Interview with Mary Lou Andre of Organization by Design

Mary Lou Andre

If you want some help finding the right professional clothing for your wardrobe, Organization by Design, a professional image consulting firm, can help. They work with businesses and individuals through colleges and universities, corporate events, customer appreciation events, networking groups and conferences, and retailers. If you're in the Boston area, you can get one-on-one help. Not in the Boston area? You can still get an online consultation. LoveToKnow spoke with Mary Lou Andre of Organization by Design to find out more.

About Organization by Design

LTK: Tell me a little bit about Organization by Design's background and how you got involved.

MLA: As a girl I loved the touch and feel of fabric, whether I was draping it on my Barbie dolls or my mother. I studied journalism and fashion marketing at UMass Amherst and spent several years in public relations. I always enjoyed going through my friends' closets and pulling together outfits from unrelated pieces.

In 1992, I turned this passion of mine into a business, Organization by Design. I actually sold my wedding dress to get the seed money to start my business. I didn't realize it at the time, but parting with the dress symbolizes what my business is about. My message to women is to fill their closets with flattering, functional pieces while getting rid of items that no longer serve them. The day I wore the wedding dress was one of the best in my life. But after that, I no longer needed it. It was just taking up space. Fortunately my husband supported my decision!

Business Attire Guidelines

LTK: What are a few key pieces every woman should have in her business wardrobe?


  • Start with at least one good suit in a dark neutral - black, navy, brown or gray. A suit ensemble that includes a jacket, skirt, pant and dress is a versatile investment.
  • Stock up on different tops to give your suits, pants and skirts versatility. Crisp, cotton dress shirts in white and modern colors such as chambray and chartreuse instantly dress down traditional suits, pants and skirts. Cardigan twin sets with a variety of office-appropriate necklines are an easy way to present a softer look while still setting a business tone. Silk blouses are the most formal choice.
  • The easiest shoe color to incorporate into a professional wardrobe is black. A dress pump and a loafer in this hue are good starters. An ankle boot with pants and long skirts can provide a fashion-forward look in the cooler months. Skirts that land at or just below the knee and pants are the best styles to wear with bare legs for obvious reasons. Hosiery always creates a nice business boundary.
  • Jewelry, scarves and other accessories often complete an outfit and help you add a personal touch to your overall look. Be aware that less is often more in terms of accessorizing in a professional setting.
  • Pearls have been called the perfect accessory. Whether real or faux, they add beauty and elegance to most outfits.

LTK: What are some of the most versatile items a woman can have in her closet that will take her from work to an evening out, etc?

MLA: When in doubt buy black -- a dress, jacket, pant and skirt can all be dressed up and down quite easily. Good costume jewelry gets the job done too.

LTK: Do you have any tips for organizing a wardrobe so that women will really "see" their options when they open the door, rather than feeling as if they need to go out and buy more and more work clothing on a regular basis? How can women learn to really "shop their closets"?

MLA: Most women wear 20 percent of their wardrobes 80 percent of the time, so it is easy to get stuck in a fashion rut. But that also means you can treat the rest of what's in your closet like a store! Just look closely at the things you avoid and connect them to the pieces you wear the most. Chances are, you'll come up with some great new outfits without spending a dime!

LTK: What are the must-have types of shoes to start out a basic business wardrobe?

MLA: The good news about shoes is that you really don't need many pairs to get dressed and out the door looking terrific each day. Yes, you may need a few extra pairs to get you through a weekend-long wedding affair or a trip to the Bahamas, but you sure don't need a ton of shoes, boots and sandals in your wardrobe unless, of course, you have been diagnosed with an incurable shoe fetish!

Below is a guide that details a very basic shoe wardrobe. Use it as a quick checklist to evaluate the shoes you already own and to plan new purchases:

Traditional Dress Pumps: Whether square-toed, pointy or round (all of these come in and out of style from season to season), be sure to choose a heel height that is most comfortable for you.

Sling-Back Pumps: These can be worn year round with a variety of fabrics. I like them best during the holidays and with clothes that feel too light for pumps yet too heavy for sandals.

Loafers: Choose chunky styles if you want to achieve an urban look. Stay with classic styles to dress down tailored pants and some skirts on business casual days or to throw on with jeans and khakis anytime. Buy the best pair you can afford. High quality loafers can be re-soled over and over.

Ankle Boots: Client after client has thanked me for encouraging them to supplement their shoe collection with a pair of these handy cool-weather footwear basics. They look great with everything from pant suits to jeans if you live in an area with seasonal temperature changes. Ankle boots work well in early fall and throughout the winter.

Mules: This closed toe, backless shoe remains my favorite casual transitional shoe style. There's nothing like a few pairs of more casual styles to get you through late spring and early fall casual dressing situations.

Dress Sandals: These are not just for special occasions anymore. They can look as good with pant suits as they do with an after-five cocktail dress. If you do find you wear them often, buy a few pairs-one to wear with clothing during the day and another pair to be worn exclusively with more delicate evening looks.

LTK: Do you have any tips for standing out in an interview based on what you wear?

MLA: Appropriateness. Boundaries. Respect. Adopt this string of words as your mantra when you are interviewing:

Appropriate dress is clothing that fits neatly into the work environment you are interviewing for and sends the message that you already fit in. Clothing that sets boundaries provides proper coverage at the neckline and hemline. In an interview, you always want attention directed to your face. Anything that calls attention away from your face is a liability and will detract from your message. When setting boundaries through your clothes, don't neglect your feet and legs. Closed-toe shoes, hosiery or socks are a good idea in most workplaces. Finally, always demonstrate respect for yourself and others by being mindful of how others may view your dressing choices.

LTK: What are some of the most important details to look for in women's businesswear?

MLA: There are Four Good F words to consider when selecting businesswear:

Fit. Proper fit is the single most important factor in wearing your clothes well. Determine whether you are a Petite (a height of 5'4" or under); Tall (5'8" or taller); Plus size (size 14 or above); or Missy (of average height and size). It's not unusual for a woman to wear a mixture of sizes, such as a Missy blouse and a Plus size pant. Designers and manufacturers cut and size clothing differently, so experiment by trying on more than one size to achieve perfectly fitting clothes.

Fabric. Today's fabrics are as comfortable as they are fashionable. Gone are the heavy, stiff fabrics of yesteryear. Now, you can find clothing that fits and flatters any figure type, and you don't have to sacrifice comfort. Be sure to look for fabrics that are appropriate for the climate as well as your own internal thermostat. If you are always cold, choose wool. If you are sensitive to this fabric, wear a silk camisole or long underwear. If you are often too warm, choose natural fibers, which breathe well.

Function. You wouldn't buy a car without first driving it, right? I recommend you give new clothes a test-drive before bringing them home. Clothing, like a car, should be comfortable and functional; it should fit your lifestyle.

When trying on an outfit, take it through the paces of your typical day. Raise your arms as if reaching high on a shelf. Does your skirt ride up? How about the sleeves? Do they pull in the shoulder? Is your mid-section bared? Now reach down as if tying your shoe or picking up a dropped pen. Do the seams stretch? Sit down and note where your hem falls. The slit in your skirt may look cute while standing in front of the mirror, but does it reveal too much when you're seated? And how about that long skirt? Is it likely to get caught on your heel while you're climbing stairs? Shop with function in mind and you'll be satisfied with your new outfit no matter where your day takes you.

Flair. When you've got your fit, fabric, and function down, it's time to consider flair. How will you make the outfit your own? An easy way to do this is through color. Most of us have our favorite 'signature' color, which can instantly add our unique personality to an outfit. You can also make a basic piece stand out as your own by accessorizing. For instance, add a shawl wrap, hat, or stiletto boots to give yourself a personal flair.

Contact Information

LTK: How can a business set up an event with Organization by Design?

MLA: Call me directly at 800-578-3770 so I can learn about your goals and the type of event you'd like to host. Our events range from staff retreats to client appreciate events to employee fashion shows. We welcome the opportunity to brainstorm with you to develop something unique that will meet your goals.

LTK: How could our readers get individual help from you?

MLA: We work with clients privately in their homes. Some travel to the Boston area to shop with us. We have a virtual consulting program that allows men and women to work with us no matter where they live -- all they need is a computer.

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Interview with Mary Lou Andre of Organization by Design