Many think of image consultants as people who help instill glamour into movie stars and other celebrities. Today, however, they also play a key role in changing and enhancing the well-being of both corporations and the ordinary man in the street.
While personal styling in the celebrity sense has reached a mature stage where stylists are often mentioned in magazines, personal and corporate image consultancy services are still in their infancy in Hong Kong.
Being a leading image advisor for the local fashion and entertainment media for some while, Tina Liu, owner of the first image consultancy firm in Hong Kong, realised a decade ago that image design is a people-centric field and having a unique persona need not be the sole province of actors.
Learning from textbooks or theories is never good enough. You have to be competent and observant
"There is a strong demand for image consultation beyond the celebrity circle and media industry, namely in the business sector," says Ms Liu.
"Everyone is concerned whether they look good and how they can possibly dress to present a good appearance to others," she adds. "Staff image is an important mechanism for companies to convey their professional standard and image to the clients and public."
Ms Liu's clients range from top executives, lawyers, teachers and secretaries to large banking corporations as well as hotels and insurance companies. It is not surprising that Ms Liu finds her job challenging and highly interactive.
"One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is the people element and the opportunity to meet people of various social backgrounds and from different industries", says Ms Liu. "It is especially satisfying when I manage to help improve a company's service image or bring a difference to a person's life."
Ms Liu, who has been variously a film and TV actress, singer, magazine editor, fashion brand image director, TV station image director, writer, and channel director of Metro Broadcast Corporation, found herself settling down to image consultancy services in recent years as an expansion of her role in the field of communications.
"Image consultancy is another form of communication on a personal level," she says. "Your image speaks for your inner self, identity and profession; it's often the first and lasting gateway to communicating with the outside world."
While Ms Liu provides a one-on-one service to personal clients from different social backgrounds by tailor-making a personal formula of outfit, makeup, hairstyle and etiquette that could possibly carry the best look and strength of the "self", she also takes care of the staff image of her corporate clients. Her focus on corporate clients lies mainly on providing training in improving the staff member's personal image in the areas of grooming, wardrobe strategies and business etiquette.
It is through the many years of on-the-job training and experience in the media and image styling field that Ms Liu has stretched her footage to the corporate sector to provide staff image training services. Ms Liu says staff image consulting and training requires not only strong knowledge of the subject matter and creative energy, but also good presentation and teaching skill.
"On top of my experience as an artist and media professional, my presentation skill is basically acquired through self-pace study as well as attending conferences for international image consultants in the US," she adds.
Ms Liu believes that having good interpersonal skills is an important trait for success for any image stylist.
"No matter whether it's corporate or personal clients, it is important to understand their concerns, problems, and what they aim to achieve or improve at the end of the day," she says. "We're not pushing clients to follow a trend or to impose any sets of costumes upon them but to identify a persona that best fits their personality, profession and lifestyle to their advantage so that they can present their best," she adds.
Aside from interpersonal skills, Ms Liu says an image stylist should always keep his or her eyes open for new things to learn.
"Learning from textbooks or theories is never good enough to build one up in the industry. You have to be competent and observant. To have a strong grasp of different cultures and fashions, historical background knowledge is essential." Ms Liu adds that being creative, artistic and sensitive to visual elements such as proportions, lines and silhouettes, colours and textures are other prerequisites.
Ms Liu stresses that there is no shortcut to enter the image consulting field. Freshmen usually enter the market as assistant to a hairstylist, makeup artist, art director or fashion designer before they develop themselves as image stylist. On-the-job training in the fashion and media industry is always the first stepping-stone for newcomers who are interested in entering this field.
While image consulting is not a new phenomenon overseas, Ms Liu says Hong Kong has only recently started a comprehensive study programme to equip freshmen for entering the industry. The Fashion Image Design programme, offered by the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education (IVE) programme, provides a three year full-time diploma or two year part-time certificate, allowing students to acquire skills and knowledge in fashion, makeup and hairstyling, the basic requirements for someone wishing to follow a career in image styling.
The huge demand for image styling from the business sector on the mainland originates from multinational corporations. Ms Liu says corporations on the mainland, largely multinational corporations, are now more concerned with their staff image from personal grooming to business etiquette. These companies usually request an additional training module on staff image on top of their management training programmes. The ability to speak fluent Mandarin is definitely a prerequisite for students hoping to seize opportunities in Mainland China, where image building has increasingly gained awareness in the media and business sectors.