By Emily Williams
Tracy James never saw Chic Made Simple, her fashion consulting and styling brand, in her future as a young girl growing up in Mountain Brook.
“I always had a love of fashion,” she said. “I went to a Montessori school and I remember us doing a project in kindergarten where we drew a picture of what we were most excited to do over the summer and then we would tell the teacher what to write underneath it,” she said. “Most of the kids said things like a trip to Disney World or to the beach. I said that I was most excited to wear a shirt without sleeves.”
She still remembers her favorite outfit: a red and white romper that zipped up the front paired with tall brown boots.
Before celebrity stylists such as Rachel Zoe paved the way for the vocation, James said, she didn’t think she could have a successful career in the fashion industry if she wasn’t a merchandiser, fashion designer or the like.
“There was just no real career in it,” she said. “When I went to Auburn I thought about majoring in fashion merchandising until I realized that you have to take chemistry. And I can’t draw, so, no to fashion design.”
After graduating, James filtered through a few career options, but nothing ever felt right. She went to law school for a year. She pursued a broadcast journalism career with CNN but quickly figured out that career wasn’t as glamorous as Katie Couric made it seem.
She attributes her segue into professional styling to her stint working on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
“It was probably seeing all of those poorly dressed politicians that helped me realize that I wanted to help them,” she said.
She began working for Parisians on contract, traveling across the country to the less fashion-forward cities such as Dayton, Ohio, and Detroit to style for photo shoots.
One of her biggest influences during her early career was Tim Gunn, celebrity stylist best known for his role on “Project Runway,” whom she worked with and considers a mentor.
Her favorite piece of advice from him is displayed on her website, a portion reading: “What is a closet, really, but a catalogue of the different personas we have auditioned and discarded?”
James tries to maintain her status as a jack-of-all-trades, styling professionally for photo shoots, freelance writing fashion columns as well as personal shopping and styling throughout Birmingham. When she walks into a client’s closet, it takes James about 15 minutes to understand who her client is and what they are insecure about.
“Everybody has something that they feel insecure about,” she said. “I myself dealt with an eating disorder when I was in college and I feel that struggle has given me an intimate connection to image-based issues that other people have.”
She is a big advocate for confidence as the best accessory.
One of the ways she spreads that message is through working with children. For eight years, James worked with The Summit, hosting a summer styling camp for young girls.
“I feel really rewarded when I work with kids,” she said. “Peer pressure is starting earlier and earlier nowadays and I want them to understand that not all girls are meant to be tiny twigs. This is all a vehicle for me to help girls develop a healthy body image.”
James also styles men, young and old, but she finds them a bit easier to work with.
“The great thing about styling men is that they are like sponges,” she said. “They don’t have as many pre-conceived ideas about fashion.” They may get a little thrown off by the idea of wearing clothes that are a bit tighter than they are used to, but generally they are ready to learn.
Tips From the Expert
Quick tips and fashion mantras are ever-present on the tip of James’ tongue. They are short tidbits that are easy to remember and she often uses them when she is giving a seminar.
“Fashion is not rocket science,” James said. “Finding your personal style and that message that you want to send to other people is something that everyone can learn.”
She finds that many times, when women are trying to cover up an insecurity about their body, they are often hiding some of their best features.
“No matter what size you are, you always look better when you feel confident,” she said. “First and foremost, you just need to accentuate what you do like … and then you work to camouflage what you don’t like.”
She also urges people to embrace color and patterns, in moderation. She suggests including one trendy element, bright pattern or texture to create more interest.
“I’m all about disposing (of) myths like black is the only color that’s slimming. It is not,” she said.
James said that there are always trends that don’t appeal to her, but luckily they leave almost as quickly as they arrive.
“I’m actually surprised that fringe is still in style,” she said. “It is part of an ongoing obsession that everyone has with the bohemian look.”
Another long-running trend she sees is skinny jeans, but she is a fan of its longevity.
“I’m wearing them right now.” She said. “But I’m glad to see other cuts. Skinny jeans don’t work for everyone, so it’s nice to see a boot cut and flare coming back into style.”
Trends for men are less of an issue for James, but she said she has noticed some great things happening in affordable brands.
“I took a client shopping last week and when we were in Banana Republic, I was delighted to see some high-grade-looking suits,” she said. “It’s really in the details. We found a $295 suit that had surgeon cuffs, which are cuffs with workable buttons. It’s something that you normally only see in custom and bespoke suits.”
James takes the discovery as a hint that brands are starting to take advice from consumers.
Regardless of the amount her clients spend on their wardrobe, James’ best tip is to wear what you love.
For more about Tracy James and Chic Made Simple, visit her website at chicmadesimple.com and stay up-to-date on trends through her Instagram account @chicmadesimple.