Growing up, Claire Hecht reluctantly followed the teen trendmill, living in Lacoste shirts and Levis like her classmates. But when friends started donning turtlenecks with little red strawberries on them, Ms. Hecht decided she'd had enough. It was time to break out on her own.
More than a decade later, she has cultivated a style that's funky, flamboyant and truly original. Maybe it's the way she mixes a Moschino leather jacket with a Salvation Army shirt. Or how she confidently experiments with the back-to-the-'60s trend -- wearing frosted lipstick, serious black eyeliner and a modified beehive -- in a city that doesn't always realize that's retro fashion. But this much is certain: You only have to meet Claire Hecht once to realize her style makes a lasting impression.
Style, like beauty or truth, is hard to define. It's not always a matter of money. In fact, it can be revealed in something as simple as the way a woman wears a $10 shirt; yet it can prove elusive to those who can afford haute couture. Women like Jackie Onassis, Diana Ross and Katharine Hepburn embody it; others like Roseanne Arnold and Kim Basinger seem destined to lumber through life -- and awards shows -- without it.
"Style comes from wearing your clothes, rather than having your clothes wear you," explains Ray Mitchener, who's worked with someof Baltimore's most fashionable women as buyer-manager of the exclusive boutique Ruth Shaw in the Village of Cross Keys. "It's a woman's attitude . . . if she feels confident about who she is."
While the naturally chic make even a T-shirt and jeans look new, there's hope for others who lack that unstudied air. Style, it seems, can be learned. When several well-dressed women in Baltimore were asked to analyze their personal style, each readily admitted that the road to looking good had included a few wrong turns.
But they learned from those mistakes, going on to create signature looks by accentuating one element of dressing -- from the artist who loves color to the doctor who lives in classics to Ms. Hecht who makes accessories a must.
On the whole, it was surprising how much these women had in common. They talked about building wardrobes around three or four basic colors -- most often navy, black, beige and red -- and investing in quality blazers, trousers and suits they often keep for 10 years or more. Accessories were where they looked for real buys.
And while expensive stores like Ruth Shaw and Saks Fifth Avenue were mentioned as local favorites, many women also said they frequent the moderately priced Banana Republic and the Gap in search of fashion finds.
Perhaps no one combines the au courant and the secondhand better than Ms. Hecht.
A collector of Kenneth Lane jewelry, she often spends weekends hunting through flea markets and yard sales in search of pins, necklaces or bracelets to complement the '60s hair styles and body-hugging outfits by Italian designer Azzedine Alaia she currently favors. She once even removed the shoe buckles from a pair of well-worn pumps to make into bracelets.
Her goal is to never take style too seriously. "A lot of the things I have I'm winking behind," says the 30-year-old vice president of U.S. Tag and Label printing company in East Baltimore. "You have to realize it's all in fun. There's a little fantasy in it, too. You're going out and you're exploring a little side of you that interests you."
For artist Martha Macks, color holds the most interest.
My clothes, she says, "are like a paint palette to me."
She often layers eye-popping primaries over basic black. And while most people mix pieces in the same way, Ms. Macks is known for never wearing anything quite the same way twice. For example, she'll pair a tailored Armani jacket with Lycra workout leggings. And when her 6-year-old Sonia Rykiel dress began to look old, she updated it by having the mid-calf length altered to above the knee.
"Clothes are so expensive that I wear everything to death," says the 37-year old Stevenson painter.
The high cost of clothing is also a primary reason why Dr. Margaret Fountain has built her wardrobe about "classics with a flair.
"They look good all the time . . . and they last," says the thirtysomething rheumatologist who lives and works in Cross Keys.
With little time to shop, Dr. Fountain, who happens to be a former model, has come to depend on designers Calvin Klein and Donna Karan and a few trips to Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdale's in New York to see her through a season.
"I care about myself, so I want that to show," she says. "If I've been up all night, the natural thing for me to do is to try to look great the next day. It's a stimulant."
Although she has abandoned the wild hats and suits she wore during her days as a twentysomething student, she still wishes she would work a bit more whimsy into her wardrobe.
Even on weekends, when she's dressed in silk pants and tops, friends tease her about looking too formal, she says.
Why are there so many different ideas about style?