Style is timeless. The key to looking great isn’t about following all of the latest fashion trends. It’s about finding your style, developing a sense of self and always staying true to your own aesthetic. Your personal style should be reflective of your likes, creativity, and lifestyle. It’s an impactful first impression that projects a message about who you are. My personal style went through a fair number of questionable phases. This is the story of how I lost my groove before embarking on a journey to rediscover my true sense of self.
My mother was a highly accomplished dressmaker, she used to make all her own clothes and she was so very, very stylish – not in an overtly glamorous way, there wasn’t enough money for that, but in a quietly confident unassuming way; she always looked gorgeous.
She used to make most of my clothes too, and we’d have so much fun. We’d choose the material together − this was back in the days before we called it ‘fabric’ − and we’d find a paper pattern, or she might adapt a pattern that she already had in accordance with my request for a drop waist perhaps, puff sleeves or a lace-up neckline.
Apart from shoes, knitwear, and my school uniforms, none of my clothes were ever shop-bought. In fact, my mum would often handknit my jumpers and cardigans as well; and naturally she was proficient in the arts of alteration, repair and innovatively creating something new out of something old. Although I do remember, when I was very little, I would sometimes end up with a garment of dubious origin – a hand-me-down dress, a jumble sale jumper or some other child’s outgrown winter coat. Oh the tantrums. They all looked very dated and old fashioned to my childishly critical eyes, and I hated them all. I hated wearing second-hand clothes.
Fast forward to my rebellious teenage years and I longed for shop-bought clothes − and shop-bought cakes for that matter. Mum tried to teach me how to make my own clothes but although I learned the basics, I wasn’t very motivated. She taught me the principles of dressing well and encouraged me to do so, but in the early seventies my rebellious spirit was drawn in a different direction. I idolised my older, hippie brother; I wanted to be a barefoot hippie too and wear flowers in my hair.
When I was fifteen, I secured a part-time job, which gave me enough money to buy my own clothes, along with an enviable collection of dramatically dark Biba eyeshadows. I used to shop at Mr. Bee’s Fun Factory, which was a hippie-owned café-boutique in Plymouth, selling Indian cotton skirts, cheesecloth shirts, loon pants, beads, bangles and patchouli oil. I bought myself an Afghan coat for fifteen pounds, which smelled so bad that my parents wouldn’t allow me to bring it into the house, I had to hang it up in the garage. I had six pairs of cotton hipster loons, skin-tight and flared from the knee, in black, brown, navy blue, dark green, dark red and purple, I’d wear them with round-hemmed cheesecloth shirts, handmade leather clogs and a velvet jacket. My seventeen-year-old friends used to dress in exactly the same manner, but it was me who copied them. My hippie-style continued into the early eighties when I was in my early twenties. I remember wearing an itchy Bolivian alpaca poncho, a hippie skirt, and flat-soled, scuffed cowboy boots to a family celebration, I must have looked a sight, and although no one ever said anything, I remember feeling rather ashamed afterwards. At that time, fashion held little importance for me because I was too busy saving up to travel the world, dreaming of a paradise where I could drape a sarong around my hips and wear flowers in my hair. In 1982, I travelled through India to Nepal, Thailand and Bali, and on to Australia to visit my hippie brother who by then had cut his hair, shaved off his long, thick beard and become a photographic model. Bali was my barefoot paradise but at that time I wasn’t ready for it; I returned to England because I’d fallen in love with another old hippie who wanted to settle down.
I got a job in a bank, so I had to smarten myself up for work − prior to the bank providing a staff uniform − and I was grateful to my mum, who would still make me the occasional jacket, dress or skirt. My parents bought me a sewing machine, and although I never really mastered the art of dressmaking, I became a dab hand at making curtains for the home I shared with my ex-hippie boyfriend. The expectation to look smart was elevated when I became national vice-president of the bank’s trade union. I used to attend conferences and meetings all over the country and I finally understood the importance of being well dressed. I muddled my way through the fashion scene and bought myself some expensive designer clothes, but a power dresser I was not. Nearly always, my purchases were impulsive statement pieces, and my wardrobe was unplanned; often I didn’t have the jacket or shoes to complement or complete my colourful outfits.
Around about this time, one of my work colleagues qualified as a “Colour Me Beautiful” consultant, and invited all the women in our office to a colour analysis party at her home. Colour Me Beautiful was a pop-culture phenomenon in the 1980s; it popularised personal colour analysis by revealing how each individual has a basic skin pigment that falls somewhere within one of four seasonal groupings: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, defined by a combination of depth, hue and tone. My friend’s role as a colour consultant was to determine the range of colours that were the most flattering for each of us. I was identified as an Autumn and told to wear browns and greens, which was obvious to me, I have brown hair, and light brown eyes − amber, I’m told − ringed with green. Did I delve deeper or put my newfound knowledge into practice? Not really, but green became my favourite colour. Did I have any understanding of depth, hue and tone? Not an inkling. From chartreuse and lime, to mint, sage, olive, emerald, fern and pine, I would always select green over all other colours if there was a choice, but I really don’t remember there being very much green in the fashion collections of the eighties and nineties.
By 1998, my ex-hippie boyfriend had become my ex-husband, I sold my house in England with its pretty homemade curtains, and I moved to Bali, the barefoot island-paradise of my dreams.
Relocating to the tropics meant letting go of not only my house and my homemade curtains, my furniture, my books and a wonderful collection of hand-painted ceramic plant pots, but also saying goodbye to some of my most beautiful winter fashion statements. I couldn’t imagine ever needing them again; it was a hard task. Yet slipping into Bali’s laidback fashion scene was easy for me. There’s a real freedom of expression on this sunny little island, a mixture of tradition, beach culture and glamour; the mood is colourful, casual and carefree. I loved the creative bohemian vibe. I rocked the boho style by day and I succumbed to the allure of silk by night, accessorised − of course − with frangipani blossoms in my hair. During my first couple of years, I worked as PA to the Italian owner of a garment factory that produced high quality clothing for top Italian fashion companies including Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, and Trussardi. It was fascinating to meet the designers, watch the sampling, and oversee the production and quality control of the collections, including the decorative hand-processed beading, embroidery and crochet, and the amazing dyeing techniques − bleaching, tying, dipping, painting and batik, which make Bali fashion so distinctive.
Over the next twenty-three years, my personal Bali style evolved to become exclusively me, complete with a little bit of an edge. The important thing was not to be mistaken for a tourist for whom the rayon sundresses, loose pants and kaftans from the street market stalls, or white linen ‘resort wear’ from the classier fashion boutiques, is de rigueur. Low-rise denim shorts became my signature, T-shirts and silk tops in all the colours of the rainbow, and some silk, chiffon and lace party dresses from Bali’s celebrated designers.
Meanwhile, I used to love shopping for fabrics in Jalan Sulawesi, Denpasar’s textile street, devoted to cloth of all descriptions. In these long and narrow lock ups, which are open at the front, badly lit, and jumbled high with hundreds of fabric bolts, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the clash of colours and prints combined with poor presentation. Every expat in Bali has a tailor, some are better than others, and instructions to make an exact copy of an existing garment will often get lost in translation. Nevertheless, I would get a lot of my clothes made to order, or altered, and at least I’d end up with something unique.
And then Covid happened, and it was heart-breaking to see what it did to Bali’s economy. During the initial lockdown, for fear of looting, the glass-fronted fashion boutiques in my home-neighbourhood of Seminyak were cleared of all of their stock, leaving naked faceless mannequins staring out of empty windows at pavements devoid of tourists. Many of these shops have since been forced to close down forever, while the Javanese shoemakers, tailors, and leather tailors in Legian and Kuta have long since shut up their workshops, cut their losses and returned home to their families in Java.
In late 2020, my Kiwi husband-to-be and I flew to New Zealand for three months to spend Christmas with his family and to get married. I’d designed my own wedding dress inspired by a Pinterest image of a 1928 vintage tea dress, and I had it made up in silk layered with a soft French lace by my new tailor in Bali. Our wedding was a joyful occasion and I revelled in the pleasure of being a princess for the day, but shortly before we were due to return to Bali, we were informed that our flight, and all flights for the foreseeable future, had been cancelled.
In time, we could have got back home via an expensive convoluted route, but we decided that New Zealand was a pretty nice place to be stuck, and we opted to stay for the duration of New Zealand’s border closures and Indonesia’s complex border restrictions, with a long-term plan to divide our future time between Bali, New Zealand and the UK.
I’d arrived in New Zealand with a suitcase of casual tropical clothes, sandals and a couple of pairs of jeans, all of which saw me through Auckland’s temperate summer, but soon, I was living through a winter for the first time in twenty-four years. After more than two decades of only ever having to buy and wear clothes for a tropical climate, on an island where coats, jackets, jumpers, boots, closed-in shoes, cardigans and long sleeves are unnecessary, and formal Western attire is rarely required, I was feeling fashion perplexed, style hesitant and ill-equipped. I knew nothing about city trends, and I was confused and uncertain about how to dress for four seasons. We spent the first eight months living with my husband’s parents, who are good, kind people but it was a tough time for me. I was applying for a New Zealand partner visa, and was receiving weekly demands for further evidence of my relationship, fingerprints, bank statements, proof of assets, proof of residence in Bali, or yet another medical examination, medical report, or a police certificate of good conduct. It was stressful and overwhelming. I missed our Bali lifestyle, I missed our colourful boho home, the towering mango tree in our garden, and the freedom of being able to cook in my own kitchen.
My mother-in-law is a feeder. She’s a lovely lady and I know that her need to feed comes from a place of love but I gained more than ten kilos in those eight months: “You must eat in this cold weather”; “I’ve baked and iced some cupcakes especially for you”; “I’ve made you a toasted cheese sandwich, you know you should never skip lunch”.
I soon found I could no longer fit into my two pairs of jeans, and every time I purchased an item of winter clothing, I was either buying something too small, on the basis that I intended to lose the weight I’d gained, or something large, temporary and unflattering to cover up my newly acquired flab.
I reached out to an old friend of mine, Leesa Whisker; she’s a personal stylist, image consultant and a style-empowerment coach, and we’d met about six years earlier when she’d been living in Bali. I responded to one of her inspiring Instagram posts and she heard my little cry for help. Leesa assured me that what I was describing and going through was a natural part of the process of transformation. She said I was in the liminal space between what was and what is yet to be. She understood and empathised with what I was struggling with, and offered me a way forward by suggesting that I might like to join her ‘True Style Journey’. I wasn’t sure if I could justify spending any more money on myself but when I thought about all the money I have wasted over the years on the wrong clothes due to my silly impulsive nature, I knew it would be worth it. I totally trusted Leesa’s advice and guidance. She actually made me feel excited about reinventing myself, “You’re entering the next chapter of your life”. Even before I started, I was confident that this would be a lifechanging, transforming and enduring journey.
I had a few weeks to spare before the start of the course, so I asked Leesa what I could do, on my own, to prepare for it and get myself into the zone. Her advice was to set up a Pinterest board and start looking at other women’s style − on the street, on TV, on-line, on other Pinterest boards, and in magazines − to gather ideas and inspiration. I started collecting images on my own private Pinterest page and tuning in to other women’s styles, and very soon I began to experience an eye-opening shift.
My husband and I moved into an Auckland city centre apartment. I escaped the loving clutches of my feeder mother-in-law and started to lose the weight that I’d gained earlier in the year. Living in the heart of a foreign city was a massive lifestyle change for me. I panicked. I wanted to start shopping for clothes immediately but Leesa advised me to wait until the True Style Journey was underway. “Wait until you’re armed with the knowledge, guidance, and support to make the right choices”. In the meantime, I watched enthralled as she engaged with her many women followers via a series of Facebook and Instagram posts, live videos and discussions.
Leesa Whisker’s True Style Journey takes place online and encompasses six learning modules: Style Confidence, Colour Confidence, Body Confidence, Wardrobe Confidence, Shopping Confidence, and Styling Confidence, all with video tutorials and practical assignments to work through at one’s own pace. This is accompanied by live group coaching calls via Zoom, and a private Facebook group to share and ask questions in between the live coaching calls. The group comprises no more than ten women, with Leesa holding a safe and empowering space for everyone in this tightly knit circle of sisterhood.
As the name suggests, the True Style Journey is about style. It is not an education in fashion. Style is defined as expressing ourselves through what we wear, whereas fashion is about the current trends. Style is timeless and intangible, while fashion is timely and tangible. Someone who is stylish may or may not follow fashion trends, but they always stay true to their own personal style, which is rooted in personalities, habits and moods. Style says something about who we are to those around us, it can even reflect what we stand for. We all have our own personal style, even if we don’t think we do.
Our first assignment was to create a mood board − a vision board − a physical or digital collage (I was so excited that I created one of each) of images and words to identify the places, activities and things that make our hearts sing, and to highlight any specific visual styles that inspire us − from nature to people and places, from interiors, activities and art to, of course, fashion.
From this, and other information that we provided about our lifestyles, our likes and our dislikes, Leesa was able to pinpoint the way that each of us wished to be perceived. She narrowed down her observations to a few key words, which for me were: “Bohemian, natural and feminine, with an edge”, and this has now become my style mantra.
Over the next three months, I learnt in depth about the power and the importance of colour, not only in our clothes but also in our make-up, hair and accessories. Leesa confirmed that I was, indeed, an Autumn, which was interesting because I believed I already knew which colours I should wear − greens and browns − I’d always been drawn to wearing those colours, and I would instinctively choose gold over silver, but I’d paid little conscious attention to selecting the other classic, warm, rich colours that we see all around us in the autumn: fallen leaves of cinnamon, hazel, mustard, pumpkin, orange and spicy red, russet, nutmeg, bronze and copper. I discovered that all of these are in my colour palette, along with greens and browns that contain yellow undertones, and at last I understood that, for me, colours with cool blue undertones should be avoided. To ensure that I got it right, I ordered a personal colour swatch wallet and was pleased to find that there’s one shade of blue − a dark periwinkle − and a deep, dark, warm shade of purple included in my palette.
Interested in joining Leesa’s Colour Confidence Course? You can find out all about it here
I also instinctively and correctly knew that I didn’t look good in black, bright white or pale wishy-washy hues, but at some point I had forgotten to dismiss the other toned-down colours, such as dusty blues, pinks, and the bright cool colours that don’t suit me, such as dazzling lemon yellow, bright blue and shocking pink. I had a very eclectic rainbow wardrobe full of mismatched colours and whimsical, impetuously-purchased items that I never wore yet couldn’t bear to clear out. All my life I’ve been attracted to potentially wasting my money on unusual statement pieces that may or may not work for me. Very often they sit in my wardrobe unworn for years. Happily, during my True Style Journey, I gained some wardrobe wisdom.
Obviously, as women, we are all built differently, and our bodies change over time. What looks good on one body type might not look right on another.
This was the most confrontational module of the course; it was a lesson in how to dress to suit our individual body shapes. My two biggest takeaways were: 1) understanding that I needed to stop buying oversized shirts, T-shirts and tops, and 2) learning how to make my short legs look longer. Basically, each of us was shown to how to rock what we’ve got using proportions, fabric, cut and scale. Body confidence knowledge isn’t a secret, I already knew much of it but never before had I bothered or even considered applying it to my own styling.
Leesa chaperoned us through the process of detoxing our wardrobes, to let go of old habits and old clothes to make way for the new. The next step was seasonal wardrobe planning, identifying what we needed for the new season, which was spring/summer for me in the Antipodes. Happily, this enabled me to select clothing that would also fulfil my future needs in Bali.
Importantly, we learnt how to build a capsule wardrobe; a collection of essential, versatile, timeless, classic pieces that would go with everything, which we could mix and match, enabling us to put together more outfits with fewer items.
We were then coached on how to shop, and where to shop. Responsibly. Sustainably. I had never shopped for clothes on-line before because I’d been living in Bali where any imported items are subject to corrupt and unregulated, outrageously high import duties. Soon, however, browsing for clothes and inspiration on the internet playground was to become my new hobby and my autumn colour swatch wallet was to become my new tool. My mind was opened to styles and looks that I’d never considered before; I was brave enough to step out of my comfort zone, and I relished it. I even got my too-dark, home-dyed hair cut, restyled, and coloured with “gold highlights and warm chestnut undertones”.
Leesa guided us all through this process, recommending specific styles and pieces to each of us, as individuals, which we would try on and style, ideally in our own homes, especially if we had ordered online, before reporting back with selfies taken in our dressing room, bedroom or bathroom mirrors, and shared within our private Facebook group if we felt comfortable. Leesa would then tactfully and diplomatically advise us on what would work and what would not work.
Finding our personal flair doesn’t have to cost big bucks or require a full wardrobe makeover. As with every collection, whether it is an art collection or a collection of antiques, classic pieces should be chosen carefully and collected over a period of time, not overnight. Leesa helped us to identify just five pieces each to kickstart our own capsule wardrobes, and steered us all in the right direction of what would work for each of us as individuals. She taught me not to settle for anything that wasn’t quite right. Nevertheless, in my excitement and my enthusiasm at finding pieces that no one else would be wearing in Bali, I got a little bit carried away, but only because I was getting advice and feedback from a professional style counsellor.
It was during this process that I discovered the joy of shopping in Auckland’s many vintage, recycled and preloved clothing stores, where the discerningly-selected, good-as-new pieces are displayed by colour, frequently featuring designer labels and often never worn as evidenced by their original price tags. I realised I’d been stuck in a belief that it was strange to wear someone else’s clothes and I was still harbouring a loathing of that all-pervading smell of the charity shops of the 1980s, where the racks only ever seemed to be filled with old-lady stuff.
We were taught how to style our outfits. Something that had passed me by because − much as I love the trend of pairing sneakers with a dress, for example, or layering clothes to look effortlessly chic − in tropical Bali, where the heat dictates single layers and bare feet or flipflops, it’s just not practical. Somewhere along the way, I’d become too lazy to accessorise. My choice of jewellery had been a few understated pieces in yellow gold: a neck chain, a bangle, ear studs, two rings and a boho anklet, all of which I wore all the time, day and night. I’m now enjoying the freedom and fun of collecting frivolous and playful pieces: bags, belts, hats, hair ornaments, fascinators, earrings, necklaces, scarves, sunglasses and even a gold-coloured rock-star pant chain, to complement my outfits.
Significantly, the True Style Journey was a shared journey of beautiful sisterhood and support with nine other women participants − my True Style sisters − in which we learnt how to apply our new wisdom, together, within the safe space of our private Facebook group and our smaller accountability groups, where we became friends and still continue to connect, share, advise each other, and chat. I have realised how much it means to all of us to receive a compliment. Now, when I see a well-dressed woman on the street, I take notice, smile, and often I might pay her a compliment too. I now get excited about getting dressed up. I tell myself, “You’re going to look great today”, and I make it happen. When we look good on the outside, we feel good on the inside. When we have style, we have confidence.
Leesa’s Whisker’s True Style Journey is just the beginning of a rite of passage that will continue and stay with you forever. If you’re considering joining this journey, Leesa will identify your essence and the way that you wish to be seen. She will encourage you to be creative, to get out of your comfort zone. Her presentations, teaching, techniques, professionalism, knowledge, guidance, patience, diplomacy, empathy, support and feedback is nothing short of extraordinary. She has given me the confidence, the know-how, the tools and the ability to make the right choices. Thank you Leesa, I feel truly empowered.
Would you like to experience Leesa Whisker’s True Style Journey for yourself? Learn more on: www.leesawhisker.com