Erika Cartledge, Founder of Your Chic is Showing, has nearly a decade of experience styling and educating hundreds of people through one-on-one services, workshops, masterclasses, webinars, and publications. Her styling expertise offers specializations in plus-sized and full-figured, maternity, career, and special event styling. She believes that elevated style should be accessible to anyone, anywhere, and proudly offers all of her services both in-person and virtually.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Listen to the podcast version of this interview on Word of Mom Radio.
EPS: When you were younger, was there a specific item or style you gravitated to?
EC: I was always a child with a lot of very big opinions about what I wanted to wear. I specifically remember one-year taking fall school photos in preschool, insisting on wearing my Easter dress and having a battle royale with my mom about it. But if you look at my photo, I won and was wearing my Easter dress. So I have always had thoughts and opinions about what I’d wear. Even when I was a kid, and my mom would get dressed to go out, she would say, ‘Okay, help me pick out my outfit. Help me get dressed. What suit do you think I should wear? Which earrings?’ So she nurtured that.
EC: And as far as what I wanted to wear…when I was a kid, I was a child in the ’80s, so the leggings with the lace on the bottom, that look took hold of me as a kid. I wanted to wear them under shorts, under skirts, by themselves, with jackets, anything I could do to wear them, with socks, without socks, sneakers, tracksuits, anything.
EC: I had them in every color they made them in. Even to the point where I remember for my grandfather’s funeral, my mom had picked out a dress and some tights. I didn’t want to wear the tights, and she had to negotiate with me that I could put the leggings on after the funeral. So I remember sitting in the limo with my grandmother next to me and being like I’m done and changing to put these leggings on before we went out to eat because I was done with the tights. Those leggings were definitely my jam as a kid.
EPS: Was there someone’s style that you admired growing up?
EC: As a kid, I didn’t recognize great style. But what I recognized was people dressing authentically for themselves. I was drawn to that, even if they were TV characters. I remember looking at Punky on “Punky Brewster,” Clarissa on “Clarissa Explains It All,” Blossom on “Blossom,” and her best friend Six. I was obsessed with Six when I was a kid. There was also Vanessa Huxtable on the Cosby Show. I was watching them and how they did these cool things with their style, being funky and mixing patterns. And so it wasn’t so much that I said, oh, I want to emulate their style, but I remember feeling I want to feel good in what I’m wearing. I gravitated to people being creative with their style, expressing themselves, and not having people shut that down.
EPS: You went to Howard University and studied finance. How did you make the change from finance to styling?
EC: I took jobs in the financial industry in school, but I’ve always loved fashion. I’ve always loved style. In college, I was always helping friends get dressed in the dorm to go out. I always received requests like, ‘Oh, I have an interview. Can you help me get my suit together?’ People were always coming to me and asking me these types of questions. And then, when working in finance, I wanted a creative outlet. So I started a blog documenting outfits and writing how-tos on how to infuse your style when you must be dressed every day for corporate America. A styling business was naturally born out of that blog.
EC: I had a friend who was a sports agent and managed NBA Rookies. And at the time, the NBA had a dress code. He called me one day to ask if I could take one of his clients shopping. If I’d stopped to think, I would’ve said no because 1) I didn’t know anything about styling men (I’d only ever styled myself, my girlfriends, and my mom), and 2) NBA players are not average-sized men, right? They’re 6’6 and 6’8, and some are even 7 feet. Their feet are massive. And so you can’t just go into Macy’s and pick out an average suit. I would’ve said no if I had considered what I agreed to.
EC: But I didn’t think about it. I was like, yeah, sure. Let’s go. So I got this crash course in styling, suiting, and garment construction because we had to have the athlete’s stuff custom-made. And I learned that I loved, loved, loved the styling piece of it. I loved putting together looks. I loved when clients got their suits, and they would come out from trying them on and tell me they felt like a million bucks. But instead of NBA players, I decided to focus on working with women, people like me. People getting career promotions, trying to become a law firm partner, or other power move transitions in their lives. So I went and took classes and got more formalized in styling. I still style men sometimes, but mostly grooms. I primarily focus on entrepreneurs, mompreneurs, high-performing professionals, and C-suite executives.
EPS: You share this style philosophy on your website: Chic isn’t an adjective; it’s a way of life. Can you expand on that?
EC: We often hear, ‘When you look good, you feel good.’ I like to say, ‘When you feel good, you look good, but every area of your life should have you feeling good.’ When I say it’s a way of life, I don’t want to live in a house that feels inauthentic or fake. Everything should represent you. Everything should feel true to who you are.
EC: When people come into our home, people go, oh, we know Erika decorated this. Even down to our children’s rooms, which are still kids’ rooms, there are color themes and aesthetics and things like that. Whatever feels good to you, authentic to you, feels true to you, spread that through all the things you’re doing. When I say, ‘It’s a way of life,’ I mean you should look for elegance, fun, and authenticity. Every moment that we are here is a special moment. And so every moment is a celebration. And we should live our lives that way.
EC: As parents and caregivers, one of the things that’s challenging when raising kids is that you know, in the beginning, you have complete control over what they’re wearing. But then you come to a point where suddenly they’re embracing their identity and choosing things they want to wear, like the leggings with the lace. Why is it important to give kids space to make their own choices regarding what they’re wearing?
EC: There are two reasons I find fashion and style incredible ways to teach our kids to express themselves. Number one, when dressing, you’re trying things on. You’re trying to figure out who you are and how you want your clothes to be and represent you. When I work with clients, I find that many adults don’t know who they are. And that’s because they play dress-up and try to dress how they think they’re supposed to be.
EC: A lot of my clients are in executive positions. When we go through their closets, they say, ‘Well, I have this because I thought everyone was supposed to have a black power suit, or I thought everyone was supposed to have a blouse like this.’ They have this clothing not because it’s authentic, not because it feels good, and then they never pull it out of their closet because they don’t like wearing it.
EC: And so, with a child, letting them evolve in choosing their clothing allows them to grow confident in who they are. The other thing is, just like adults change and our preferences change, kids do too. So now, as a 40-year-old woman, I won’t pull out my leggings with the lace on the bottom. So the other thing is that choices teach them it’s okay to change, be different, and grow and move. That’s important. And at the end of the day, we are striving to raise kids who become people confident in their abilities, decision-making, and who they are. Letting your child pick out their clothes is a really low-risk way for them to learn to be confident in their decisions.
EPS: In your work, you focus on empowering clients to know their body type and what looks best on them. It can feel like a delicate tightrope for parents and caregivers because you want to help them be exposed to different styles and fashions while not being too overbearing. What tips do you have for navigating that tightrope?
EC: My husband and I have three kids. And it’s funny because, as a stylist, people think my kids will wear whatever I lay out for them, and none of them ever do. But one thing I do is take them to the store. We go together. And I say, you pick some things, I’ll pick some things (that’s the same thing I do with my clients, by the way). We talk about what they’re picking and what I’m picking. And then they try things on.
EC: I might say, ‘ Okay, you chose this because you saw your friend wearing it, but maybe that feels a little tight. Could we find something like this that has a better fit for you? Oh, you like these things? Oh, I love that too. That’s so cool. I never would’ve picked that for you.’ Or sometimes they say, ‘Oh, I never would’ve looked at that, but can I get it?’
EC: Children are much more open to shopping together when you approach it as a partnership instead of a dictatorship. Now, our almost-four-year-old, he’s like, I want colors and no hard pants. So no jeans, no khakis, those are hard pants for him. But you know he’s very different than our daughter who’s like, yeah, I’m a girl, but I don’t want to wear frilly dresses and all this stuff. I want a little more edge and streetwear and cool sneakers. That’s fine. Let’s meet in the middle. It’s also much easier the one time a year I may ask her to wear a dress or a jumpsuit. Getting her to wear it is much easier because everything else is a partnership. So she’s like, ‘Yeah, okay, I get it. We’re going to this party thing. I’ll put on the dress for you.’
EPS: How does being kind to yourself manifest in one’s wardrobe? Often women are really hard on themselves, and we use our wardrobe occasionally as a strange punishment when fashion choices should be something to celebrate and be joyful about.
EC: Absolutely. First of all, women generally are not kind to themselves. And think about the voice you hear the most on any given day is your own. I was reading somewhere that a person has, call it, 20,000 thoughts in a day. And 70 percent of those are negative thoughts. So if you have 20,000 thoughts in a day, 70 percent are negative, and you talk to yourself the most, guess who gets the most negative thoughts in negative words? You. And then how that manifests in your wardrobe is you look in the mirror and go, oh man, I got jiggly arms. I can’t wear anything sleeveless. Oh man, I got this tummy; I must get some baggy or black clothes to hide in. Or, if I wear dark colors, I’ll look smaller and slimmer. I don’t want to stand out; I can’t wear a print.
EC: So the unkindness manifests in what we wear, reflecting how we show up because we’re not showing up from a confident place. You’re showing up from a place where I have to hide my flaws, and I don’t want anyone to see me. So I first tell my clients to say nice things to themselves because what goes in is what comes out.
I always give them this exercise: Anytime you walk past something where you see your reflection (washing your hands in the restaurant, walking past a mirror, walking past a window), say something nice to yourself because you’re starting to reverse the negative thoughts and put positivity in you. And when positivity goes in, that’s what comes out. Instead of looking in the mirror and saying, ‘Oh man, my arms are jiggly today,’ you’re like, ‘Oh girl, your skin is glowing today. Or you’re really cute today.’ Look at your face. And saying nice things to yourself can change what you wear and how you show up in the world.
EC: I don’t teach people how to hide. You look at my headshot, and I’m in a neon yellow dress with a print on it. There’s no hiding. But I help my clients teach people where we want them to look. It’s not that I’m teaching you to hide your belly. I’m saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to pick a beautiful accessory, so people can’t help but look at your face with your smile. We will put on a great shoe so people take in your entire outfit instead of focusing on an area you don’t want them to focus on.’ And that helps change how my clients show up and softens them to themselves.
EPS: It’s no secret think we live in a very visual world, especially with all the social media platforms. And a lot has come out recently with girls and anxiety, and the comparison trap women also fall victim to. How can we help ourselves, the girls in our lives, and others not fall victim to that thinking?
EC: For my daughter, what’s been important is showing her and surrounding her with all different definitions of beauty and doing that in real life so that she can see real people. They’re not these airbrushed, glossy, perfect images. For her, that helps. By helping kids understand photoshopping, cropping, airbrushing, and filters, they can be aware and not have to unpack all this when they’re older. They have access to so much information. Let’s give them information to help them navigate adulthood and take away some of that comparison. With my friends, my husband says when we get together, it sounds like a sports team locker room. We hype each other up, be like, ‘Hey dear! Oh, you look good! Oh, that’s good.’ So much of that is reminding people that they’re beautiful.
EPS: What three pieces of advice would you give to a girl who dreams of becoming a personal stylist?
EC: Number one, play dress-up and dress your friends. Here’s why. Playing dress-up is the best way to develop new wardrobe and style ideas and combinations. Most of us stop playing dress up when we’re not kids anymore. And so what I tell even my clients to play dress-up and put together different looks in low-pressure environments. Most people shop when it’s high pressure, ‘Oh, I have an event, I gotta buy an outfit, I gotta find the perfect thing.’ But if you do it when there’s no pressure environment, you’ll get new ideas. And the only person that truly knows you is you. So girls interested in styling play dress-up.
EC: The other thing, dress your friends. Everybody has a different body type; you can learn how to dress and highlight different body types. I get so many clients who come to me and say, ‘I worked with someone in the past, but they are used to working with models or people with this body shape, and they didn’t know what to do with me.’ You’ll be light years ahead if you dress your friends and understand their body shape.
EC: Number two, learn how to do things digitally. Because the pandemic changed a lot, styling is now more virtual and digital. I have a lot of clients that don’t live where I am. I’ve created digital solutions for how we shop together. Anytime you can add technology and different tools to your arsenal, that’s so smart.
EC: Last, there are so many kinds of stylists. Figure out what resonates with you. Some stylists do what I do, but they focus on celebrities. Wardrobe stylists do television and TV shows. Some stylists do merchandising and layout and decide what clothes will go to store mannequins. And they can work with retailers to help them set up displays. There’s also visual merchandising. Figure out what resonates with you because fashion has so many cool jobs.