If Mary Ciancibello’s old boss could see her now, she might not recognize the person she once scolded on her first day at work.
Ciancibello was fresh out of university when she landed a job in the financial sector.
“All my money had gone to my tuition, so I had no money for new clothes,” she recalled in a recent interview with OBJ. “I remember walking into my new job. I thought my university wardrobe was appropriate. I learned very quickly it was not.”
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Ciancibello’s female director promptly called her into the office.
“She was awful. Awful, awful,” Ciancibello recalled.
The tongue-lashing left Ciancibello humiliated. The first thing she did, upon returning to her desk, was cry. Next came anger but, deep down, she knew her director had a point.
“If I saw her today I would thank her, because that incident is what started my wardrobe consulting business.”
Ciancibello ended up doing some research into personal image consulting. She discovered a certification program and enrolled. Not only did she apply what she learned to her own life and career, but she began leading seminars for other women.
Before long, Ciancibello was being asked to appear on morning television. Local publisher Mary Taggart offered her the opportunity to write a fashion column for her magazine, Ottawa At Home. She built up a strong Instagram following that attracted brand sponsors. She got recruited as a stylist by such businesses as Bayshore Shopping Centre.
Today, Ciancibello has a client list that includes CEOs, lawyers and women-owned startups.
“I hate to say that I’m a ‘stylist’ sometimes because it’s not about the trends or styles. It’s about using clothing as a communication tool, whether it’s a communication tool in the workplace or a communication tool in your own life,” she explained.
Fashion has the ability to transform a person’s perspective on themselves, said Ciancibello, who gets satisfaction out of helping clients discover who they are through clothing. She’s helped post-partum moms and bullied teenagers find outfits they feel confident in. After the pandemic, she saw a rise in divorced dads who were back on the dating scene but needed her guidance on how to dress.
“There’s an old saying, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’. While it’s important to look beyond superficial appearances, how one dresses often shapes first impressions and the way people evaluate others,” she added. “You need to use clothing to your advantage.”
Ciancibello was born and raised in Ottawa in a tight-knit Lebanese family of five children. She’s the eldest of the three sisters, with her two brothers occupying the positions of oldest and youngest.
Lebanese women tend to have high beauty standards, Ciancibello acknowledged. “I don’t want to call it vanity. We just like to take pride in appearance.”
Growing up, she wore a lot of hand-me-downs, which went another round or two with her younger sisters. One of her aunts taught her how to use a sewing machine so that she could alter and update her clothes.
Ciancibello made, for example, the dress her younger sister Nicole Mikhael wore to her high school prom. It was ivory white, with a matching long neck scarf that trailed behind.
She’s what you’d call a savvy shopper. For example, Ciancibello relies on a practical formula for assessing the worth of a clothing item. She divides the item’s cost by the anticipated number of times she would expect to wear it. “If you can get it down to $5, it’s worth being a part of your wardrobe.”
She also advocates for eco-friendly shopping practices and “capsule wardrobes” that involve a minimalist collection of clothes that can be mixed and matched for a variety of occasions. “I still want people to feel good and dress well but to do it with intention and not so much following the social media trends and just purchasing everything.”
She’s not above consignment shopping, either. “Second-hand stores have made a huge comeback,” said Ciancibello, whose favourite boutique is Trove Fashion in Wellington Village. “They do a lot of the culling for you.”
After graduating from Brookfield High School, Ciancibello earned degrees in communications and commerce at the University of Ottawa. Her career took her to Global Affairs Canada, where she’s currently a senior specialist. Ciancibello is fluent in a number of languages, including French and Arabic.
The public servant does her wardrobe consulting on the side, in addition to her many other commitments. She and financial planner husband Mike Ciancibello have three kids, ages 16, 14 and 10. She also helps several local charities, including CHEO Foundation and University of Ottawa Heart Institute Foundation.
Ciancibello credits her strong work ethic to her mother, who, after having her fifth child, went back to university and got a job in the public service.
“I’ll never forget this: she was holding my little brother on her hip while stirring the stew and she had a book open because she was also studying.”
Ciancibello’s wardrobe consulting business has enabled her to turn her passion into a profitable venture. “I view clothing as a tool to enhance your message to the world, whether that message is, ‘My business is about to take over the world’ or, ‘I love my postpartum body and feel confident in this new chapter of my life.’”
A COUPLE OF TIPS FROM MARY CIANCIBELLO
She suggests doing a closet purge at least twice a year, especially since most people only wear about 20 per cent of their entire clothing. “It will, number one, help you to identify gaps in your closet and what you don’t have to pull an outfit together, and, number two, help you to identify what you have too much of. If you have five different black tops and six different skinny jeans, then you definitely have a shopping habit.”
Invest in a good seamstress. “I cannot emphasize this enough. When clothing fits you well, it goes from looking really saggy, baggy and cheaply made to looking like a million bucks. Often, it costs you an additional $20, $30 but that money goes a really, really long way.”