Dress to impress

“Mutton dressed as leopard” was how 44-year-old Sue Kavanagh was described by sartorial style experts Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine as her leopard-print-clad rear backed out rather inelegantly from a taxi last October – in full view of the television cameras.

Kavanagh, who is HR director for Northern Europe at business travel management company Carlson Wagonlit Travel, had turned up to the British Travel Awards in her usual outrageous attire – on this occasion, a long leopard-print dress with matching shoes, bag and elbow-length gloves.

“I am well-known in the industry for wearing leopard print,” she says. “I even have leopard-print toilet seats and bedspreads at home. It has become somewhat of a theme.”

Upon arrival at the awards ceremony, she recklessly agreed to participate in the BBC make-over programme, What Not To Wear, although she heard nothing more until later in the evening.

“Susannah and Trinny tore me to shreds when I walked over to them – all of which was filmed without my knowledge, as was my getting out of the taxi,” she says.

Also appearing on the show was former Blue Peter presenter, Valerie Singleton. While the awards ceremony carried on, the participants were taken aside for two hours into a room with mirrored cabinets and hundreds of dresses, shoes and accessories.

“We had to stand reflected in this 360-degree mirror, saying what we liked and disliked about ourselves, then Susannah and Trinny gave their opinion,” says Kavanagh. “It is not for the faint-hearted.

“I said I like to be different and that at events such as the Travel Awards, all the women are in black,” she adds. “Susannah and Trinny said I was too outrageous and over-the-top, and that the trouble with so much leopard print is that it tends to become a trademark – which it has – and that people no longer see you, only your clothes.”

One thing Kavanagh had not appreciated about the show before taking part was that there are no mirrors while the transformation process is under way.

“I had absolutely no idea what they were doing,” she says. “When they were doing my hair, I couldn’t see a thing, and then they put me in front of a mirror and whisked away the cloth. Then I had to go back to my table at the awards to get the reaction from the others.”

The image created by Susannah and Trinny was very different to the one Kavanagh usually opts for. “The make-up made me look much classier and younger, and I was given a much more sophisticated look, with a long grey, silky floaty dress, very different to the tight-fitting vibrant things I normally go for,” Kavanagh says. “They said as I am getting older, I need to tone my dress sense down.”

Reactions from those sharing her table at the awards ranged from comments about her new make-up being less severe, to the fact that the leopard-print approach is about who Kavanagh is.

But what about dressing outrageously at work? How does that sit with being a high-profile HR director in charge of 1,400 staff in the UK and 400 in Denmark and Sweden, who is involved in numerous travel industry and HR bodies including Personnel Today’s HR Directors Club?

“I realise many people think being an HR director means you should dress a certain way, but I’ve never been a great advocate for that,” she says. “The travel industry is full of personalities, whereas if I was working in banking, I would not really be able to dress as I do.”

Kavanagh has worked at Carlson Wagonlit Travel for 12 years, before which she worked at another travel company, Lunn Poly. But she does tone down her dress sense when required. “I always consider what lies ahead in the day,” she says. “If I have a difficult staff meeting or am meeting clients, I dress more conservatively, going for pastel shades and longer skirts. I wouldn’t want to be all bright and breezy if I was doing a staff counselling meeting, for example.”

What was it like being transformed with Singleton? “Valerie was very up for it and not at all fazed by being chosen,” Kavanagh says. “She looked absolutely stunning with this beautiful fur wrap that made her look like a film star.”

So does Kavanagh regret appearing on the show? “Not at all – I loved every minute of it,” she says. “It was great fun, a fantastic experience.”
Kavanagh has been recognised in public since appearing on the show by people ranging from a Debenham’s sales assistant to an insurance broker. But has she been able to change her spots?

“I tried to put the make-up style into practice, but when I went into work the next week, people said I looked ill, as I usually wear bright eye-shadow and lipstick. I am keeping my hair shorter and spikier as it makes me look younger, so there has been a little bit of spot-changing.

“However, I have slipped into my old habits clothes-wise,” Kavanagh admits. “As some people have said to me, the trouble with changing my spots is that it would cost a fortune.

“To be honest, I don’t really want to. They have become my trademark, and that’s fine by me.”

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How important do you think what you wear is to career success? Please send your comments to ptod.content@rbi.co.uk

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