From beige to butterfly

Having trouble meeting the right person? Perhaps your clothes are proje cting the wrong image. Lyndsay Russell meets someone who can help
Never judge a book by its cover, or so the saying goes. But we do, don't we? Meet a person of the opposite sex and you make instant assumptions based on the way they dress.

Lots of bold jewellery and shoulder pads, and the woman is considered to be a sophisticated, racy Jackie Collins type. Likewise, a man sporting a tweed jacket with leather elbowpads can be deemed a ponderous J R Hartley.

I had one girlfriend who used to wear outrageous clothes with necklines plunging two inches below her hem. Strangely, she would complain that lovers only ever thought of her as a plaything.

To my suggestion that her leather miniskirt would be better suited as a chamois cloth for the car, she innocently replied: ''Why should I change my style? Men should take me for what I am.'' Unfortunately, they did. Frequently.

There are times in our lives when a little objective advice on our presentation would not go amiss. The trouble is, however, that shop assistants are biased. Besides, they either treat you with large amounts of disdain, or embarrass you into buying the first rag you try on.

One way of reassessing your image may be to visit Laurel Herman's style consultancy tucked away in a pretty backstreet off Primrose Hill in north London.

''Many of my clients first come after a divorce, when they need a boost to face the singles scene. Others come when they've lost a lot of weight, or are about to start a fantastic new job,'' says Laurel, an elegant woman in her forties.

She set up her business two years ago, when she started swapping second-hand designer outfits among her friends. Now she runs a showroom containing 6,000 new and nearly new garments. ''Normally you go into a boutique, look at the selection, and choose two or three items you know will suit you. We work in a totally different way.

''I encourage my customers to take three to four hours trying on as many clothes as they possibly can. For instance, I'll hand them a rail of 25 jackets and say, 'Go for it.' It only takes five seconds to slip each one on and off. But by experimenting with different shapes and colours that you would never consider in normal circumstances, you can discover a whole new look.''

Laurel, in the middle of a divorce herself, realises how vulnerable people can be during this period. ''I insist no one is pushed into buying. But it is fun to show a 'beige' housewife how she can become a butterfly. Whatever, my rule of thumb is that they must feel comfortable with the new look.''

Her colleague Susan Bull runs a different aspect of the company: she is often to be found in men's bedrooms. ''I give private home consultations on wardrobe,'' she says. Trained in fashion by Louis Feraud and Giorgio Armani, she visits many of her male and female clientele every season.

At pounds 100 a visit, she will overhaul your existing jumble, suggesting creative mix and matches, and nifty tucks to update the outdated. ''My intention is to make everything clients have wearable. Sometimes a discarded suit just needs an alteration to a lapel. Alternatively I can take a new outfit, break it up, and turn it into six.''

With subtle therapy, she analyses personal needs, career and hobbies, creating looks to complement the lifestyle. ''Recently, I had a man who was highly successful, but had always been dressed by his mother, then his wife. Although he could afford top designer names, both women had bought all his clothes from Marks and Spencer. He looked like a schoolteacher. Now divorced, he's been wondering why he never attracted stylish women.''

Another Susan Bull client was from the police force. ''He was a top CID officer, but he dressed too flashily. Cartoon ties, patterned shirts - then wondered why he was always overlooked for promotion,'' she says.

One wonders if that was for bucking the system or for making a lousy undercover cop. Either way, Susan tactfully set the record straight. When it comes to attracting the opposite sex, men certainly do make hideous mistakes. Unkempt and crumpled reflects a lack of personal pride. Too smooth indicates a lack of trustworthiness.

On the other hand, women can destroy an image with misplaced accessories. A lady in a pounds 1,000 suit coupled with peep-toe shoes and dangling ear-rings can look tackier than a cheap prostitute. Fran Moscow, another partner in the Style Consultancy, runs the New York Story style show. ''We do about 10 a month. It's full of tips, like how the simple addition of a scarf can alter your entire look.''

Part of the show involves taking a business woman or man through an imaginary day. From a morning meeting to nightclub cocktails, the same outfit is altered in various ways to suit. Bookings so far have included people from the US Embassy, Champneys, and the City Women's Network.

They also run small advice workshops where you can trot out your sartorial mistakes and they will tell you what to do with them. Not always the dustbin.

So would-be romantics, don't let people judge you like a book. Take a hard look in the mirror, and check your dust-jacket. You could be covering Lady Chatterley's Lover with the Oxford English Dictionary.