Norma Alcala is trying to decide who her style icon is. We’re chatting on the phone to plan her impending Man Repeller makeover, and her daughter, Marcela, is translating; English is Norma’s second language. Marcela says something in Spanish and I hear Norma exclaim, “Ah, I like Anna Della Russo. And Victoria Beckham!”
Norma’s personal style is playful with an emphasis on comfort. A typical outfit of hers is composed of Nike sneakers with black pants, a black t-shirt, a zebra trench coat, and, perhaps most importantly, one of her signature brightly colored foam visors. She’s fanatical about sun protection and likes how a visor is also a style statement. It’s clear from our conversation that, at 65 years old, she has a pretty defined aesthetic when it comes to getting dressed, but that she’s also emotionally ready for a change.
The “Before” Shot: One of Norma’s Go-To Outfits
Norma is Japanese but grew up in Mexico, where she was orphaned at the age of 10. “Growing up in a small city, my mom always felt different because of how she looked,” Marcela says. “She felt like she didn’t belong, which is why fashion and beauty played an important role in her self-esteem from an early age. They ultimately became a conduit for her to express herself.”
Later, Norma got married and had four daughters. One of them, Flora, was born with half a heart. Norma devoted herself to taking care of her, traveling all over to find the best medical care. Flora had three open-heart surgeries but tragically passed away at the age of 10. Eventually, Norma separated from her husband and moved to New York to support Marcela while she was in school.
“Now that my mom is retired and her daughters are out of the house, she has more time to pursue her personal interests and passions,” Marcela says. “For years now, she has been taking college courses here in the city. A few years ago, my sisters and I took her to Japan to meet her long-lost relatives and connect with her Japanese roots. This past summer, she traveled to Italy and Spain for a month by herself.”
I learn that, for Norma, as she continues to reinvent herself in this new stage of life, a makeover presents an opportunity to empower herself through the precise vehicles that liberated her during her childhood. She wants to demonstrate—to herself and to others—”that regardless of age, we are always entitled to expressing how we feel, through style or otherwise, as long as we have the courage to be comfortable in our own skin.”
When I ask how she wants to be transformed, she tells me that she fantasizes about a more streamlined, sophisticated version of herself to celebrate this new, independent era–but one that still maintains her sense of playfulness. “So basically a combination of Anna Dello Russo and Victoria Beckham modified for the practicality of everyday life?” I offer. This suggestion is met with enthusiastic murmurs of affirmation from both mother and daughter, and as soon as we hang up, I start brainstorming.
A few weeks later, on the day of her makeover-to-be, Norma is sitting in the Man Repeller office. She’s getting her makeup done by Sarah Fiorello–a true pro–but at certain points asks if she can take over the brush and finesse aspects of the makeup herself (a little more cat-eye here, a little more smoky eyeshadow there). Watching her, I’m struck by the significance of letting yourself be a canvas for someone else’s creative vision. Vulnerability is at the heart of any “makeover moment” in that sense, which is why it’s rarely a straightforward endeavor. We’re so accustomed to caring for–and controlling–this external but deeply intimate part of ourselves.
This is particularly true when letting someone else dress you—an allowance most people retract by the age of four or five. I try to approach Norma’s makeover bearing that in mind, concocting outfit ideas that nudge her in the new, slightly more experimental direction she fantasized about, while grounding them in elements of her trademark style proclivities.
Makeover Look #1: Statement Sleeves and Sneakers
For the first look, I style her in an accordion-pleat blouse from Tory Burch with super dramatic sleeves, tucked inside a Tibi pencil skirt. Norma tells me that she loves both but is intimidated at the same time; they aren’t pieces she would typically wear. Since she is a big proponent of sneakers, I ask her to try on a platform pair from Zara, which she loves. When I press her to give me honest feedback about how she feels in the outfit, she says, “Very fun. But very different for me.”
In her expression, I recognize the simultaneous intrigue and wariness of a person venturing outside their comfort zone, and surmise from the way she smiles at herself in the mirror but fidgets with the edges of the shirt and skirt that she probably feels as if she’s wearing someone else’s skin–that she likes what she sees but is grappling with its unfamiliarity. But maybe I’m projecting.
By the time Norma tried on look #2, she seemed more comfortable with the idea of wearing something that departs from her usual purview–in this case, tailored trousers (she almost always wears leggings) in a unique shade of plum. She tells me that she has always avoided tailored wide-leg pants in the past because she thought they made her look short, but this pair has changed her mind completely. She does another spin in front of the mirror and I hand her the outfit’s finishing touch–a visor, a.k.a. her signature accessory, although this one is a black leather version. Both she and her daughter are excited when they see it, and when Norma puts it on, she visibly relaxes.
Makeover Look #2: Elegant Tailoring and a Visor Just Because
“I feel elegant,” she says when I ask her opinion. “And confident?” she says, phrasing it like a question, as if she’s still parsing the sensation of dressing in this particular way. I turn to hang up some discarded clothes on a rack, watching her smile at herself in the mirror one more time before changing back into the clothes she arrived in.
When I asked what she thought of the experience overall, Norma told me that she “enjoyed the opportunity to play with different styles.” If vulnerability is at the heart of any makeover moment, then that word–“play”–is ideally at the heart of their outcomes. At its best, a stylistic transformation isn’t about changing who you are or forcing yourself to be something you’re not. It’s about indulging in the pleasure of plumbing your depths and unearthing the possibilities you might contain.
Photos by Sabrina Santiago.