You know a confident woman when you see one. There's something in her stride, in her lifted chin. Her complexion glows, her posture commands attention.
Something about a confident woman makes you want to know her, or at least know more about her.
Mary Kay Ash, the late founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, once said, "While clothes may not make the woman, they certainly have a strong effect on her self-confidence - which, I believe, does make the woman."
Which is exactly why we wanted to get to know the four fashionable women profiled below. After hours of interviews, we now know that these local women are not just attractive but smart, not just poised but ambitious and successful.
But before we got to know them, all we knew was that these women had style.
From daytime to eveningwear looks, denim to diamonds, Felicia Jackson, Carla Hayden, Lorayne Thornton and Sonjay DeCaires never miss an opportunity to show off their confidence with a fashionable flair.
If the girls from Western High School, class of 1987, could see Felicia Jackson now, they'd never believe she is the same woman who had an inexplicable tendency to dress like a punk rocker.
"I loved Converse high-tops. I wore cleats to school," says Jackson, now 38. "I had a mohawk! My mom had a fit."
These days, Jackson may still add a little rock 'n' roll to her outfit choices, but she is far more Paris than punk. She's traded her Converses for Chanel and her cleats for stilettos.
In her Pikesville closet, in fact, the director of business operations for a local law firm counts 284 pairs of shoes and boots, by such designers as Gucci and Christian Dior. And what would a great shoe selection be without a complementary handbag collection? Fortunately, Jackson wouldn't know - she's got 82 designer purses, with big names such as Fendi, Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo and Clara Kasavina.
"I have so many pairs of shoes and bags, I don't even know I have them until I'll flip through a magazine and see a pair and say, 'Oh, I have those shoes,' " says Jackson, who has to be helped to her car from the shoe department at Neiman Marcus every season, so loaded down is she with new, up-to-the-minute purchases. "My size is so popular, if you don't get them when they come in, they're going to be gone," she says.
But quantity isn't the key to Jackson's success in the style department. This woman knows fashion. She not only keeps up with the latest trends, but also knows good quality. And more important, she knows what looks good on her.
Her carefully-thought-out style is a mixture of "business casual," she says, and "chic." During the workday, she favors smartly tailored suits and funky shirts from local boutiques such as Katwalk and the Doll House. And she's almost always in a pair of pricey pumps - the higher the heel the better.
"My favorite [heels] are a pair of Gucci boots that I got five years ago in Chicago. They come over the knee," Jackson says. "They're black, they're sexy, with a 4-inch heel, maybe 5. Now that's a stomper, honey. Oh, it's so serious."
Jackson does take her fashions seriously. After all, fashion is not just about aesthetics; it's a major part of her life.
Three years ago, Jackson and a business partner started an online boutique of unique accessories and stylish gifts for women. The Web site, regaliaccessories.com, was so successful that last fall Jackson opened a bricks-and-mortar building on Park Avenue where she sells the same kinds of high-end, high-fashion accessories and separates she often finds herself in: cheetah-print leg warmers, crystal-covered clutch bags, black leather pumps and fabulous hats.
"I always wanted to present myself nicely," says Jackson. "Whether it's at the grocery store or the laundromat, it doesn't matter. You never know who you're going to meet."
Changing the Look of Librarians
In the February issue of the Library Journal, the publication's editor-in-chief pondered the prevailing image of librarians: hair in a bun, severe little glasses, dowdy outfit and sensible shoes.
The article compared the stereotype with the real-life look of Carla Hayden, director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library - a woman the author called "attractive" and "sharp."
This is high praise for Hayden, and also very true.
Hayden, who is in her 50s and lives in Homewood, isn't fussy about her clothes, but she is cognizant of the bad reputation librarians have gotten, and she tries every day to counter it.
"Stereotypes can sometimes be negative," says Hayden. "And [the prevailing image] is not the reality. It might have been some years ago. But it's not today. The statement I get a lot is, 'You don't look like a librarian.' If I had a quarter for every time I heard that, I wouldn't have to worry about parking meters. We don't want that stereotype of the librarian to carry over to the image of the library."
After all, these days libraries are happening places, with computers and reception rooms and major events going on.
And Hayden, who has been the Baltimore library head for nearly 14 years, is just as with-it.
You'll never catch her sporting a tight little chignon. Her hair is smartly coiffed in a flattering layered bob. She doesn't hide behind glasses, and she wears just the right amount of makeup everyday.
And her day-to-evening ensembles - comfortable and functional as they are - are classically chic.
"I'm not really into designer stuff," Hayden says. "It's not the label or how much it costs. I don't want to pay as much for my clothes as a car. They're made to be worn. If something is well-made, you'll know it."
Hayden prefers separates in classic colors such as black, from such stores as Ann Taylor and Talbots. These she often tops with a jewel-tone blazer or rich, structured jacket that pops with some unique or noteworthy detail. Many of her most striking sweaters and jackets come from boutiques and small shops, such as Mount Vernon's Stef N Ty.
Other favorite shopping spots: the shops at Cross Keys, Wisconsin Avenue's stylish strip in Washington and New York.
"I'm an equal-opportunity shopper," says Hayden, who also has gotten style cues on vacation trips to Paris.
"What I pick up more from going to Paris is how the everyday people dress. They do so much with style without going to the expensive stores," she says, noting Parisians' breezy use of scarves and pins, which she has recently adopted. "That's where you see what real style is about."
Bringing 'bling' to Bel Air
When most people say Bel Air is a bedroom community, they might be referring as much to its proximity to major bustling cities as they are to the suburb's sleepy atmosphere.
The town, however, is changing, becoming more affluent and a little hipper with each passing year.
But until Lorayne Thornton opened up a stylish boutique off one of the town's main drags two years ago, Bel Air had never been so alive fashion-wise.
Thornton's glamorous boutique, Utopia, is full of evening wear and stylish separates made explicitly for women who want to stay up-to-date by blending a little bit of trendy with traditional looks.
"I'm 60 and I don't want to dress like I'm 25," says Thornton, a former Baltimore City school counselor-turned-suburban-fashionista. "That doesn't mean that because I'm 60 that I still can't be sophisticated and still be in style. I think style and being classic doesn't take on an age connotation."
Thornton has been a lover of fashion ever since she was growing up in Montgomery, Ala.
"I was a daddy's girl," she says. "And my daddy was a big shopper. He would always take me shopping."
As the years went on, Thornton's fashion sense evolved from patent- leather shoes to butter-leather jackets, and from crinoline-puffed dresses to sleek, elegant gowns by Diane von Furstenberg, Zelda, David Meister and Cynthia Steffe.
Her tastes have more to do with fit than name-recognition, however.
"I think once women realize what compliments their figure, then you try to build on that and not necessarily get hung up on a name," says Thornton. "There are certain names that I like. But it's because I'm accustomed to how they fit me. When it compliments your body, that's when you become stylish."
Thornton is a fan of Cartise, a spirited Canadian line. And she loves to wear leather, even in warmer months.
"You can do leather in the spring and, depending on the temperature, maybe in the summer," she says.
And there's one trend that Thornton enjoys even though she hasn't adopted it herself - that of some women carrying a bejeweled evening bag while wearing a pair of stylish jeans.
"Women are doing that more and more. It's a very fresh look," she says. "I don't do it. I'm more classic. I would say my style is classic and sophisticated. I want to look classic and I want to look sensuous, but not necessarily provocative."
It's hard not to be provocative, however, when you look as good as Thornton does. With her sharp sense of style and her elegant gray hair cut close to her face, Thornton is the very picture of appealing.
Even the boutique, with its gilded canopy and gothic columns, is stylishly sexy.
"I've had people say to me, 'Who's going to buy these clothes? You're too expensive. You're in Bel Air,' " says Thornton. "This is my response: 'I don't want to be a Talbots; I don't want to be a Kohl's; I don't want to be a Marshalls. I want to be a specialty shop.' This is me. This is who I am."
Turning Trends Into Style
At 29, radio personality Sonjay DeCaires of 92Q (FM-WERQ), has a few months left of twentysomething carefree dressing: the tank tops and flip-flops, low-rise jeans and designer sweatsuits.
But DeCaires began upgrading herself some years ago (think the popular Beyonce song "Upgrade U" that plays almost daily on 92Q's Big Phat Morning Show). For her that meant transitioning into the more stylish and classic looks of a woman in her more-responsible, more true-to-self 30s.
"When I was younger, I was trendier," says DeCaires. "My hair was blond. It was when the whole Puff Daddy, Total, Mary J. Blige thing was hot. I went with the fads. But as I got older, I started to appreciate not going with every trend."
These days, DeCaires still loves her designer jeans by Seven for All Mankind - and she is loath to part with her comfortable flip-flops - but the Pikesville resident also finds herself just as often in dresses by Catherine Malandrino and sexy Mary Janes by Christian Louboutin.
"I call it sleek chic," says DeCaires. "I'm a fan of Jackie O and Gwyneth Paltrow. The more classic look. I'm now even venturing into the whole slacks thing as I get older."
DeCaires also has learned to work a wardrobe of well-fitting staples around signature accessories - a secret of fashionistas the world over.
"I'm big on earrings, big on bags, big on coats," says DeCaires, whose favorite handbag right now is the Louis Vuitton Speedy bag in a fresh, spring-evoking Damier pattern. "If you wear the right bag or a nice coat, that's how you make your outfit come to life."
And although she bargain-hunts at several online boutiques and places such as Anthropologie and Nordstrom's Savvy department, she doesn't mind spending a lot of money on shoes.
"I think shoes are always an investment," she says. "Never be scared to spend money on a good-quality shoe. Remember how your mother always said you can tell a lot about a man by his shoes? Well, it's the same thing guys do with girls."
These days, DeCaires' shoes are always impeccable, accentuating the slender woman's legs. And the same perfection is seen in her ever-stylish ensembles.
But DeCaires is quick to remind young women that her fashion sense wasn't quite this refined in the beginning.
"You need to be adventurous in the beginning. Then you'll know: This works for me. This doesn't work for me," she says. "Now I have it down to a science: This is what works on my hair. This is how I want my eyebrows done. This is how I want my clothes to fit. And that all came from trial-and-error."