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WSJ: New Look New Life

JANUARY 15, 2010
A New Look for a New Life
Bye-Bye, Bottega: A Former Executive Purges Her Closet in Search of Deeper Transformation

Last week, Alicia Kan put her old wardrobe up for sale on eBay. "New Decade closet purge!" she tweeted to her 1,049 Twitter followers.
This sudden sale of Hermès scarves and Donna Karan dresses, at prices starting at $19.95, marks a new phase of Ms. Kan's life. Last fall, she left her job as a high-ranking communications executive, and, like many people in transition, she wants an image to match the new life she's pursuing. Out with St. John dresses and Armani suits. In with Y-3 hoodies and Hugo Boss motorcycle boots. "I want to dress like Blondie in the 80s," she says.
Many of us have felt the desire to shed our skin, an urge that can be ignited by a new job, a change in marital status, weight loss, the arrival at midlife or just a new year. Post-divorce Madonna has returned to her vampy roots in Dolce & Gabbana, but her British Dame phase is still warm to the touch. Former Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin has traded in his Wall Street pinstripes for the more yogi-like look of the New Agey spa owner that he is now. Even designers change their skins. Remember the chubby, dorky Marc Jacobs? His cut body and knee-revealing kilts today seem to be another man.
Tabloid stories suggest these celebrity transformations happen overnight. But reinventing oneself is an emotional experience. "Packing [the clothes] up for shipping is saying good-bye to a former life," says Ms. Kan.
For most people, it isn't easy to purge a closet, especially when it's full of items that were once meaningful. Christos Garkinos, co-owner of high-end Los Angeles consignment shop DecadesTwo, says he often has to coach people as they work up the gumption to relinquish items from their former selves to his boutique. And he often gets calls days later, when a client regrets having let go of an item.
One client, he says, sat on her bed and shivered with emotion as he sorted through her wardrobe. "I actually would have to stop and give her reassuring hugs and have her give 'permission' to let her clothes go," he says.
People often feel the need to reinvent themselves when they reach midlife or the years before retirement, says Dr. Barbara Becker Holstein, a psychologist in West Allenhurst, N.J. It's common for people like Ms. Kan to feel that they've compromised too much of themselves for their job or their marriage, and to want to rectify that by starting afresh.
I suspect that the pace of change in technology and business also contributes to people's sense that it's time to change skins. Our jobs and industries keep moving, morphing, and disappearing, creating opportunities for image changes—and the fear that we'll need to change, whether we like it or not.
Despite the lure of letting go, Dr. Holstein suggests avoiding hasty decisions to leave a job or home or even to toss out significant portions of your closet. And she warns against purging photos and mementos— items that can never be replaced if your feelings change later. "The average person has a natural pull to stay connected to who they were," she says.
Once a transition is in the works, it's important to recognize that more than objects will be ejected. "You look at your Linked In contacts and think, 'They're not all going to make the journey with me,' " says Ms. Kan.
Until last fall, Ms. Kan was global head of communications for Synovate, a market-research unit of London's Aegis Group. A corporate road warrior, she shopped her way through the world's luxury zones in Cairo, Prague, London, and Chicago on the endless itinerary of a global executive. She had Hermès scarves and Celine furs.
She says her decision to reinvent herself came last summer, when her boss of a dozen years announced his retirement: "I thought, 'I want to look on the other side of the fence, too.' "
Since her departure from the company, Ms. Kan, who is 44 and single, has joined the board of an innovative Chicago chamber-music ensemble called Fifth House, and she is looking for work that will feel more meaningful to her. "I want to create social value, not shareholder value now," she says.
Ms. Kan sold her first tranche of clothes on eBay in December, having set up lights and a dress form in her apartment to photograph her pants, tops, dresses and accessories. Ms. Kan says there's a deal of sentiment in nearly everything she's selling off. Selling the first Armani jacket she ever owned was an emotional moment. "I clinched a job when I wore it to an interview, so it was my lucky jacket," she says. "I also remember saving up for it; I wanted an Armani so badly. Whenever I wore my Armani, I felt strong and confident and ready to take on the world."
She learned that her very expensive wardrobe wasn't worth nearly as much on the resale market. That Armani jacket, for example, sold for $36. She jokes that her sale isn't exactly a new form of income; she's made less than $700 selling her clothes. She is focusing on the fact that she is recycling useful items in order to open a new chapter. "These clothes served me well. I want them to find a good home," she says.
Indeed, those suits and Prada handbags represent the professional person she once struggled to define. She says she never felt entirely comfortable with corporate mores. "In college, I was the girl with blue hair who sat sullenly at the back of the classroom and made holes in her jeans with a seam ripper," she wrote me.
At her first public-relations job in Hong Kong, she says, she wore an Ann Taylor T-shirt and a long skirt; colleagues shifted their seats away from her in the lunch room. "I realized later that they were all wearing Chanel suits. I had no idea that how you dress was so important," she says. "That started my education on Bottega Veneta."
In a way, I'm coming full circle. I feel like I'm coming home," she wrote in an email as she sorted boxes in her new, smaller, apartment. "Why do I have an evening clutch that lights up when you open it?" she asks. "I have a mink stole that I've never used. Who was this person who bought all these things?"
—Contact me at Christina.Binkley@wsj.com and twitter.com/BinkleyOnStyle.
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page W8
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