The entrepreneur and broadcaster Darren Kennedy says his dad will often pass a snide remark about something he’s wearing but he won’t be insulted by it.
It’s something many of us can relate to.
However, Kennedy has a definite opinion about what he likes to wear. Personal style is innate. It forms the basis for the latest TV series the Irish presenter is part of, BBC1’s You Are What You Wear, a fashion makeover show.
The premise is simple. People from all over England enter host Rylan Clark Neal’s department store with a style dilemma (common threads include those who feel their clothes don’t reflect their identity, they don’t feel good in what they wear).
The stylists Kennedy, Joey Bevan, Kat Farmer, Lucie Clifford, and Nana Acheampong, listen in from behind the mirror, deliberating over who is best suited to the client. They create three looks for the clients who then present themselves to their partner or friend.
It’s the first time in fifteen years that fashion has been the focus of a BBC1 primetime television series. Kennedy, 39, said joining the show was down to the appeal of broadcasting to a mass-market audience with BBC1.
What You Are What You Wear does that other fashion programmes don’t (think Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model) is the way it approaches fashion as a public commodity, not an exclusive one reserved to the elites during fashion week.
It exists to make its cast of clients feel good about themselves and their personal style instead of demeaning or mocking them.
“We live in an age where sometimes you feel TV, in order for it to click with audiences, some people feel you need it to be gimmicky or sensationalist but it’s not: it’s a fun show, an emotional rollercoaster in parts,” said Kennedy over Zoom.
Furthermore, the show demystifies the styling experience. Far from the judgmental gaze of disinterested shop assistants, the stylists take pride in their clients uplifting them as opposed to criticising them.
They take into account their style as it is, offering them options that can elevate their personal style, rather than remaking it according to their own tastes.
Throughout the series, the stylists debunk some wardrobe myths -denim isn’t heavy like the 1980s, technology has advanced; trust statement belts, they are an important accessory-.
When we return to high street shop floors, equipped with a new sense of how you want to dress, Kennedy says to express caution when engaging in with personal shoppers and stylists.
“Be selective where you ask for advice: there needs to be a certain level of trust there. You need to trust the advice that the person is offering you is the right advice.”
The most important aspects of the styling experience manifest on screen during You Are What You Wear: communication and empathy. It is the role of the stylist to understand what the client wants to create, putting words and a visual language to what they’re feeling. For Kennedy, it affirms his unshakeable resolve.
“My purpose in life is to help people transform their lives and empower themselves.” It is true, too, of Kennedy’s colleagues on the show, whose brief is to make people live and breathe the meaning behind the show’s title.
In Kennedy’s mind, styling can change the course of someone’s life, how they act and feel, and what they achieve in it. “There is a huge emotional connection between what we wear and how we dress,” he says.
However, men around the country, often as style conscious as their female counterparts, might be more sceptical of personal shoppers.
You Are What You Wear approaches this with compassion and encouragement, taking an inclusive approach which sees men like Chris in the first episode, a 6ft3 salesperson whose wardrobe consists of a black shirt and black trousers.
“I feel bland, I feel boring, I don’t feel like I should,” he shares. His modus operandi is wanting his partner to be proud of him at their upcoming wedding.
Faced with an identity crisis, Chris searches for clothes that hide the “lumps, bumps, bits I don’t want people to see,” something experienced by many men but seldom spoken about.
Kennedy asserts “I’m not here to complicate things for you.” He wants to take him from bog roll salesman to David Beckham with a dash of Jason Statham.
As the episode unfolds, Kennedy proposes white t-shirt as a default base layer, to be dressed up or down with tailoring items—blazers and slacks don’t necessarily need to be worn together.
The series perfectly approaches its male clients with a straightforward set of wardrobe solutions that prevent the wearer from becoming overwhelmed with today’s stringent style rules and subcultures, the very things that often turn men away from fashion.
“Fashion is a tool to be used and it doesn’t have to be scary. If you’re not into it, it can be so off-putting and daunting. It’s about having fun with it but it doesn’t have to be all-consuming either. You can up your style game so easily,” said Kennedy.
Elsewhere in the show, Kennedy and his colleagues work with Manny, 29, 5ft3, who gets a wardrobe update after years of wearing children’s clothes to suit his physique, or Mike, a former military man in his 60s whose lived his life in uniform looking for a smart-casual update, and Ashley, a training Paralympian, looking for sophisticated, wheelchair-friendly style. For many watching, it will be their first time seeing themselves represented in a style programme.
“Fashion and style is for everybody,” said Kennedy. “Feeling good on the outside will help you feel good on the inside.”