By Frayn Masters | 6/18/2021
Ordering booze from the outside window of moody velvet OG-Portland bar, Dots, I turn to see longtime Portland wardrobe stylist Scarlet Chamberlin walking up the sidewalk with an easy, badass strut. Her loosely coiffed auburn hair falling past her shoulders, a white puffer jacket, and crisp black jeans. Her mask placed just so. Still, nothing fussy going on here. I saw her before her clothing.
We plunk down on the picnic table benches across from each other with our whiskey shots. Scarlet carries herself with a bright sunny ease. Her engaged presence acts as a muscle relaxant. Even though I may have left behind a rather large wardrobe pile of changes before I met up with her, that pre-interview flurry melts away with her comfortable and familiar air. No surprise at all when I learn that she is both a former doula and massage therapist, who comes from styling lineage — her mother, Lois Lily, was a buyer for Meier & Frank in Portland. Even though she passed when Scarlet was just eleven, it’s clear she had a big sparkly influence.
A few years ago Scarlet was invited to a Meier & Frank reunion and got to hear all manner of praise from Lois’s co-workers, including that she managed the “cool kids clothing department.” She recounts treasured memories of playing dress up in her mother’s fantastic closet. “I’ve seen pictures of her in really high-waisted pants with pleats. She had big hips like me, but she rocked that look even though ‘the rules’ say you aren’t supposed to wear pleats with wider hips.” She goes on to say, “I think the shoulds… [like, I should wear this, or maybe I shouldn't wear that] take the fun out of dressing.”
Yes, she is a stylist who does event-focused work like dressing people for galas, or celebrities for the red carpet. But she also has a wide array of clients that includes people of variable levels of gregariousness, age, height, size, physical ability, income, profession—all seeking a more in-depth wardrobe wrangling experience.
Clothing is personal, superstitious, imbued with meaning, cultural, and a uniform. No matter what our take on it is, it says something about us. Whether it’s Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck, Tina Turner’s sequin soaked short dresses (LEGS!), or Aunt Celeste’s sweater that was passed down with her scent and elbow impression still present.
Scarlet is quick to break down misconceptions about who she works with. Yes, she is a stylist who does event-focused work like dressing people for galas, or celebrities for the red carpet. But she also has a wide array of clients that includes people of variable levels of gregariousness, age, height, size, physical ability, income, profession—all seeking a more in-depth wardrobe wrangling experience. Though she can work with people using a cool online tool, she’s been inside over six hundred Portland homes (yes, 600!). A champion of local designers, she has organized boutique tours around town to show them off. Vintage and thrift shopping expertise are also part of her milieu. “Clothes were just made so well and deserve more days in the sun,” she says. Over the last five years she has brought over a million dollars in revenue to local businesses. Can we get an amen?
Some clients have a difficult time shopping off the rack — as a very tall person herself, Scarlet falls into that category. Off the racks, she seeks out cultural diversity in smaller designers and clothing that matches her clients' values because she says, “it creates connection and helps people be more mindful consumers.”
Though some people may just be looking for a closet cleaning and update, Scarlet’s work naturally puts her close to the epicenter of big life transitions like job switchups, breakups, death of a spouse, body changes, and more. She views her work as a fun process of introspection–learning about yourself and learning about what interests you in the world of fashion. “And,” she says, “it also builds a relationship with yourself. You get a sense of owning your style.” To get things rolling, she starts by mixing up new outfits from inside her client’s own closet so they can see a change right away. “Reimagining what they already own is the key to unlocking their signature style,” she says. “It’s so much fun for them to see those items recycled and made new.” They are, after all, things the client picked for one reason or another.” It’s in these moments where clients realize what is happening on the exterior isn’t necessarily reflecting the truth of the interior. After going through the closet, she assesses what to donate, repair, or consign, and where there are gaps to fill.
Her motto is always buy clothes that feel good to you on your skin, don’t squeeze your vital organs, and most importantly — that you will wear.
She also takes on teens and children as clients, too. And while there may be a snap-judgement of wow, that seems bougie, that disappears when she talks about kids she’s worked with “who have really strong sensitivities to how [clothes] feel to the touch on them. Helping them pick out items that express who they are helps kids who’ve been used to hiding. It’s about empowering them to come up with their own look and style that makes them feel more comfortable in their skin... literally.” I asked her if terrible-feeling fabric is the reason some small children scrunch up their noses and throw clothing item after clothing item on the ground. “Most definitely,” she says. “Adults too.”
“Styling,” she says, “for me is about what lives in you that you want to bring out.” Her motto is always buy clothes that feel good to you on your skin, don’t squeeze your vital organs, and most importantly — that you will wear.
Teaching people how to pull off a piece of clothing they really love but don’t believe they can carry off is an eye-opening moment for clients. “It’s about balance and composition,” she says. With just the smallest adjustments, a nip in here, a pull back there, people are shocked by how different the clothes drape on their bodies. Changing up and rethinking their hair and makeup also shifts perspective. Being fitted and having a piece made by a local designer is “not as expensive as people think,” she says. “In fact it can be less expensive. You have the mold made and then you can have several colors or fabrics made of that jean, or silk blouse and it will fit you perfectly. You can pick out fabrics you love, control cost, and the price goes down the more you use a pattern.”
Making people (who aren’t already) jewelry converts is a hidden mission for Scarlet. Some people, she says, think jewelry is overwhelming because they have a stockpile of largely gifted items. It’s also new to some people that current and heirloom jewelry can be reset, resized, or transformed into an entirely different piece. She figures out what shapes look great to create what she calls “a family of jewelry that can be worn with everything.” She is a fan of introducing people to Betsy & Iya bridge cuffs — “because everyone loves them, they are definitely a wear with everything item.”
Left: Scarlet wears our Alameda Hoop earrings and a stack of our Liv, Puebla, Tuyo y Mia, Cor and Nous rings. Right: Scarlet so effortlessly wears our Badlands necklace and Alameda Hoops. Shop Scarlet’s look.
For client after client, Scarlet shatters long held body and style myths that people have gripped onto for years, maybe even their whole lives.
Most of us have been body- or clothing-shamed in some way, whether it’s a rando at a coffee shop, a sales associate, schoolmates, or worse: a parent, sibling, or partner. Those moments turn into stories that get embedded within us–nasty self-worth-zapping barnacles. Scarlet said a stylist once told her that she needed to get rid of a gorgeous velvet and silk skirt because they said it clung to her hips and made her butt look bigger. She was crestfallen. It was the first expensive thing she’d purchased. She says at first she thought, “Okay. Okay.” But quickly shifted to, “What? Hell no. What’s wrong with showing off my figure? My figure is MY figure.”
It’s a comfort to know people like Scarlet exist to help shuck those barnacles from pulling our life force, creating a space for us to walk around in the world feeling our most worthy, helping to lift the weight from what is essentially one of the first decisions we make in a day, “what will I wear?”
People like Scarlet exist to help shuck those barnacles from pulling our life force, creating a space for us to walk around in the world feeling our most worthy, helping to lift the weight from what is essentially one of the first decisions we make in a day, ‘what will I wear?’
With her personal touch, she aims to make clients feel seen and cared for – you might simply want change yet may have no clue what that change is. Scarlet works to be the detective that finds the clues. She’ll embrace her clients’ quirks and emotional hotpoints and weave them into the fabric of who they are. There is no online algorithm or machine that can take the place of the gift Scarlet has to affect a person’s perception of themselves.
She shared with me that not too long ago, she worked with a woman who, at a fairly young age, lost her husband. It takes a special kind of caring to first bear witness to this woman in a grieving state, and second, show her how to shop for herself when she’d never enjoyed it. Her late husband took great pleasure in shopping for her. Together Scarlet and the woman came up with a picture of who she wanted to be, now as a widow, moving forward. It was a challenge for the woman to dive in and discover a style that arose from her own sense of self.
Because of the kind of intimacy this work takes, she doesn’t stack clients on top of each other in a day, “because it is a lot to be in someone else's space.” Clients who initially come off as confident can find themselves in more tender territory once they dig in. “And that definitely takes energy. I am a chameleon with people and their energy. “ Scarlet exudes empathy, but she says she is also, “compassionately ruthless because I know I’m definitely there to get a job done.”
Scarlet continued to reinforce what I came to understand to be a central pillar of her work and deceptively-simple-sounding-but-truly-deep rule: too many shoulds take the fun out of fashion. In the end, the final decisions about how we step out into the world live within each of us. Scarlet’s just really damn good at bringing what we don’t yet know about ourselves to the surface so we can see more of who we are reflected back. As Diane von Furstenberg says, “Style is something each of us already has. All we need to do is find it.”
PRODUCED BY FRAYN MASTERS
PHOTOS BY AARON LEE
Get a taste of wardrobe stylist Scarlet Chamberlin’s expertise with one of her closet audit webinars HERE. Next one is August 31st, just in time for Autumn (even though it’s hard to imagine wearing a sweater right now, your future self will thank you)!
Whether you have a style-seeking group of 20 friends or an organization of 200, you can also hire her to come and present a fun tailored presentation where she’ll answer all your burning questions and demonstrate how she puts her closet together. Visit Scarlet's website for more details.