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Dating Poorly Dressed Men Led Me To My Dream Job

After Nicole Russo was laid off in 2008, she got a retail job at a mall that eventually led to her role as an independent personal stylist for men.

Dating Poorly Dressed Men Led Me To My Dream Job
[Photo: David Lezcano via Unsplash]

Nicole Russo confesses that landing her dream job as a personal stylist was “a complete accident.”

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Although she always loved aesthetics and design, Russo says that as a result of growing up in a very small rural town, she had no understanding of the fashion industry. She eventually attended the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City, but earned a degree in advertising and communications, which seemed to her to be a more reliable path to a paycheck.

But it wasn’t a guarantee. In fact, Russo asserts that she became “part of the collateral damage” while working at a small graphic design firm that lost their largest client when the economy tanked in 2008. At this point, all Russo knew was that she wanted to do something creative and help people. She had about $10,000 saved up, so by being frugal she was able to spend the next two years “bumbling around” and trying to figure it out.

Then Russo got her first lucky break. A friend of hers had just landed a great new job. She’d always admired how well put together Russo looked, and asked if she would help her put together a proper work wardrobe. “We went shopping,” says Russo, “and it was everything I wanted my career to be.”

Russo says she immediately started trying to drum up more clients to style. But first she needed to tackle what she didn’t know. “I bought Small Business for Dummies,” says Russo, to learn about the basics of working for herself. While she was busy pounding the pavement at a mall in Long Island in search of ideas, inspiration, and hopefully some new people to dress up, Russo spied a “help wanted: personal shopper” sign in the window of an Anthropologie.

Nicole Russo [Photo: courtesy of Nicole Russo]

Getting A Job For Which You Aren’t Exactly Qualified

“I knew that one of the best ways to gather clients, experience, and expertise was to get on the retail floor,” Russo says. So she did what any eager but inexperienced job seekers would do: “I over-embellished my level of expertise,” Russo states, with a hearty laugh. “I never even worked in retail,” she recalls, although she had waitressed and done other service gigs.

“Sometimes confidence is the biggest power move you have,” Russo maintains. She never lied on her resume, but she did fudge the numbers of how many people she’d worked with, and how often she did it. “I think at one point they asked me if I’d worked with pregnant women before,” she recalls, “because they had a lot of moms [as customers].” She hadn’t up until then, but she remembers making up a story that sounded plausible.

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In the end, says Russo, “My eagerness and excitement paid off, and I got the job.” But Russo’s story doesn’t end happily there. She says she spent the next four years in a “mashup” between independently building a private client base and dressing hundreds of women and some men in the fitting room. She moved from Anthropologie to J.Crew’s flagship store in New York, and then to the designer brand Theory.

Building Expertise

This was foundational and necessary work, says Russo, citing Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of mastery in Outliers. “I could grasp the science behind how to dress someone: fabrication, fit, styling, the way colors work, proportion. I guess you could say I hit my 10,000 hours much faster than I would have done researching and Googling online.”

That learning curve is precisely why Russo says people hire personal stylists and shoppers. “They can’t step between the space of what they see in a magazine, and applying it to themselves,” she explains. Working with so many people with different body types, needs, and limitations gave her a solid overview of what works on a variety of clients that goes beyond what even the most passionate amateur shopper can cultivate on their own.

But Russo also started setting herself apart as an expert right from the get-go. She’d taken note of what people like Seth Godin and Tim Ferriss were doing with their blogs. When she struck out on her own, Russo immediately set up a WordPress site for fun and used a lot of blogging tools to communicate with potential clients and other bloggers.

She also used Facebook to share her own blog posts as well as ideas and articles. “I built up an audience that, even though small, was highly engaged,” Russo explains. “It helped establish a leadership quality.” Russo maintains all it takes to be an expert is, “You just have to know more than the people who follow you. If you have a knowledge you can share, and a skill set like styling that so many people are not good at or not interested in but recognize they need to improve, you will gather [followers].”

Discovering Your Market

Russo is quick to point out that she has never had any interest in styling celebrities or socialites. She wanted to focus on helping the average person look their best within their means, whether that means buying Prada or Banana Republic.

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For years, Russo says she focused on female clients, who she says have very different dressing needs and expectations than men. But her forays into online dating made her think there might be a whole untapped male market.

Russo says that in her experience with online dating, she found that she would meet men who were intelligent, sweet, and kind, yet would make a bad impression by showing up for a first date unkempt and disheveled. She even joked about dates showing up in cargo pants on Twitter:

“Their awesomeness didn’t come through,” Russo says. “It’s like a beautiful picture in a shitty frame.” And so, by accident, she landed on a name for the business as well.

“The name Let’s Get You grew out of my frustrations while dating, and how often I saw my date’s confidence fall flat,” she explains. “The self-perception men projected with their appearance was out of line with the quality of their character. In all frankness, one day I was telling a friend about one man in particular, and I said, ‘I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and yell, Can we just get you laid already!?’ It was that moment when I realized I wanted to help men end the style struggle, and came up with the less crude, more inclusive, Let’s Get You.”

Russo says the phrase is meant to be taken in the spirit of a loving sister or friend who just wants to be encouraging and helpful. Indeed, many of the men she met couldn’t make the mental leap beyond wearing a clean shirt and trousers to really being well dressed without help. The cargo pants, she says, became a metaphor for how men saw themselves and their value. “How many are missing out on [a partner] or an amazing job opportunity because they hate shopping?” she muses.

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She has thought about the competition, like personal styling e-commerce clubs like Stitch Fix or Trunk Club, which promise to proffer perfect ensembles after a member takes a quiz about their preferences. “A man can only use them if he knows what works for him,” Russo points out. “And most men don’t.”

So the services Russo offers go much further. Her soup-to-nuts approach commences with an interview and survey, a review of the current clothing situation, making a shopping list and budget, heading to the store, and finally, going home to create an array of completed outfits to grab and go each day. Instead of getting a box of clothes, Russo underscores, “I am changing your mind about yourself.”

She just has one rule: They can’t bring along a partner, spouse, or family member while she works with them. “It’s not a matter of their voice interrupting mine, but the client is paying, and they need to feel confident in the service [I am] providing,” she says. Anyone who hasn’t been in a fitting room in a long time will be uncomfortable, says Russo. If no one else is around, she can introduce new ideas and encourage them to take a risk with a piece they might not have chosen themselves.

So far, her approach is working. Russo can’t comment on how many clients she has or who they are, but suffice to say she’s moved beyond finding them on OKCupid. Although she does get some clients through word of mouth, Russo observes that most people don’t want to talk about the fact that they have a personal stylist. So what she did to draw more in is offer existing clients a free service in exchange for referrals. Once she broke into the tech community, Russo says workers there are more than happy to talk about how they enlisted her help to dress better.

The difference, according to Russo, in working with men, particularly those in the tech industry, is that they make decisions about clothing more quickly than women. So Russo makes sure the experience is fun and educational. “Men are not expecting it to be a benefit as much as problem solving and transactional,” she explains. “But it’s fun to surprise them.”

Russo says she knew she made it when she stopped caring about getting another client. “I just knew it would happen,” she says. Being “scrappy” with a lot of “chutzpah” not only helped her start, but is also what keeps her in business. She continues to make phone calls to people in her network that she’s worked with in the past. “I’m glad that in the beginning, I had no idea what to do. It’s about taking risks and chances on yourself.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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