Elim Chu, Fashion Stylist Interview
When one discusses fashion styling, you usually talk about the overall look, what's on trend and how to 'appear' a certain way. More from a material point of view. Our friend, Elim Chu is a Fashion Stylist Consultant, but takes on a completely different approach that is fascinating. A approach we started applying to ourselves after our meeting. Let us introduce you to this genuine and classy woman who sat across from us with poise and certainty.
Elim took us down a road of nostalgia and back to the present with awe. She discusses what it means to dress by how you want to feel, so both men and women can show up as their most confident and best selves in the world. How you start your day while mindfully dressing yourself is the foundation to building success. Don't believe it yet? You will by the end...
So many years ago, we worked together at lululemon’s Guest Education Centre (GEC) when there were under 30 employees. Tell us about how you moved up in the company and working predominantly with women?
After the GEC, I moved to the newly opened lululemon lab. I wanted to be closer to clothes and any opportunity to style. This career move was also timed with failing fashion design school, which in hindsight was a blessing in disguise. My Instructor happened to point out the subjects I was good at and said “maybe you have an eye for styling instead of designing”. After researching styling careers like Grace Coddington and Rachel Zoe, I realised this was an interest I could trace back to childhood. Creating head to toe Barbie doll looks, trying to dress my mom and being “that” girlfriend getting phone calls on what to wear before a night out.
I remember vividly being interviewed at the lab by Melissa Content (of lululemon’s TaTaTamer fame). She said “what we really need you for is social media, but what if outside of that, you styled within the store? Learn and explore as much as you can.” It was the best experience to have a Manager who not only leveraged my expertise but encouraged me to try new things every day. I learned visual merchandising and would change up the mannequins every 2 days (laughing). The lab was a hub for SSC (SSC: head office) people. Whenever they came in, I’d make a point to ask what their jobs were. I remember sharing my styling career goals with someone at the SSC and their reply was along the lines of “we’re function over fashion and we’ll never need stylists”.
About 4 months into working at the lab, I was contacted about a new job at head office. The role was for the new in-house Photo Studio. It was a foot in the right door because from there I helped grow their very first photo studio team as well as build the business case for a Stylist. About a year in I was presented with the opportunity to write the job description for ‘Athletic Stylist’, which I got! Two years later, I became the Brand Stylist. I was responsible for communicating lululemon’s style as a guest facing experience. I also worked on defining lululemon’s style internally. It was a fun job that helped me learn to connect the dots between social media, product, design, merchandising and brand through the lens of style. Who I am today, who I want to be as a leader can be attributed to some of the women who were my managers at lululemon. It opened my eyes to female leadership, an idea I wasn’t yet familiar with.
2. What made you take the leap from working in a coveted position at lululemon to working for yourself as a personal stylist?
There was an organizational shift that didn’t recognize my Brand Stylist role and I was given the option to find something else internally. I took the opportunity to view the company from an investor’s point of view. I took the time to research and meet with as many leaders as I could to learn about the direction the company was taking. Lululemon was like an old boyfriend, there was a moment of clarity and I saw that it wasn’t the same company I fell in love with and I left in January 2015. With the support of my amazing partner, I took a month off to decompress. I hadn’t even realised this but after staring at stretchy pants for 9 years, I had to rediscover what I enjoyed about fashion. In March, I interviewed with a couple companies but wasn’t excited about anything.
While I kept looking, my husband encouraged me to freelance. He saw the timing as an incredible opportunity, something I didn’t see just yet. Around this same time my friend Chloe Gow-Jarrett contacted me about a wardrobe edit, something I had never done before in a professional capacity. She was coming out of her second maternity leave and declared herself done with stretchy pants but also unsure about what would replace these said pants. We did a huge closet overhaul through the lens of how she wanted to feel in her clothes (on the daily as well as versatile enough) for work to play with two growing boys. It was during this process that I thought “oh my god, I’m kind of good at this!” The experience showed me that I had filters for dressing and shopping that other people wanted to use. I also learned how to help women choose clothes, so they feel most like themselves. We carry ourselves differently when we feel confident. I believe there is value in this and it comes partly from choosing apparel that supports you to be present.
After Chloe’s wardrobe edit, word of mouth and social media kept me freelancing. So far, I haven’t looked back. Working for myself is a different kind of stress. I’m still stressed and tired, but there’s a difference for me in knowing that I own that stress 100%. I know exactly where it’s coming from and why. The hustle informs the work. When I’m not busy, it’s a direct translation to how hard I’ve hustled the previous week or month. Whereas in a big company, I wouldn’t always get to see how I directly contributed to success.
3. Hiring a fashion/lifestyle stylist is a unique need and you’ve got the eye for detail and individual understanding. What’s your strategy to reach your niche market online?
Currently, I’m most active on Instagram because that’s where my content is gaining the most traction. I look at Instagram analytics, but I also just feel it out through engagement. People seem to be finding me via my #ootd and outfitting process content. I feel like people are interested because the way we view fashion is changing. We don’t care as much about what’s trending or looking current. We’re jaded by celebrity. It’s now about the individual and timeless, quality clothing that we can narrate about for years. I’ve been asked for years what the formula is for finding the perfect 'this' or 'that' and what I’ve learned is this: as long as YOU truly love it, it’s perfect. No matter what the cover of Vogue says.
I feel like clothes can tell a lot about someone and it’s not how it looks, it’s how the person looks and feels in them. If we’re fidgeting during a meeting with a uncomfortable sleeve or neckline, it could signal disinterest or boredom. Our attention and time is so precious. To be uncomfortable isn’t worthy of your attention anymore. We’ve come so far. Why wear anything that doesn’t serve you? That doesn’t make you feel like yourself? That doesn’t make you feel powerful?
We’re so mindful in food and sport; it was only a matter of time for us to become mindful of our apparel. I feel that women know what they want from their clothes, but they may not have all the tools or filters. So it’s me! I’m going to help you!
4. There certainly is a link between a disorganized life and it causing distractions. How do you feel having a life ‘with less’ enhances productivity (or does it?) for your business?
Did you know I used to own over 100 pairs of shoes? It was an eye-opening experience when I opened all my closets and started grouping things together. I did not feel pleasure or any pride. I felt a bit sick. I saw clothes or accessories I hadn’t worn in a years or were actually very uncomfortable, but was keeping because “maybe one day”. It was go-time! Donate, consign or give to a friend. It’s taken about 2 years to fine tune (and is still a lovely work in progress) but my wardrobe is now mostly season-less apparel that I layer up or down depending on the weather.
With fewer items, it takes me a lot less time to get dressed in the morning because everything in my wardrobe is an item I love. I understand how they work together for my lifestyle. I enjoy getting dressed in the morning now. Before, it used to be a big puzzle. Decision fatigue would set in and I’d end up repeating certain outfits because it was easy whereas now I wear almost everything.
5. Does the old saying “dress for success” hold any meaning to you then? What do you advise your clients for preparing their career image?
I feel like I’ve met two different kinds of women now. The ones who become clients are the ones who recognize they are dressing for themselves. They want to feel like themselves every single moment of the day, whether at work or play. The constant theme I keep coming back to with each client is “elevated basics”. For example, t-shirts that are made out of very luxurious fabrics. The pieces are chosen with so much thought and consideration for the individual and with the goal in mind that everyday, your outfit is one you understand and feel your best in. That, in my opinion, is dressing for success. Finding a level of authenticity in everything you wear so that you are showing up as yourself.
6. What are some key differences when styling men and women for work?
Men seem to have less broad descriptions for what they want and like. I can ask a woman what kind of blouses they like and they’ll give a variety of answers based on color, fabrics and how they want to feel. With a guy, they’ll give me two or three adjectives. But it has been refreshing to discover that they have the same insecurities as females when it comes to dressing themselves and wanting to show up feeling put together and confident in their clothes choices.
7. Any last words?
I’m excited for where fashion is going. I feel like sustainability and ethical manufacturing are values finally on the table for consumers. I’m excited for women who are moving this needle in fashion. I’m excited to see what the next generation does and my hope is that I can help inform this next step they will leap from.
If I could broadcast one message to the world right now, my message would be “next time you look in the mirror, don’t ask ‘do I look good?’ ask ‘do I feel good?’.
- JM -