It is the season of the cleaning of the closet and along with almost every other woman in America I am at a loss -- paralyzed by indecision, crowded by clothes that don't work, knee deep in storage boxes. I have nothing to wear and no excuse for this embarrassing jumble of garments. My work gives me access to designer runways and the most knowledgeable people in the fashion industry. I know the ropes. I know from Gucci, Pucci and Scaasi. Why, then, can't I get my closet under control?
Other women have a plan. Those women pass through the seasons serenely, looking effortlessly stylish and polished. Amy Fine Collins is one of them. She is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, style editor of Harper's Bazaar, author of books on Impressionism, profiler of fashion legends and this year named to the International Best-Dressed List. She is also the co-author of "Simple Isn't Easy, How to Find Your Personal Style and Look Fantastic Every Day!" a perky pink and purple little paperback that just hit the bookstores. Her collaborator is Olivia Goldsmith, writer of best-seller novels and lecturer.
Both women have formidable resumes, but it is Ms. Collins' Best-Dressed status that impresses. This is a recognized woman of style who lives fashion, unlike some of us who are keen observers, but half-hearted participants.
This woman is a glamorous, intelligent friend who is willing to share.
"You have to be ruthless. Take a good hard look and go to work," she tells me, the woman who could dress a high school production of "Grease" or "Hair" right out of her closet. I'm one of the gatherers and hoarders.
"If you don't wear it, pass it to someone else who could use it. Everyone involved benefits," she tells me. "Parting with clothes is rather like giving away a pieces of yourself. Some of us show a great attachement to clothes, almost like children or kittens, you wouldn't give them up for adoption," she says. "But you can assure yourself they're going to a good home. Send things on to an upscale consignment shop. Pass things on to a women's shelter. My favorite way is to give things to friends."
Ms. Collins' friends may be thrilled with best-dressed castoffs, mine would know they're inheriting lapses in good sense. "We all make mistakes," she says, "it takes strength to correct them."
Among my mistakes are clearance sale designer jackets without mates, suits with tags still intact which were bought to fit the size I want to be rather than the size I am, racks of painful shoes, and thrift store "finds." I have a room-sized closet crammed to capacity and uncounted boxes in the basement.
"Clean it out, simplify," says Ms. Collins. In her case, simplifying means assigning a closet to specific needs. Lucky for her. "I have an office which is also a dressing room, a shoe closet, a coat closet which I share, another closet where I have overflow clothes and purses and more overflow shoes."
Visibility is key she says. "Shoes are my particular weakness, I will never have enough. Mine are on shelves. If you see them you don't waste time matching them to major items."
Some of us wear shoes of the sensible matronly mode, hers are Manolo Blahnik, priced at a week's pay for your average bank teller. "Granted they're pricey, but anybody can afford them. Twice a year, they have a sale and mark all the shoes down to $100. You can shop smartly."
Smart and sophisticated Manhattanite that she is, Ms. Collins is not a fashion snob. She may stick with Geoffrey Beene, and pass her old frocks on to museums, but her advice on style is useful and workable.
Her three essential points on dressing well are based on discipline rather than budget.
"The most important thing to remember is to buy the best you can afford. European women know this, they are not consumer mad. Buying quality over quantity eliminates shoddiness. We don't want cars that are pieced together with wire and glue, why settle for less in our clothes?
"And better lasts longer."
Her second critical essential is a three-way mirror, or arrangement of mirrors that give a back view. "It's such a delusion to think that people don't see you from the back."
But most important of all, she says, you must find your own style. With her friend Olivia Goldsmith, their little pink book takes the hopeful through that difficult and awkward process. Think of their plan as a 14-step program for fashion victims and shopaholics.
The advice is chatty, with a serious goal. "There are no real rules. Those rules people try to foist on you about colors and dressing in uniform are just garbage. You can buck convention and break any rules to suit yourself, make it a trademark," she says.
"Women have to be strong to avoid that Stepford Wives mentality, everyone dressing the same. There is always pressure to conform, but it is important to have the courage to be an individual."
She encourages women to work at finding that singular something. Her own personal style was a working evolution. At 5-foot-10, and a lean Size 6, she has the model figure. She was always careful to cover her prominent and elfin ears, however, until a stylist convinced her they were beautiful. Those ears and her signature polka-dot bag stamp her as a women of conviction, and style.
I was energized after my talk with Amy Fine Collins. I took her little book to heart and to bed along with a cup of coffee on a lazy afternoon. Simple is not easy, but I plan to work at it.
THE ZEN APPROACH TO STYLE
Remember the words of Diana Vreeland: "Elegance is refusal." If you don't get this you're doomed to repeat the cycle over and over again, moving through malls in a fog, restocking your closets, a slave to the evil garments, lost forever in fashion purgatory.
When I shop do I still look at the marked-down, lime green, raw silk jacket with the polka dot rosette? Or the orange swing coat? I admit I linger over them longingly -- and then leave 'em. Bob Mackie put it well: "Too many women follow the fashion. You'd do better to stick with a style and only add a piece or two a year." So look in the mirror and repeat your first fashion mantra:
* I want to look stylish. To do it, I must keep things simple.
Princess Di can have an outfit for every occasion, but she's had an almost unlimited budget and a staff of three who clean and press and sort and hang her clothes. It was her job to change her clothes 12 times a day!
* A full closet does not mean stylish.
* Shopping all the time does not mean stylish.
* Changing a look every season, month, week, or day does not mean stylish.
From "Simple Isn't Easy," by Olivia Goldsmith and Amy Fine Collins, HarperSpotlight, $5.50.