagel said.

She separates clothes and accessories into three piles -- keepers, potential keepers after an alteration, and discards. If the discard pile includes apparel or accessories bought during the last 12 months, Bastnagel will take those clothes to a consignment store so that her clients may recoup some cost. For clothing not quite as new or of a hard-to-find size, she takes the items to Suited For Change, a nonprofit that provides professional clothing to low-income women seeking employment.

The wardrobe plan outlines items that a client currently has in his or her closet. Bastnagel makes a list of things the client should buy immediately, and suggests items that a client might want to purchase over time. She also offers head-to-toe looks that are outfits complete with a scarf or tie or specific shoes.

She has a variety of clients throughout Northern Virginia and Montgomery counties and Annapolis in Maryland. She shops for and with them at large stores like Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's, Banana Republic and Saks Fifth Avenue. But Bastnagel also frequents Maryland boutiques like the Corby Collection in Mazza Gallerie and its Bethesda cousin Wear It Well. She favors Target for T-shirts and just bought several things from the Vera Wang collection at Kohl's.

Several of her clients are reentering the workforce. One is going on job interviews again after eight years of caring for her two boys at home. That client was stymied by the fairly recent advent of "business casual."

One of her customers, a government contract specialist, only wears black but might spice things up with leopard-print flats. Another is a top real estate agent for Long and Foster who can only wear low-heeled shoes because of the miles she may walk in a day. Bastnagel herself prefers black pants and a jacket, a solid-color shell and heels to heighten her already 6-foot frame.

There's also a professor at the University of Maryland's business school. A scientist for the National Institutes of Health who wears a lab coat every day is a client, but the scientist wanted to ensure she had the right image for meetings.

Bastnagel also worked with a small public relations firm that in an effort to obtain clients wanted to make sure that its employees "looked their best."

"In some ways, I think small businesses need to have a more polished, professional look. Especially if it's a firm of one person or less than 10 employees, every single person represents the firm."

She maintains that professionals don't need to own a lot of clothing to look polished. Rather, she recommends acquiring a handful of appropriate core pieces such as pants, a jacket and skirt that can be mixed and matched

Her market data tells her that most people notice a man's wristwatch and tie, but for women its her shoes and handbag.

"D.C. is a much more serious wardrobe market. ... At an event downtown, we would be surprised to see a woman in a bright red or bright pink suit," she said. "What we do see is that women do tend to dress more conservatively, but there's ways that you can be conservative and appropriate but have individual style and character."

Wardrobe consulting and the shopping that it inevitably produces can be very expensive. For her small business clients, Bastnagel will try to cut deals with boutique owners. "I work with a company that has four employees, and I worked with a retailer who brought the employees into her store after hours and gave them a 10 percent discount at her shop."

She also suggests that small firms should look into doing in-kind exchanges for style services, especially if money is tight. One of her clients owns a small Web-design firm in Alexandria, Va., who does online work for her hairdresser in exchange for cuts and coloring.

"As a small business person you have that kind of opportunity, especially if you're in marketing, advertising or other creative services," said Bastnagel. "It's always worthwhile to ask."

Summary: Maryann Bastnagel launched her image consulting business in 2005. She was able to harvest clients for her start-up through professional networking. She now helps mostly women around the Washington area who make more than $100,000 dress professionally and appropriately for their positions. She says that small business managers and employees should take note that image is important "because you are your business." She also recommends that small business owners network among their peers to trade discounts and services.

By Sharon McLoone |  October 5, 2007; 10:41 AM ET Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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Great article! The only thing I needed more was how to contact Maryann and her Good Black Pants company for needed help!

Posted by: Joyce Henderson | October 11, 2007 11:13 AM

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