Fashion: Role models who mean business: I expect everything to last five years

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MELANIE CLORE is a senior director of Sotheby's and is in charge of its Impressionist and Modern Art department. Aged 32, she is also one of a handful of female auctioneers in this country.

When I was at a drinks party in New York a male colleague told me that if I really wanted to be taken seriously in the art world, I ought to start wearing high heels. I think they take all that dressing for success stuff more seriously there. They're certainly better catered for.

Here, it's still quite hard for working women who need to look smart but don't want to look boring, because you are expected to look feminine and yet it must not be overt. And certainly never sexy. Slinky Azzedine Alaa dresses might be okay on the Manhattan art scene, but not at Sotheby's. There are no formulas unless you want to look really conventional.

I don't wear trousers but that's because I'm the wrong shape. I don't think too much in terms of what is appropriate, but what's comfortable. If I feel comfortable, I feel confident. That is important because in my job you need to look authoritative - when you look good you're in a stronger position to give someone a valuation of something that might cost millions. Inevitably that means wearing quite pricey clothes. But I try and pay as little as I can for them - I always do a huge recce before I buy anything and I expect everything I buy to last at least five years.

Because it's such a male world I have no role models at Sotheby's; it has been trial and error. My job is very personality based, plus it's an arty environment, so looking reasonably fashionable is acceptable. That's a mixed blessing: I'm lucky to work in a profession where you can express your personality in your clothes and where I don't have to compromise my taste, but it does mean you have to apply more thought to your clothes. At least uniforms have the virtue of being easy.

What to wear when I'm taking a black-tie charity auction is always a nightmare. You're facing a room full of elegant people, so you want to look good. But obviously you must not divert attention from the art. Once, I borrowed a black Yves Saint Laurent jacket. It was very simple, but when I lifted the gavel the audience would get this flash of gold buttons on the sleeve - very dramatic. I suppose I like all my clothes to be like that for work, understated and elegant but with an edge.

I travel a lot so I've become pretty good at packing. I always wrap everything in plastic bags from the dry cleaners; as soon as I get to the hotel I hang everything up in the bathroom and turn the hot tap on full; the steam really does get out the creases. I don't even think about taking white silk shirts any more.

I don't have to wear jackets, but even so, I have half a dozen. The navy one is the working equivalent of a little black dress: indispensable because it can be dressed up or down. Then there are two black skirts and a grey one that are centre stage of my wardrobe, and a bunch of Gap T-shirts. Ethnic jewellery is useful for making basically quite plain clothes look more interesting, and Donna Karan's DKNY collection is brilliant for working clothes that look elegant and smart without being frumpy.

I'm a bit of an Imelda Marcos when it comes to shoes. I've probably got about 30 pairs. But that is because I rarely throw any away. And no, hardly any of them have high heels.

MELANIE CLORE: Oatmeal wool body from Donna Karan's DKNY collection, pounds 135, available from Browns, South Molton Street, London W1; five-year-old grey flannel sarong skirt by Kenzo; old coin belt from Morocco; bargain crystal effect ear-rings; low leather pumps from Italy

(Photograph omitted)

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