Exploring Style: Alison Levine’s Expert Packing Tips For Business Chic

Alison Levine completed the Adventure Grand Slam, May 2010 (Climbed the highest peak on each continent and skied to both Poles) and can work a Dolce & Gabbana workwear suit too!

How does she do it? From climbing the Seven Summits to expertly packing a Carven dress for a business trip, Alison Levine is no ordinary traveler.

As a matter of fact, she is pretty darn extraordinary.

An adventurer, explorer and mountaineer who has climbed the Seven Summits being the highest peak on every continent, Alison was the Team Captain of the First American Women’s Everest Expedition, skied to both the North and South Poles, and is an Adjunct Professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

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If that’s not enough, Alison had a successful Wall Street investment banking career that she left to serve as deputy finance director for Arnold Schwarzenegger in his bid to become Governor of California, is the Founder of the consulting firm Daredevil Strategies, and has a robust schedule of traveling to speaking engagements to share her motivational and inspirational story with many major corporations … whoosh, I’m exhausted already!

And, the woman also does it with style.

With a roster of favorite edgy designers that she is able to spin into her own personal brand of workwear chic like Carven, Jean Paul Gaultier, Roland Mouret, and Comme des Garcons. You didn’t expect run-of-the-mill labels from a superwoman like this, did you?

Listen, if you (or I) can’t learn a thing or two or ten from Alison Levin’s packing tips, we may as well break out a set of Louis Vuitton steamer trunks and wait for Cadbury the Butler to come and fetch them for us. Fantasies aside, I asked Alison to share some of her strategic tips to pack smart with the readers of FocusOnStyle in this exclusive interview and here are…


FoS: You were the first American to complete a 600-mile traverse from west Antarctica to the South Pole on skis while hauling 150 pounds of gear and supplies in a sled harnessed to your waist. What’s the average haul you pack for a business trip?

AL: Well, one of the many useful things you learn from these expeditions is how to really pare down what you pack — because you’ve got to carry everything you take with you in a sled harnessed to your waste for polar expeditions (like the one in Antarctica) or in your backpack if it’s a high altitude expedition.  So you get used to only taking what you really need and leaving behind everything that is not absolutely necessary.

When I’m back in civilization I have to be in that same mind-set, because whether I’m gone for 2 days or 2 weeks, I can only take a carry-on bag — I can’t check luggage because I’m in a different city every day, and if my bag got lost it would never catch up to me, so believe me, I can cram more stuff into a carry-on bag than Kim Karsdashian can into her Spanx. I only take what I can’t live without. I doubt my bag ever weighs more than 25lbs.

Alison Levine in her Polar look and in a Jean Paul Gaultier business chic dress.
Alison Levine in her Polar look and in a Jean Paul Gaultier business chic dress.

FoS: Let’s talk about gear. What type of luggage do you use to stay speedy and chic on the go?

AL: I have 2 types of carry-on bags depending on what type of plane I am flying on (even George Clooney‘s character from Up In the Air  wasn’t this savvy). I have a standard sized Tumi bag for normal sized planes and a narrower Longchamp bag for small planes/regional jets because it fits in the smaller overheads on flights where they normally require you to check your bag plane-side as you board.

Sometimes my connections are so tight that waiting for them to get my bag off the plane will mean missing a flight, so I pack in the narrower bag when I have flights on regional jets so I can fit my bag in the smaller, narrow spaces on those planes and then as soon as we roll into the gate I can race off to make my connecting flight.

From outdoorsy extreme to a CNBC panel wearing Rouland Mouret.
From outdoorsy extreme to a CNBC panel wearing Rouland Mouret.

FoS:  Packing right is all about strategy. What’s your modus operandi for fitting what you need in a small suitcase?

AL: Here are a few packing tips I can offer-

  1. Instead of a coat, I bring a thick wrap/shawl/cape and it can double as a blanket on the plane. It can work for casual/business/cocktail.

  2. I bring black boots as my dress shoes, because they’re more comfy than pumps and I can travel in them if I need to be “dressed” on the plane (if I am going from the airport straight to an event and don’t have time to stop at a hotel and change). The best boots for traveling are the “soft” or stretchy kind that you can fold without ruining because they fold down to nothing if you do need to pack them in your suitcase.

  3. Cram your socks/underwear into shoes to protect them from losing their shape. This also saves space. And as an added bonus, if the creepy TSA guy wants to rummage through your suitcase he won’t get his grubby paws anywhere near your unmentionables.

  4. No need for pajamas. We’re trying to save space here people. If it’s cold you can sleep in the hotel robe.

  5. Get a pair of those barefoot running shoes. These are great for people who like to exercise while traveling, because they take up a lot less space than normal gym shoes AND you don’t need to pack socks. They flatten down to a very slim profile. Normal running shoes will take up 1/3 of a carry-on bag, so these are a much better option.

Levi jeans and vintage cowboy boots are Alison's favorite casual look and her go-to Carven dress for business.
Levi jeans and vintage cowboy boots are Alison's favorite casual look and her go-to Carven dress for business.

FoS: How do you prepare for a long trip? Do you plan outfits that you can repeat, switch out accessories, stick to color palette, include pieces that can be layered, what about shoes?

AL: I have the advantage of being able to wear the same thing many days in a row because I see different people every day so I can repeat the outfit throughout the trip, AND…I only have to be in my business/dress clothes for 90 minutes — just during the time I’m delivering a speech, so as soon as I’m done speaking I change back into my jeans. I have a Carven dress where the top section is microfiber and the bottom of the dress is wool. So if I spill, I can just wipe it off with a damp cloth. Not kidding. It’s sleeveless so it works in warm climates, and for colder climates or more conservative audiences I throw a short blazer on top.

FoS: You frequently have trips that have you darting around from different US cites, mixed with trips abroad in the same week. How does the woman on the go pack for different climates all in one small suitcase?

AL: Last month I had a 6-day stretch where I was in San Francisco, Barcelona, Chicago, Palm Beach, West Point, and Phoenix — yeah, all in 6 days.

I packed my go-to Carven dress and also a black mid-calf length Roland Mouret heavy wool dress with 3/4 sleeves.  Both dresses work for business and for “fun,” so I can wear them when I’m delivering a keynote speech to 2000 people or to the VIP dinner with the board of directors or out for casual/fun if I happen to meet up with friends in he cities I’m visiting. A belt and some accessories can change the look.

Stretchy black boots with 3 in heels were the only shoes I packed for that trip (and I rarely have any other shoes in my bag other than the barefoot running shoes for working out). Of course I also have my casual clothes I wear on the plane and I don’t hesitate to wear those clothes over and over and over. I just spray lots of perfume (I take a mini size that fits in my ziplock bag).

FoS: We’ve tweeted about how some women on Everest wore full-on make-up. Crazy, I know. But packing cosmetics when you want to look polished can become bulky, after all, for some of us, it takes a lot to look naturally pretty. What’s your space-saving secret to narrow your makeup and hair products? 

AL: There were indeed women who wore makeup on the mountain. I thought that was absolutely ridiculous, but then again, I have to say that they looked a lot better in the photos than I did. When I travel I keep the cosmetics very basic.

  1. I  take a TINY sample bottle of foundation (it’s maybe 1″ tall), a bronzer, a powder, one dark brown eyeliner, a lipliner (which I use on my entire lip, so no lipstick needed), a gloss, and mascara.

  2. Sometimes I throw in a neutral eye shadow trio but rarely use it because I’m not very good at doing my eyes and need someone to teach me.

  3. Dry shampoo in powder form is a MUST HAVE. Not only does it make oily hair look NOT oily, but it adds volume and also helps style last longer. You can take it in your carry-on and forget about liquid shampoo and conditioner. I can go close to a week without shampooing when I use that. Hell, I went almost 2 months without shampooing on my South Pole expedition, so a week is nothing. I don’t bother with hair spray either. Once you stop using it you don’t miss it.

Q: And, what do you wear on the plane? Are you action-packed business-ready or do you have some cozy, comfy outfit?

If I will have time to stop at my hotel before heading off to a meeting I’m always in jeans – I’m an old fashioned Levi’s gal — that’s my favorite brand. That’s all I wore growing up in AZ and I’m still a loyalist to the brand. I used to wear my boyfriend’s 501s in high school. Yeah, he was pretty skinny for a guy. I love that Levi’s brought back the 501s. I still wear ’em. Of course the ones I wear now don’t have the faded ring on the ass pocket from my boyfriend’s can of chew.

Cowboy boots are always on my feet when I travel because they are comfortable and easy to pull off/put on as I’m going thru the security line. And they’re my favorite thing in my closet and the one item I could not live without. I have 13 pairs of vintage boots ( I grew up riding horses so a couple of them are the boots I wore in high school). Most of the boots I own now are exotic skins (SORRY PETA!!!).

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FoS: Names, names, names. What are your favorite go-to designers and brands?

AL: When it comes to anything other than jeans I like edgy designers for sure. And with eBay and the abundance of high-end online re-sale boutiques (not to mention the great consignment stores in NYC like Michaels and La Boutique on Madison), there is just no excuse to NOT have a few pieces of whatever you love the most. If you are willing to put in the time, you can find luxury brands/high-end designers for a tiny fraction of what you would pay in retail boutiques.

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Alison’s Favorite Designers:  Carven, Jean Paul Gaultier (because he can take something conservative and give it a ton of flare — making it very contemporary looking) and I also really like the architectural look of Roland Mouret. Comme des Garcons is another fave because that line always delivers the unexpected. You’ll never find me in designers like Jill Sander or Akris. Beautiful designers, but they play it way too safe for me.

Follow Alison…
web: www.alisonlevine.com
twitter: @levine_alison