Dr. Charlene Lawson was the only scientist in heels at her oil and gas job site. On her first day as an air science consultant at Shell, female colleagues gave her a tour of the campus. “They said, ‘you look awesome, but we don’t really dress up around here,’” Lawson recalls. “And I said, ‘oh, okay, well I do.’”
Lawson, voted best dressed in high school and known as the “scientista” throughout college, had established a reputation for being stylish. After earning her PhD in chemistry and relocating to Houston to join corporate America, she had no intention of ditching her closet mainstays.
“When I’m going into a male-dominated field, I have to be confident, and when I add some killer heels and a badass suit, you can’t tell me anything,” she says. “It gives me an added boost of confidence to do what I need to do. It’s my armor for work.”
Coworkers took notice, and one enlisted Lawson to help her revamp her own 9-to-5 look. She told Lawson she feared that ditching her slacks and flats for dresses and heels would diminish her legitimacy around her mostly male colleagues, and though she wanted to dress differently, she also wanted to be taken seriously. Lawson set out to convince her the two are not mutually exclusive, and her response then has since become a mantra of sorts: “You don’t have to sacrifice your style for your success or your authenticity for your ambition.”
Today, Lawson tells clients of her new personal styling business the same thing. With Style Chemistry Consulting, she helps women refine their style and develop newfound confidence the way she did with her coworkers at Shell, where she first saw the impact that dressing differently can have on someone’s entire outlook.
“It’s really not just about fashion and clothes. It’s so much deeper than that,” Lawson says. “I really want to help women; I really want to be a catalyst to them improving their confidence, their self-esteem, and their overall personal image–how they feel about themselves. That’s really my goal.”
Part of that desire to help stems from Lawson’s own past—she had her first child at 14. She gravitated toward nonprofits meant to help young women excel academically and found “making sure they’re dressed appropriately for all occasions” a natural extension of that work.
Lawson thinks she would have pursued a career in fashion from the beginning had she not been a mother—she had her second son in college. Concerned with responsibility and finding a path that would guarantee her the ability to provide her family, she took a traditional route through academia, working her way up through graduate school with a major scholarship from NASA and eventually working in O&G to help refineries manage their air emissions.
She still works as a consultant from home, running Style Chemistry Consulting on the side until she can transition her passion project into a full-time gig. “I feel like I was created to help other women and other people,” she says. “Just seeing someone put on a new outfit that they probably would otherwise never pick for themselves … and seeing their whole demeanor change and their eyes light up, and seeing the confidence shift immediately, that does it for me. I can’t think of anything about taking air measurements that does that.”
Still, Lawson’s science background did inform her business model. “I went from chemical formulas to style formulas,” she says. “Fashion to me is a science in itself. When you think about body type and proportion and color palettes and silhouettes, that is all related to a science.”
Lawson’s clients range in demographic, but most have undergone a recent change, be it weight loss or gain, a new baby, or a new job. She offers three packages—closet detox, wardrobe revamp, and special occasion styling—that all aim to uncover and enhance a client’s personal style. Sometimes, that includes scientific methods, like analysis tools: Lawson will create pie charts based on a client’s lifestyle and what’s in their closet to identify gaps. “If you’re working 60 hours a week and you have a closet full of gowns, that’s not going to be a very functional wardrobe,” she says.
Recently, Lawson has introduced weekly style chats on Facebook and Instagram where she offers tips on topics like professional fashion in the summer and dressing for your body type—the latter will go live at 8 p.m. today, Tuesday, May 29.
Despite years of work and hard-earned degrees, Lawson believes styling is truly what she’s meant to do—and she’s quick to refute the idea that the work is superficial. “I find that typically women are not being themselves if they’re always wearing black or always wearing things that are too big for them. It’s so much deeper,” she says. “Let me really get into style therapy and see what’s going on with their mindset … I have to really understand who you are as a woman and who you want to be and where you want to go.”