Some people seem to have been born with style. They instinctively know how to pair items in a creative way – and make it look effortless. Those with that secret know-how can make anything – even the simplest white shirt and jeans – look super chic. Others are late bloomers who grow into a look that’s perfectly their own. An item, a colour, or a genre (be that vintage to eclectic quirk) becomes their recognizable stamp of personal expression. 

Coat, Dries Van Noten. Bag, Gucci. Photo, Tara West.

Style is personal – it’s yours without judgement. It has no age and can’t be labelled good or bad. Some of the wackiest style often crosses the line to vulgar (fashion editor Anna dello Russo and Lady Gaga come to mind). It ranges from the Queen of England (in her colourful hats and coats) to precocious actor Jaden Smith who clutched his newly shorn blonde dreadlocks as he walked the Met Museum gala red carpet last year. And I can already see that Millie Bobby Brown, the 13 year old star of Stranger Things, is developing an artistic style based on interesting silhouettes and textures. (A good stylist is behind her outfits but Millie looks authentic and comfortable.)

My personal style has always been a little bit quirky. Learning to sew in high school resulted in some gawky if not memorable outfits including a powder blue corduroy suit with matching suede shoes. How I regret not having photos as proof! My style evolved with age, confidence and a whole lot of experimentation. Today friends and co-workers easily identify pieces that are “so Lisa”. That usually means a lot of colour and pattern. If you’re trying to settle on your own signature look, here’s how I found my own:

My favourite look is a Dries van Noten topper worn over jeans

EMOTION – for me, style comes down to what makes me feel confident. Colour and pattern are reflections of my mood – or how I wish I felt if I’m having a tough day. Bold artistic florals and lush global patterns (Asian influenced) plus stripes are staples in my wardrobe. I always reach for a coat by Dries van Noten over jeans to feel 100% me. If I’m feeling melancholy or rattled, my style acts like a security blanket wrapped tightly around my confidence. For you, minimalist tones and simple materials may mirror your inner zen. Or pretty colours and florals may show your sunny positivity. Vintage styles may speak to your appreciation of days gone by. Normcore may reflect your simplicity and no-shit sensibility. 

I still wear my very first Dries van Noten topper constantly.

QUIRKY DETAILS – While I appreciate recognition of my style, I don’t want it to become expected or mundane. I always look for offbeat details such as a quirky shoe (I adore Aquazzura) or unusual necklace (Marni is a favourite). It’s why I love Gucci so much lately. Head-to-toe, the label’s overall look is way over-the-top (their recent Star Trek inspired advertising campaign was genius) but little pieces such as an embroidered slipper or studded velvet cross-body bag adds an exuberant off-kilter touch. I always ground the statement-making pieces with something classic like slim black trousers (buy ten pairs if you find your perfect fit!), a black pencil skirt, or straight leg jeans.

I'm with John Gerhardt at Fashion Cares in 2004.Gown, Lida Baday. Photo by George Pimentel

INSPIRATION – Style isn’t copying someone else’s look – it’s about interpreting the elements that work for you, and leaving the rest behind. There are designers I love (including Canadians Greta Constantine, Marie Saint Pierre, and Lida Baday who sadly shut her business), celebrities I admire (Blake Lively, Julianne Moore, Tilda Swinton and Cate Blanchett) and Instagram stylists I follow (fashion editor Giovanna Battaglia and Olivia Palermo). I get most of my ideas during Fashion Week (Gucci to Dries van Noten, Chanel to Dior) and follow sites such as Vogue, Porter and Moda Operandi. But I don’t copy – I know instinctively what works for me now.

I'm with Wayne Clark (wearing one of his gowns) at Fashion Cares 2006

BODY – part of fine-tuning my style was learning how to dress for my figure. I know at a glance what silhouettes work (body-skimming shapes suit my curvy shape) and what don’t (anything too short, too tight or tucked in). Plunging necklines, pencil skirts, slim trousers – YES. Crop tops, short bandage dresses, and shirts tucked into jeans – NO. (I don’t tuck in anything as it makes my waist look thick.) This red gown by Wayne Clark is a favourite because the long tie front focuses on my neckline and hides my stomach.

APPROPRIATE – I detest articles that show styles a woman should wear in her 20s, 30s and 40s. They usually stop at 50 when a woman becomes most interesting – it’s as if style falls off a cliff and dies. I think about Julianne Moore (57), Helen Mirren (72), Tilda Swinton (57) and Nicole Kidman (51). They always look “appropriate” but are true originals. Yes, there are certain things I don’t wear now – anything too trendy makes me feel like I’m trying too hard. But if I had a rocking body like Gwen Stefani (she’s 48), I’d wear a crop top with leggings and biker boots too. I hope that you will have found a style that’s 100% you by the time you reach your 40s. You’ve got to be comfortable in your own skin, and not give a shit if it’s trendy or not. Just be you – confidence is the definition of sexy – and that’s personal style.