With a life-long love of fashion, Lou Sutherland from New Boots And Panties finally exchanged her many style side hustles to become a full-time personal stylist/image consultant. But, as she tells Capsule, a lot of her work is helping people work on their confidence, so they finally feel they have the permission they need to dress the way they want.
There’s a wide swathe of the population whose first introduction to the rules of fashion came under the tutelage of two ruthless British women: Trinny and Susannah. For years, the pair came down from their upper-class stratosphere and ‘helped’ working class Brits work through their wardrobe disasters: dressing too young, dressing too thin, dressing too poor. So ever-present was their tyranny that half my life later, I still can never wear a turtleneck jumper, lest I hear Susannah’s voice hissing “Shelf boobs” in my ear.
Lou Sutherland also grew up under the cursed umbrella of Trinny and Susannah’s influence and now, she says, she gets great joy at seeing piles of their books on the tables of second-hand book stores around Christchurch. “It makes me so quietly happy,” she laughs. “I was 14 or 15 when Mum used to watch it and I remember thinking, ‘This is what it’s like to be an adult and these are successful women!’ All those rules like, ‘You can never show your upper arms in summer…’ Well, we don’t operate by those rules anymore.”
Taking the fear and intimidation out of fashion is Lou’s mission in her work as a personal stylist/image consultant. Those are only the official titles, of course, on her business’ Instagram page – @new.boots.and.panties – she also refers to herself as a ‘wardrobe fairy godmother, fat Kate Bush, and a fashionista cottage witch’. Yes, she is an utter delight and she’s doing her best to bring some wit and whimsy back to an area of life where a lot of women have lost it, in amongst all those rules. “I know what it’s like when you walk into a shop, and everyone seems so cool, and you’re thinking, ‘Oh, I bet they’re judging me and my outfit,’” Lou explains. “I just wanted to break down those barriers. Fashion can be really intimidating for people – some people love it, sure, but some people struggle with it and feel it’s not for them. And that’s just not the case.”
Growing up, Lou had always had an interest in fashion but it was only after the tumult of 2020 that she decided to give up her main gig of working in real estate and go full-noise into fashion. “I stumbled into a career in property but in the back of my mind, I always knew it wasn’t my dream. When I’d meet people out in the world at one of my side hustles – selling vintage clothing, making fascinators and selling them at the markets – people would always ask, ‘Oh, what do you do?’ and when I answered, they were always surprised to hear that.”
The events of 2020 finally forced all of this to a head. “That experience in lockdown had me thinking, ‘how do you want life to be?’ I was really unhappy,” Lou says. “I knew that I wanted to give joy in my life and this job was no longer it – I wanted to make people happy, and I got the sense that I wasn’t making anyone happy, and I wasn’t happy either.”
“It got to the point of ‘well, life’s too short to be doing this…’ they say you’ve got to hit rock bottom to really give you the boot up the bottom you need to make a change in your life. I was having one of those days where on the way to work, I was thinking, ‘I just can’t do this anymore – mentally or physically.’ And then it struck me for the first time: I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a personal stylist, I wanted to make people feel good about themselves, I wanted to feel good about my work and I wanted to close each day knowing I had made a difference in somebody’s life.”
So she set up New Boots and Panties, picking a name that not only stood out in the industry but had some humour to it. The glowing feedback on her website shows that this approach is absolutely working, with clients not only raving about a rebirth in enthusiasm but also having one in terms of self-confidence, as well. Lou says so much of the work is first unpacking all of the body image dislike most women have internalised after years and years – and sometimes decades – of societal messaging. It’s something Lou gets first hand, she says, after her own body image journey started with going on her first diet when she was nine years old. “I’m still on a journey to find celebration in my body,” she says. “I’m at the happiest place I’ve ever been in terms of my body and it’s, unbelievably, at a place where I’ve said goodbye to the diet world. But it is hard,” she says. “It’s something I’ve noticed with clients – size has nothing to do with it. I’ve had clients who are a size 8 who are like ‘I don’t want to wear anything sleeveless… I don’t want to wear anything above my knee, I hate my legs’. You realise – we all have these hang-ups; nobody thinks they have a perfect body.”
The idea of dressing to look thin, the idea that ‘flattering’ should be the main aim of how we choose our clothes, is also a limitation that Lou wants her clients to be released from. It’s especially the case when it comes to women with bigger bodies. “When it comes to the plus size world and being a fat woman, you get trapped in that idea of ‘you want to flatter, you want to minimise, you want to fit in… don’t draw attention to yourself.’” She wonders if New Zealand’s reliance on black clothing is part of this ‘flatter or disappear’ mentality. “A lot of people do want to wear bold colours – they’ve just been told their whole lives that they shouldn’t – but they want someone to give them permission to do so!”
It’s all well and good to say that, she says, but the fashion world still needs to back up its body positive message by putting its money where its mouth is and actually bringing more inclusive sizing into the mainstream market. “The high street is rubbish,” she says. “I try to preach and practise sustainability, but when you’re over a size 18, it’s really hard to be like ‘I’m only going to shop ethically made, home-grown clothing,’ because [these brands] won’t make your size.”
Whether it’s size related, age related or ‘I’ve spent the last year in track pants’ related, there are times in our lives where we can lose track of our own sense of style – concentrating on what we shouldn’t be wearing, rather than what we want to be wearing. When it comes to falling back in love with fashion, Lou tells her clients to have fun with the process. “I always get people to go through an exercise where they tell me whose style they like,” she says. More often than not, they’ll name film characters, which Lou says is a great starting point. “Fashion is meant to be fun and it’s basically like dressing up in costume,” she laughs. “It’s really asking, ‘Who do you want to be? How do you want to feel when you go out into the world?’ Just by asking that, you’re getting people to think about their own style, often for the first time.”
“I always say it’s so much more than the clothes, it’s about the ‘Self’ with a capital ‘S’, and the power of the subconscious and subconscious mind.” Often people’s views on clothing and their body have been shaped, explicitly or not, since they were children. “Tools like doing your morning pages or manifestations, every morning, can help you wake up each day and really be able to centre yourself. That’s how to work on the inside part of yourself,” she says. “For the outside, it’s looking at practical things like ‘what colours do you like?’” After consulting with each client, Lou creates a mood board or review document, so they can see their sense of style presented back at them – to know that it’s possible and to know that it’s theirs. “Just showing people that it’s okay. I think everyone has this secret belief that it’s a bit shallow to care too much. So, again, it’s just about giving them permission. Especially as women, we increasingly feel more invisible as we get older and our family and other people take priority, there’s just no space for ourselves anymore.”
While we all may have found the comfort of loungewear over the past year, Lou hopes that when life consistently gets back to normal, we all learn to embrace dressing up again. “I want people to fall in love with fashion again. I’m hoping that idea of ‘well, that outfit is just for best, it’s just for a wedding…’ I’m hoping that changes and your best things become everyday things, because life is just too short.”