Today's outlook: smart and chic

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By Ami Albernaz
Globe Correspondent / March 12, 2009
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When Danielle Niles, 24, joined New England Cable News in November as the channel's newest and youngest meteorologist, she faced an enviable dilemma. She needed to look professional and credible - after all, what do weather people have going for them if not credibility? - but she also wanted to look young, chic, even a little funky.

So the station came up with a deal: It would provide Niles with a wardrobe and a stylist to help her strike just the right balance between seriousness and sass for the station's 3.7 million viewers. On a recent Saturday, Niles met with fashion coach Susan Kanoff and New York-based clothing designer Dayanne Danier at NECN's studios in Newton. Those of us lucky enough to be employed in this stormy economy - and 20-somethings gearing up for the workforce - might glean some tips from Niles's experience.

Niles, tall, slender, and with a beauty queen's looks, arrived in a sleek, cream-colored suit that, though professional, lacked pizzazz for television and washed Niles out, Kanoff said.

"The goal is to give Danielle a new image - sophisticated and stylish, but also fresh and young," said Kanoff. "We don't want to put her in the uniform of a meteorologist." It can be a tough line to toe, Niles and Kanoff agreed, coming across as corporate and sophisticated while letting a little youth and spunk show through.

"I wanted to look younger and more chic, but also classic and professional, because that's a big part of it," Niles said. "You don't want to go overboard, but you want more color, more vibrancy."

The first piece Niles tried on - a short-sleeved, knee-length, brown cotton dress with a lightly ruffled front and buttons adorning the shoulders, was characteristic of Danier's pieces: sophisticated and formal with playful touches, and above all, feminine. Niles completed the outfit with Cole Haan metallic pumps that Kanoff had found at Marshalls for $20, and a gold Banana Republic bracelet accented with melon tones.

Next up was a pale gray, ruffled blouse topped off with a wide black belt and matched with a bold red skirt. A jacket matching the skirt was nixed, to avoid red overload.

The subsequent looks were assembled from mixed and matched pieces: wool jackets in gray and burgundy, gray cigarette pants, and elegant, woven shirts with ruffled fronts or colored trim or flared sleeves - small contemporary twists on a classic look. The outfits were topped off with hoop earrings or chunky beads.

Good tailored work shirts - a foundation of a solid work wardrobe - can be found at Target, Kanoff said. Add jeans, metallic pumps, and a favorite pair of earrings, and these shirts can also work after hours.

Separates - jackets, cardigans, and dress pants - are also good building blocks, Kanoff added. She recommended New York & Company, which has "a nice selection of youthful and reasonably priced clothes, including suits."

Still, there's often a sharp line between what to wear once in a job and what to wear while vying for one.

"Danielle's outfits are great workplace outfits, but if you're interviewing in the corporate world, you'll need to wear a suit," Kanoff said. If you're young and stylish, "you don't want to wear the same suit that a 50-year-old would wear. You want to get a really good suit in a basic neutral color - black, gray, dark brown, cocoa. And you want it to fit you well - nothing too baggy or too tight."

Banana Republic, Ann Taylor Loft, and H&M all have good, moderately priced suits, Kanoff said. One can accent a suit with a stylish blouse or a bit of jewelry, though it's best to avoid bling.

"Jewelry should accentuate what a woman is wearing, rather than overpower it," Kanoff said. The same goes for perfume.

Of course, an interview outfit depends on the prospective job. Someone applying to work as a preschool teacher might not wear the same suit as someone going out for a banking job.

"You want to think about the impression you want to make, and tie [the outfit] into the job you're seeking," Kanoff said. "Think about what you want the way you're dressed to say about yourself."

Some interviewing rules, obvious though they may seem, apply across the board: no wrinkled clothing. No cleavage and no bra straps peeking out. Skirts no shorter than knee-length. Carry a briefcase or a leather tote, not a backpack.

Once you're in a job, you can take your dress cues from the environment. Niles, who ended up with half a dozen new shirts, two suits, and two dresses after meeting Danier, watched how her TV colleagues dressed and learned what wouldn't work on the camera.

"I was definitely getting a feel for whether I needed to wear a suit jacket. I needed to learn what colors worked," she said. (Green, the color of the background map, was a no-no.)

Even for those not seen by millions of people each day, dressing up a little more than is necessary - "going a little above and beyond," Kanoff said - might be a good way to go. Hard economic times have been accompanied by a step up in the dress code, particularly as businesses aim for a no-nonsense appearance for their clients.

"This market right now is extremely competitive, and looking good is extremely important," Kanoff said. "Unfortunately, when people don't know anything about you, they formulate a first impression."

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