Barnes, who left his job as a Democratic press secretary on the House Foreign Affairs Committee last month, grew accustomed to his peers’ daily compliments on his thoughtful suit-and-tie combinations and their joking pleas for his help with their wardrobes.
“You look great, Dave,” they would say, to which he would often reply, “I look the way I feel — I look good because I feel good.”
One colleague finally took Barnes aside to ask him seriously to help her make over her wardrobe. He agreed, and their collaboration resulted in, among other things, a new blazer that she “got compliments on all day” when she wore it to the office, he says.
Now Barnes is hoping to help more congressional staffers and other Washington professionals adopt his “I look good because I feel good” mantra. Last month he left his congressional job to start Gait, an image and communications consulting business. He sees no reason why Washingtonians can’t “look as good as the work they produce.”
“You have some of the smartest, most ambitious people in the country who live here in the city,” he said in a recent interview in a café near the White House. He’s wearing a black-and-white plaid suit with a neatly folded white pocket square and a black tie with white dots and a tie clip.
“[If] you can do amazing work,” he says, “you might as well look like it.”
Barnes traces his interest in fashion and image to his youth. His father is a minister, so growing up, Barnes spent a lot of time in church.
“From a young age, I was wearing a suit all the time,” said Barnes, now 28.
In college, he started reading GQ magazine, keeping a close eye on the suits that would show up in its pages.
“I love suits. I’ll wear a suit every day,” Barnes said — and he has a closet to prove it. He estimates that he has 12 suits, at least 15 dress shirts, between 85 and 100 ties, and three blazers. His attention to his clothing earned him the nickname “Dapper Dave” from a former boss, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), one of few lawmakers who breaks from the blues and grays of the standard Washington professional uniform.
“I think Dave … embodies the individual whose natural appearance commands a certain amount of respect,” Clarke said. She predicts Barnes “can help a lot of young people who want to make a great presentation for their bosses.”
“Some of the older folks could use his help, too,” Clarke added.
Barnes’s love for looking good soon combined with his long-held desire to run his own business, a demand from his colleagues for his help, and last fall’s changeover in House leadership. He decided 2011 would be the right time to strike out on his own.
He sees his new venture as a nice marriage between his experience on Capitol Hill and his desire to help people reach their potential.
“I was a press secretary. My job was to make sure that my boss looked his best. I managed his public image,” he says. “I like having conversations with people about … being confident individuals and being able to project their best selves. And really, I just use image and fashion as an avenue to have those kinds of conversations.”
In his image consulting, Barnes starts by doing what he calls an “attitude analysis” with his clients. They fill out a questionnaire about their goals: How do they want to feel on a daily basis? What perceptions do they want to leave with people? How do they see their image? What do they think their brand is?
Next he does a wardrobe audit, helping clients sift through what they can keep and get rid of, and what they need. He also goes shopping with his clients to help them start building a closet that reflects their goals.
Mary McVeigh, one of Barnes’s former colleagues, worked with him to spruce up her closet.
“David was extremely patient with me,” McVeigh said, adding that the two dresses and three jackets she bought on his advice have all garnered compliments from friends and colleagues. “He was very sensitive to my tastes but never let me shy from a challenge, either. He asked personal questions that led him to create outfits that fit my personality.”
For Barnes, it’s not just about the clothes — he recognizes that a nicely fitting suit or a smart blouse can take his clients only so far.
“I don’t even necessarily want to have a conversation with you about being the best at what you do,” he says. “I expect you to already do that. I want to have a conversation with you about how you interact and how you engage with people.”
To that end, Barnes also offers communications counsel, including speech writing, public speaking coaching, interview techniques and advice on networking and relationship-building.
He estimates he has worked with about 15 clients so far (he charges by the hour, and, recognizing the possible financial limitations of congressional staffers, says he works with people to find an affordable rate), and that they mostly skew female.
“I’d like to get more male clients because sometimes … they just need more help,” he jokes. His initial tips for male congressional aides are to cinch their ties tighter and tuck in their shirts. Those changes “cost nothing,” he jokes.
Barnes’s business seems to be on a roll. After he worked with that first colleague, two more came along, and one of his good friends referred someone to him.
If Washington professionals start to dress better because of Barnes, he’ll be happy. But he sees his work as more than just providing them advice on fits and color combinations.
“It’s really about how somebody feels about life and thinks about life,” Barnes says. “And I just think that what you wear, how you present yourself … reflects your attitude about life.”