Aug 29, 2013

Kim Foley

For more than two decades, Washington, D.C.'s power players—the likes of Madeleine Albright, President George H.W. Bush, and Vice President Al Gore—have turned to Kim Foley when they need to spruce up for big events. When she's not grooming the capital's movers and shakers, Foley uses her beauty experience to teach professionals how to present themselves in a way that captures people's attention…for the right reasons. “The way you put yourself together tells a story about who you are,” she says. We chatted with her to find out a few secrets of the trade.

How did you get into the industry?

I went to cosmetology school so I could get licensed, but I knew that I didn't really want to do hair for a living; I wanted to know how to do hair so I could help my clients with the overall look of everything from the makeup to the hair to the clothing. I eventually opened my own cosmetics studio in downtown D.C., and I was working with really the top people in Washington. During that time, I grew less interested in retail and more interested in helping women understand power: how they gave that power away and how they gained that power. I wrote a program called the Credibility Factor about how to look more powerful and how to tell your story visually. Back then we didn't talk about visual branding like we do today, but that's really what it was. I started lecturing and teaching these programs, and it was very successful. Eventually I gave up the store. I've been doing television styling now since 1980, and I continue to work with the most powerful people in the world. I am sort of the go-to person in Washington if you're not really looking for fashion and beauty but you're looking for power.

Why should your appearance matter for your career?

Most people think, "If I have my credentials, that's enough," and that's so untrue. Because everyone is utilizing pictures and videos on social media today, it couldn't be more important to understand the story you're telling through the language of clothing and the language of hairstyle. Are you corporate? Are you artsy? Are you meticulous? Are you bohemian? What adjectives describe the look you've chosen? It's never about just getting out of bed and going about your day. We all make a choice: to do nothing or do something. We make a choice to get a great haircut or to ignore our haircut. How we style our hair, how we color our hair. The same is true for our glasses, or our lack of glasses, our makeup, our teeth. The story we tell is a choice. I try to help people understand what they're broadcasting to the world.

What's the biggest mistake you see women making with their appearances?

Very often I see women sabotaging themselves in the name of fashion. They don’t understand that when you're in the workplace, you really don't want to risk undermining your credentials with sensuality or laziness. You really want to pay attention; you don't know who you're going to come in contact with every day. You use your clothing as a tool just as you do your computer and everything else…a tool to get your message out about who you are and what people can expect of you.

Another big oversight? The shoes. Very often you will see really pulled together women—nails done, impeccable makeup and a beautiful outfit on—and then you get down to the shoes, and they're worn out, tired and should have been retired a long time ago. When you're walking down the street, look down and you'll see some pulled-together people who just look like they got tired or gave up at the end.

There are also mistakes women make at various life stages, whether it’s being a little too casual as a recent college graduate (people will notice if you’re in flip flops and a sundress), not understanding the difference between dressing for work and dressing for play, or, when you’re older, letting your grooming and health routines slide. This last point is especially important as you age: Being and looking healthy says, “I am part of this team, I'm current, I'm with it. I'm not washed up and old fashioned.” People don't mind working with people who are older as long as they seem vibrant.

What is it like to work with such powerful people?

I tend to be working with people who are already very successful but still reaching for something else: to become the CEO…to get a primetime spot on the news. It's certainly an honor to be someone who is asked to work on political debates or before people testify before Congress. When you're working at that level, your job is to really look at every little detail. The bottom line is, none of us want to look foolish.

How do you help them step it up a notch?

I talk a lot about my philosophy: Life is too short to be anything but wow. Let's try something different, let's put you in a completely different color, let's find that absolute best you. Every single day has to be wow; no more mediocre. When you have days when you just throw on whatever, you often go on avoidance mode. When you feel on top of your game, you really connect with everyone differently and carry yourself differently. There's a peacefulness and excitement, and everyone needs to realize that they can choose to have that power every single day. You're going to pull it together consistently so you say, "Pay attention to me because I'm the one."

How do you maintain that consistency?

It takes commitment. Is it comfort, style or credibility? What's driving your look, and what's making it happen? It's one of those three. And you want to be aware of how you're choosing your look each day, instead of it being a default mode. It's becoming more self-aware. Years ago people thought it was narcissistic to pay attention to how you look. Well, it does matter how you look…it matters a lot! Is it unfair? Absolutely. But it is a reality of our world.

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