Sunday, April 3, 2011

Dara Foster, Stylist for Clients With Four Legs

“What does a doggie stylist do?” Wendy Williams asked Dara Foster on a recent episode of her syndicated daytime talk show.

“Basically the same thing as a human stylist,” Ms. Foster replied. “I dress dogs, and I show people how to live together with their dogs in a stylish way.”

Moments later, a fashion show began; a longhaired Chihuahua named Mei Mei scampered down the studio’s AstroTurf runway. “Mei Mei is wearing the ’80s-inspired punk look,” Ms. Foster narrated, pointing out the tiny plaid kilt and rhinestone-skull tank top. The look, she added, is “giving way to a grunge movement in dog fashion — I swear to God.”

It was an average day in the life of Ms. Foster, who has lately become television’s go-to style expert for all things pet-related. She appears regularly on “Today” on NBC, E!, TV Land and ABC News, dispensing advice on everything from pet home furnishings to baking your own organic dog biscuits.

Not bad for a former fashion magazine editor, who started with a small line of dog collars and a Web site called eight years ago.

“At some point I realized that there was no real face for the $47 billion pet market in this country,” she said the other day, while browsing at Trixie & Peanut, a pet boutique on East 20th Street in New York. Petite with sparkling blue eyes and a bright blond bob, Ms. Foster, 39, radiated a puppylike sense of optimism. “I figured I could curate the cool up-and-coming products and have an influence on what other pet designers were making.”

Some of these products were on display at Trixie & Peanut. Dressed in a flowing black V-neck, Paige jeans and knee-high Italian leather boots, Ms. Foster pointed out a synthetic mullet wig for dogs (“Can you believe it?” she said) and racks of dog apparel like bridal gowns, bathrobes and denim jumpsuits.

She admired a snowball-shaped chew toy from Planet Dog, an eco-friendly company in Maine. “Toy makers are finally seeing dog toys as aesthetic objects, as things that look good in your home,” she said.

But like a true style arbiter, she can also be frank. She recently declared the Fab Furcedes Pet Bed a “Doggie Don’t” on PupStyle. (Puns are rampant in this market segment — see the brands Bark Jacobs, Chewy Vuiton and Manolo Barknik.)

“It looks cheap, and the joke is over in about four seconds,” Ms. Foster said coolly, running her hand over the car-shaped bed’s plush red taillights.

She stays abreast of pet trends (precooked meals and fluorescent styling gel are hot now, she said) and keeps tabs on dog fashion capitals like Seoul and Tokyo, where fads can reach absurd heights.

“I’ve heard of owners and their dogs getting matching tattoos,” she said. “There’s an element of craziness in pet fashion, obviously, but that’s going way, way overboard. That’s abuse.”

It was the abuse of animals that led to her current career. After graduating from Hunter College in New York, Ms. Foster was a volunteer coordinator for the Animal Care and Control of New York City, a nonprofit pet rescue agency. Perky and camera-ready, she served as its spokeswoman, advocating for animal adoption and foster care on television.

But the center also euthanizes unwanted pets, which weighed heavily on her. She took an “emotional break” from the pet world in 1995 and went to Seventeen magazine, where she worked as a retail editor and organized fashion shows at Midwestern malls, before becoming a freelance fashion stylist for magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal and Marie Claire.

Her transition to pet stylist came in 2002, when she designed a white dog collar with red leather whip-stitching for her dying Jack Russell terrier, Tulip. It drew raves on the sidewalk. In response, she and her husband, Jonathan Spooner, the owner of a boutique Web agency, introduced a brand of dog collars called Dara Foster New York.

“The luxury dog market was in its infancy back then,” Ms. Foster said. “So we thought, Let’s just go crazy. You know — solid silver buckles, 24-karat gold-plated leash hooks.”

Around that time, she started PupStyle, a dog-fashion Web site. It gained national attention in 2003 for its “Free Tinkerbell” dog shirts, bearing a graphic of Paris Hilton and her newly acquired Chihuahua.

But it wasn’t until Ms. Foster covered the first New York Pet Fashion Week, a dog fashion trade show started in 2006, that news media outlets started to call. Clips of her chatty interviews went viral, showing up on Web sites like and Soon, she hired a publicist, Alanna Zahn of the Azure Group, who represented Cesar Millan and introduced her to a producer at “Today.”

“At that point it was just on,” Ms. Foster said.

TV, print and Web media now call at least once a week. For a segment on E! titled “Insanely Pampered Hollywood Dogs,” Ms. Foster flew to Los Angeles to outfit the actress and singer Taryn Manning’s Maltese mix, Penguin. In March, on another episode of Wendy Williams’s show, she hosted a red-carpet-inspired runway show, in which an Italian greyhound modeled a dress based on Natalie Portman’s Victor & Rolf gown from the Golden Globes.

Ms. Foster also has a new children’s book, “Now You See It! PupStyle,” with photographs of styled and “naked” dogs, that is being released on Friday.

Ms. Foster is active with the Humane Society, using her semi-celebrity status to raise money. Her dream is to start a national pet food bank, for people who can’t afford to feed, let alone dress, their pets.

“If that could make a difference between hanging onto your pet and dropping them off at a shelter,” she said, “we could save a lot of lives.”