Life changed for Kritika Shah (name changed) after she became a mother. As did her wardrobe. When the corporate executive from Hyderabad rejoined work after her maternity leave, she wore only black to camouflage her post-pregnancy weight gain. The Morticia Adamms outfits continued until a friend signed her up for a makeover with an image consultant.
During the two, hour-long sessions that followed, Shah learnt not only how to reintroduce colour into her wardrobe, she was also taught how to do her hair and makeup to draw attention to her face, rather than her problem areas. Says Sheena Aggarwal, director of Urbanista Image Consulting, who supervised Shah’s makeover, “People have a lot of misconceptions about what looks good on them. I help them out by clearing those misconceptions.”
If you thought image consultants were only for hotshot CEOs and filmstars, think again. Increasingly, junior and middle managers and even frontline executives are turning to the experts to help them make an impact in the workplace. Corporates are also getting hooked — hospitality and aviation aside, even staid industries like manufacturing, healthcare and IT are hiring grooming experts to offer their employees an image makeover.
Columbia Asia Hospitals, AT&T, SAP Labs, Spicejet, Vivanta, Apollo Hospitals, even the public sector Kudremukh Iron Ore are only a few names from a long list of companies that have, at different times, brought on board image and grooming consultants.
So much so that an increasing number of people are making it their career. There are no official estimates, of course, but consultants themselves estimate that “several hundred” grooming and image experts join the industry every year. Not all of them are new to the profession, though. There’s enough business in the corporate image consulting arena to tempt others from allied fields. Consider Yatan Ahluwalia, who runs Y&E Media. Some years ago, Ahluwalia and his partner Jojo branched out from the fashion industry and moved into the corporate world.
The interest in the business is understandable: image consulting and grooming is becoming an increasingly lucrative proposition. A plain vanilla interaction with a specialist can set back a company by 25,000 a day, while more elaborate grooming and personality development sessions can cost as much as 1.5 lakh.
Ahluwalia declines to share numbers, saying the fee is based on the level of involvement, the number of days and whether it is just consultancy or training as well. But it’s money well spent, insists Ashuti Menon, partner at Metamorf India. “When you dress better, you feel better. And when you feel better, you work better. In the end, everyone gains.”
What makes companies willing to fork out serious sums of money for a few tips on dressing and deportment? Menon says this is because corporate citizens are expected to interact at length with people from overseas, either as clients or colleagues. “Indians are highly respected for their knowledge and technical skills, but not perceived to be very good at presenting themselves,” she points out. “Employees are brand ambassadors for their organisations, which is why corporates have started investing in such programmes.”
So how does it work? Typically, companies start by briefing the consultants on issues they want covered — this could range from general talks on the dos and don’ts of dressing in the workplace to detailed sessions on wardrobe analysis, choosing accessories, personal grooming, voice modulation and posture.
Some companies even appoint these experts to design suitable uniforms for their staff. Ahluwalia, who’s designed uniforms for Spicejet, Vivanta and Apollo Hospitals, points out that it’s not an easy task. “All these have to be done keeping in mind the brand image of the company.” For instance, when BNP Paribas asked Ahluwalia to create a uniform that reflected both Indian and international elements, the designer experimented with several designs before creating a saree with modern graphic prints in red and black that also stood out dramatically in the “stark white interiors of the new BNP building.”
Not everyone welcomes the idea of an image makeover, though. Internationally, companies that hire grooming consultants have come in for a lot of flak from feminists, who disparage such initiatives as being sexist and focusing on appearance rather than ability. Usually, it’s women employees who are given detailed instructions on what to wear in the workplace while men are dismissed with more general tips on staying neat and smelling clean.
That’s true to a large extent in India as well, but image experts here point out that, especially among senior management, male executives are equally keen on sprucing up their looks and updating their wardrobes in sync with international trends. Ahluwalia, for instance, cites the transformation of the CEO of a large conglomerate whose suits were bought off the rack — and looked it. “We custom tailored 50 suits for him and changed everything in his wardrobe, from shirts to shoes and belts. With restyled and coloured hair, he looked 15 years younger,” he smiles.
A makeover can really change the lives of professionals, says Aggarwal whose client list includes lawyers, engineers, a health insurance company and a multiplex chain. “It builds confidence, which has a positive effect on their careers,” she adds. And that’s reason enough for companies to embrace this emerging profession, too.