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I Faked It Until I Made It

How Loitering Outside of Neiman Marcus Saved My Family

Dana Asher Levine with client Shonda Rhimes

Fashion advice is something I’m always being sought out for. As a stylist for executives in the entertainment industry, such as Shonda Rhimes and 20th Century Fox CEO Dana Walden, I’m known for power-dressing women in Hollywood. Many believe that the essence of style is esoteric, difficult to grasp. In truth, the essence of style is something simple, though difficult to attain: confidence.

And I would know. My path to success was bumpy, and didn’t start until I was 40. If it weren’t for the dogged belief I had in myself, I would not be where I am today. In turn, confidence is the one trait I help my own clients find. Nothing looks good on you if you don’t feel great in it.

I grew up in a happy home, and at 18, attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising for one year where I studied the ins and outs of the fashion business I then went off to American University in DC to continue a traditional education. After graduating from American University, I was eager to pursue fashion. But as it often goes in the Jewish culture, the expectation was to marry a nice Jewish boy. I was engaged at 24, married at 25, and had three children. But seventeen years later my marriage ended, and I found myself cut off from the comfortable, secure world I’d known. Suddenly I was a 40-year-old single mother to three children, ages 5,10 and 13. With no job and just $1,000 to my name, it would have been easy to curl into a ball and disappear. But I didn’t have time; I had to feed three children.

This is where confidence came in. I could have given up my original dream and taken a safe job just to get by. But a voice inside told me not to settle. I already was a stylist; my own. Being well-dressed was a great way to advertise. In a Mommy and Me class, a fellow mother approached me and said, “You are always so well-dressed. Can I pay you to shop for me?” That’s when I took the plunge. With limited funds, one friend stepped in to help me with marketing, pro bono. Another family offered to help with first and last month’s rent. Times were tight. I made side money doing needlepoint, oftentimes working in my car, while on carpool duty. Every penny I made went to my children, and I only made one exception for myself: my hair. I refuse to call it a splurge because having great hair is a necessity for style. It can indicate how current your tastes are, and it shows you’re well-groomed.

Soon after, my sisters started giving me referrals. One sister owned a clothing store and my other sister is an event planner in L.A.. Both sisters always came across women whose careers left them little time to sort through racks. One afternoon as I stood outside Neiman Marcus, a well-connected agent friend saw me and asked what I was doing there. When I mentioned I was waiting for a client that I’m styling, he immediately referred me to someone else. A light bulb went off. I decided to stand outside Neiman Marcus regularly, pretending to wait for clients. Whether in the winter monsoons or during a heat wave, I’d throw on my uniform; black blazer, Theory slacks and loafers, (preferably Gucci). I always go by threes when throwing together an ensemble. A dress, sweater and boots, or that timeless classic of good shoes, good bag and a jacket. Then I’d wait for people I knew to come through. A sharply-dressed woman would never be suspected of loitering. Eventually, the plan worked. I ran into friends who knew someone, who knew someone else, etc.

When I think of those uncertain days outside Neiman Marcus, I’m grateful for parents that gave me a strong work ethic. The more you do on your own, the more capable you feel to tackle new challenges. I pretended I was fine until I was. I persisted until my passion became my reality. I insisted on believing in myself, even when my bank statements were the equivalent of loose change. My advice for anyone looking to step up their careers is to remember there’s only one you, but many different paths to success. It isn’t a narrow, straight line, but a patchwork of alleys. Everyone wants to clothe celebrities, but high-ranking Hollywood executives are strapped for time too, so I found my niche. Power dressing. And I’m not limited to office wear. My job peaks during awards season, but I’m busy year-round, for vacations, book tours and parties. On any given month, I drop $300,000-$500,000 on wardrobes.

Confidence allows me to cheer on the up-and-comers. There is plenty of work out there for everyone. With this or any career, you need to be willing to apprentice, or start at the bottom. If you want to be a stylist, begin as a shopper for a department store. Use social media wisely. Be nice on the way up. Get in good with valets to ensure your car is never broken into. Develop a relationship with a solid alteration business, and they will help you in a bind. There’s no shortcut for hard work and a little kindness.

Don’t forget that self-care is vital to any career-driven woman. To unwind I love to go to the beach, or drive up the Pacific Coast Highway with my children on Sundays. There’s vodka. And I still find needlepoint to be very calming. Remember that no matter your circumstances, confidence is the one thing that will push you forward. Not to mention it looks great on everyone.

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