Sarah Seung-McFarland grew up with an interest in human behavior. Unsurprising, she says, based on her upbringing. Both of her parents are Jamaican—her father is also half Chinese—and they also lived in England before coming to the United States.
“It was interesting growing up, having those cross-cultural issues,” Seung-McFarland said. “Maybe that’s why I was so interested in human behavior. I had all of these examples of different cultures.”
Studying psychology felt like a natural step for her, she said. But after awhile, the work she was doing felt unfulfilling—it didn’t allow her to express her creative side as much as she would have liked. Until she discovered design and fashion psychology.
Now, Seung-McFarland, a Lawrence resident, runs Trulery, an interior design and wardrobe consulting business and blog that helps clients using principles derived from her psychology studies.
Seung-McFarland, 42, grew up in Long Island, where she attended Saint John the Baptist High School. At that time, she was interested in human behavior, but she really started to delve into psychology in college. She went to Rutgers University, where she double majored in psychology and English—and met her husband.
She decided to stay in New Jersey after they started dating, and they lived in North Brunswick for awhile. They wanted to move and settled down in Lawrence in 2014—they fell in love with the school district and the town, she said.
In college, Seung-McFarland knew she wanted to work with younger people—she had a particular interest in optimal development and self esteem issues, she said. She went on to get her master’s in educational psychology at New York University and then earned a doctorate in counseling psychology from Seton Hall University.
‘I think having all those ideas is great. But you need to be able to manage it or you’ll get lost in it. You need to know who you are.’
From there, she went right into trauma work, counseling victims of abuse. But what she really wanted was to work in a field where she also got to use her creative side.
“After being in the trauma and abuse field, I was like, ‘This is not really enough,’” she said. “It’s intense work, and it just wasn’t really fulfilling. I had this whole creative side. I didn’t really want to be a traditional psychologist. I realized I’m not traditional.”
Seung-McFarland said she read a lot about how to combine fashion or design and psychology, and the more she learned about it, the more she realized design psychology was the right career path for her. In Europe, she said, schools offer master’s programs in fashion psychology, but schools in the United States do not. So she created her own path.
She took a year-long mentorship with environmental psychologist Toby Israel—while still working full-time in trauma—and worked with Jennifer Baumgartner, who wrote a book about fashion psychology. Seung-McFarland took what she learned from both and created her own service, Trulery, which offers both wardrobe consulting and design psychology services.
Wardrobe consulting, she said, deals with how clothes can reflect someone’s emotional health.
“Anyone who comes to me should have an issue with dressing some way,” she said. “They might feel like their clothes don’t fit them, or something about it doesn’t feel like the person they’re trying to be. My job is to work with them to figure out where they’re stuck at with regards to their wardrobe behaviors.”
Seung-McFarland will analyze a client’s habits as far as buying and storing clothes and creating outfits. She uses cognitive behavioral theories to “help them get unstuck,” she said.
“I use a traditional psychological consulting model and apply it to wardrobe consulting,” she said. “We’ll do the assessment, and we’ll do a formulation and diagnosis and then the action plan and goal setting and process what we’ve done. Maybe they just buy clothes that are way too big because they have body image issues. I’ll address that with them. Maybe they’ve gotten negative messages about their body type.”
Often, she’ll accompany a client on a shopping trip to examine their buying habits, or she’ll visit a client at home to take a look at a closet or clothing drawers. If someone is struggling to create age-appropriate outfits, Seung-McFarland will pick out clothes and teach the client how to do it when she’s not there. Sometimes she’ll discuss goals—personal, career and otherwise—and how to create a wardrobe that supports them.
On the interior design side of the business, Seung-McFarland offers two services: programming and styling. Programming provides guiding principles for a client’s whole house, while styling works with specific layouts and pieces of furniture room by room.
“Design psychology is essentially looking at psychological principles and how they relate to design and how you can create a space that supports you emotionally,” she said. “It’s all about emotional growth, emotional well-being. I’ll do a series of exercises with a client that will focus on the past, the present and the future.”
One technique she uses is mapping out an environmental family tree, which explores places a client’s ancestors lived and how that might relate to the present.
“Maybe your grandmother had this really pretty music box,” she said. “Perhaps something of that can be reflected in the space somehow. Something that reminds the person of that.”
Seung-McFarland will then examine the functionality of a living space, how it aligns with a client’s personality type and how it may change in the future. Throughout the process, the client will write an “ideal vision statement” throughout each phase. They’ll revisit it at the end of each stage, and Seung-McFarland will use that to create a design blueprint.
Though she has the qualifications to work with her clients as a therapist, Seung-McFarland says she is more of a consultant. If someone comes to her and she finds out they have an eating disorder, for example, she’ll refer them to another therapist.
Seung-McFarland shut down her private practice when she started Trulery, but she thinks she’ll go back to it eventually. For now, though, she’s found her sweet spot, especially in an era where design advice and aesthetics are plastered all over social media.
“We’re so bombarded with so much information,” she said. “If you’re not really sure what you’re on about, you’ll just adapt to what you see, but it won’t really feel like you. This is made so that you can manage all of that. I think having all those ideas is great. But you need to be able to manage it or you’ll get lost in it. You need to know who you are.”