Fast Track: Would you spend pounds 100 on a new face?

Image matters, and make-up for the office should be flattering, up-to-date and appropriate. Holly Davies witnesses a make-over by the bespoke tailor of the cosmetics world
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Tara Murphy, 25 years old, and PA to the managing director of Optimedia, an advertising and media company in London, has had trouble finding suitable make-up for work. She spends a lot of money on her make- up, generally up to pounds 50 a month, and wants advice and guidance on what works best for her.

Many young women face the same dilemma, especially when they enter their first job after three years at university and join a corporate culture where image and self-promotion are everything. Even when you are established in a company, changes within the firm may keep you and your colleagues on the edge of your seats. Your image may be doubly important if you want to impress a new boss. And to keep ahead of the game, women need to reassess their make-every few years to accommodate changes in their skin, not mention fashion trends.

Department stores may appear to hold the answers, offering lots of different cosmetics counters under one roof, but often the service they offer leaves a lot to be desired. "I've tried department stores for complete make-overs," said Tara. "They left me feeling more like an inconvenience than a possible life-long customer.

"The same thing happened in MAC on the King's Road. The array of products was dazzling, and they were available in all the brown colours that I like, but there was no assistant to help with colour-matching or tips on how to apply."

Cosmetics counters seem convinced that we should readily part with pounds 25 for a foundation, when all we are sure about is that the colour matches the back of our hand. Emporia such as Space NK in Covent Garden offer make-up products with kudos but, without professional assistance, customers are left in the dark about how best to use whatever is decreed to be this season's hot colour.

The solution to Tara's problems lay a stone's throw from Harvey Nichols and Harrods, in Motcomb Street, Knightsbridge. Cosmetics A La Carte is the bespoke tailor of the make-up industry. Its service is a combination of good, old-fashioned consultation, and cosmetics mixed on the spot to match your complexion.

A one-hour meeting costing pounds 100 aims to find out what the client wants from her make-up. There is no charge for the make-up used, but any product the customer decides to buy costs extra (though she may be given useful free samples to take away).

Tara wanted a look that would be suitable for work, and could be topped up for the evening. Her consultant started by cleansing and toning the skin. Then the pain began: Tara's eyebrows were in serious need of shaping.

Next came Matte Miracle Anti-shine gel, which acts as a base to foundation and can be used on oily areas. The foundation was matched to Tara's desired skin colour.

Generally, women like to wear a warmer shade of foundation than their natural colour, so the colour should be tested over a large area of the face, preferably a cheek and half a nose, as skin tones tend to change from side to centre.

Foundation was applied all over the face with a wedge sponge, which was smoothed over the skin rather than rubbed in. Its effect can be improved by a facial every six to eight weeks and gentle exfoliation weekly. Secret Light, a high-colour density concealer, was used around Tara's eyes and reddened areas.

Next came the eyes. Making up eyes is all about creating an illusion, and making them look bigger and brighter. If the colour or way you've applied it achieves neither, it's not right. Tara's brows needed to be filled in with eyeshadow rather than a pencil, to give a soft, natural look.

The whole eyelid was then covered with eyeshadow base. Tara generally wears browns - her eyes are greenish-grey - but she wanted another string to her bow.

Pale grey was applied to the lower lid, with a darker, slate grey used above to add definition. One trick Tara picked up was to use eyeshadow combined with a little water to make eye-liner. Applied with a thin brush, it creates a look that is softer and longer lasting than kohl pencil, which is wax-based and can run.

Finally, the lips. First they were prepared with primer, which soothes and smoothes. Tara decided to go for a modern look, using lip-liner both around the edge and to colour in the lips. To give them fullness, gloss was applied on top.

To transform Tara's new look from office to evening, the consultant simply added a coat of the darker slate grey to the lower lid, topped up the eye-liner, and added individual fake eyelashes.

And there you have it. The ultimate in luxury make-up shopping. It had taken time to convince Tara that this was a service she needed, but she agreed it was worthwhile.

"I really feel I've learnt something about my face," she said. "I have more confidence in applying make-up now, and understand what suits me and why. I'm also likely to drop in for a quick appointment to find out what colour and type of foundation would be most beneficial to me - which is a free service."

Cosmetics A La Carte, 19B Motcomb Street, London SW1 (0171-235 0596; mail order 0171-622 2318).