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Clustering…Enhancing Your Business Image
Dana Lynch,

As busy professionals, you’ve got a lot to think about: your product or service, marketing, bookkeeping, sales presentations, networking, and finally your image. Some of you may think about your personal visual image first, some of you may think of it last. The simple truth of the matter is your personal image is the image of your company in the mind and eyes of your customers and potential clients. You’ve worked hard on branding, positioning, and sending out the right message to your target market. If your own image or that of your employees isn’t consistent with the company image you’ve tried to portray through all of your marketing efforts – your intentions may be diluted or damaged.

But clothes, shopping, image…who has the time to think about it, not to mention the money? Good News! There’s a great concept you should know about, clustering. It’s a concept all smart business people can use. It saves time, money and helps you create a professional, personal image that will enhance the professional image you’ve created for your company. A cluster is a small group of coordinated clothes. You may be thinking, “She must be talking about mix and match. I know all about that.” Clustering goes beyond mix and match and allows you to build a complete wardrobe that will last for years. A well- planned cluster includes enough garments for a variety of looks to fit all of your needs. Clustering not only saves you the headaches of figuring out what to wear, it also saves you time, because you’ll know what to look for when shopping…pieces that work with your cluster! Another benefit of clustering is you can build your wardrobe as quickly or as slowly as your time and budget allow. The concept is easy and works for everyone, women and men, no matter what your age, lifestyle or budget. The following are specific guidelines that will help you begin to build your cluster. Find a pattern, print, stripe or plaid to inspire the color scheme of your cluster. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “But I don’t wear prints.” Even if you’re someone who doesn’t wear a lot or any prints, this will help you to develop the theme and color scheme for the cluster. Your print can be from a blouse, shirt, pants, skirt or even an accessory item such as a tie or scarf. (If you’re truly opposed to wearing prints, simply go shopping, browse the prints, and choose a color scheme without buying the print.) Why not start with something from your own closet? Chances are good that if you bought it, you like it. For maximum versatility, choose a print that includes at least three colors. Ideally, you should pick one to two wardrobe neutrals and an accent color. Neutral doesn’t have to mean boring. A neutral is simply a muted shade of practically any hue. For example, you might find a blouse with a print in red, camel, black and white. Here, the camel, black and white are the neutrals and red is your accent. Conversely, you might prefer teal, burgundy and charcoal. A third example could be French blue, navy, white and tan for a great spring/summer cluster. The possibilities are endless! Be careful not to choose a print that’s too trendy or you’ll chance having one of your core pieces going out of style not long after you’ve started the cluster. Also on this note, try to stick with fairly basic, traditional business colors. You don’t want to tire of your color scheme! Also, as you build your cluster over time, you want to be able to find the colors in the stores. Plan for five to eight pieces of clothing—top and bottom pieces. Five pieces might include three tops and two bottoms. Believe it or not, these pieces can be combined to form 12 different-looking outfits. This may be enough pieces for many people depending on your needs. (Keep in mind, you may have several beginning pieces already in your closet.) An eight-piece cluster goes even further, and when you finally build to a 12-piece cluster, you can create 48 to 72 different outfits! An example of a 12-piece cluster might be two jackets, three skirts and/or slacks, five blouses or shirts, one cardigan sweater and one pullover sweater, vest or knit shirt. Okay, I know not many men are wearing cardigans or vests these days. Remember, these are just guidelines. Go ahead and substitute. For example instead of the cardigan, you might choose a suede jacket or simply another knit shirt. Just make sure that knit shirt is distinctly different than the other. (More on that later.) Another good strategy is to employ a couple of suits in your cluster since a matched suit is a mainstay for many business people. This strategy provides you with the ability to wear the pieces of the suit together or to break them up, making sure the fabrics are compatible with one another. Another option is to acquire several smaller clusters. This takes a little more effort, but it can be a good option for someone who wants a lot of clothes and varied colors. If you’re apt to go this route, a smart plan would be to “steal” one color from a cluster to start another. For example, you might start with a cluster of white, black, and coral. Simply lift the coral and combine it with cream and mocha to form a second cluster. Select pieces that are basic—simple in styles lines and shape. Basics are clothes that are simple and somewhat plain in design without much detail or decoration. Think of a pair of pleated black trousers. The possibilities are virtually endless. Paired with a sport coat or blazer for day, they’re business appropriate. Paired with a dressy shirt or blouse, the pants work for more formal evening events. When clothes are simple in line and shape, not only can they can be combined for a variety of looks, but the entire mood of an outfit can change with the change of accessories. What’s more, clothing simple in design remains in style longer than something extremely trendy. Select pieces that will go together and will work with at least two other pieces. This is how you build to those 48 to 72 different looks! Initially, all or most pieces in a cluster should work together. They should coordinate in terms of line, shape, color, texture and pattern. When you get past your 12 pieces in a cluster, allow yourself to buy something you love that doesn’t go with many other items. These items are fun and give you that sense of fashion freedom. Select pieces that are distinctly different from one another—no two pieces alike. This guideline is crucial to creating many various looks and feeling with your clothes. If you have five polo shirts or three cotton pleated skirts, you’ll not only be limiting your flexibility, but you may start to feel like you’re wearing a uniform! The “uniform strategy” may sound appealing to some, but it truly won’t allow you to fill all of your needs as a business professional. (Remember, your image can be a tool to help you achieve your goals. Use it!) Another thing to keep in mind is that similar styled clothes can go out of style all at once, suddenly leaving you with a large gap in your wardrobe. Select accessories that go with the clothes—basic accessories first. You may want to start with silver or gold watches, jewelry, cuff links, etc. As your cluster grows and the color scheme strengthens, feel free to invest in more varied accessories, such as turquoise colored sandals, brightly colored watch bands, or belts in a variety of colors and textures. Knowing you have many outfits to wear these accessories with takes away the guilt factor, and by this point you deserve it! Gradually expand your cluster(s) to meet all of your wardrobe needs. Obviously, the simple pieces mentioned, such as pants, shirts, and skirts, can’t meet all of your wardrobe needs. You may need formal evening wear or work out wear. Depending on your lifestyle, you may even want to start specific clusters, for example, evening wear clusters, or travel clusters. If you travel often and perhaps unexpectedly for business, you may want to reserve a cluster just for travel and have it ready to go at any time. What a stress buster! Even though there seem to be a lot of “rules,” clustering isn’t meant to make everyone look the same. On the contrary, clustering provides everyone with the ability to create dozens of looks all their own. Just as no one’s business is exactly the same, nobody wears their clothes exactly the same way. Remember, your visual image is your business in the minds and eyes of your customers and clients. Clustering’s simplicity, cost effectiveness and variety will allow you to build a personal image that reflects the business image you’ve worked so hard to