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Personal Best

Personal Shoppers Help Harried Executives Fill Out Their Wardrobes
| By Kimberly Cihlar | From Bo Derek, Jul/Aug 00

Clammy palms clutch a Dunhill briefcase handle in one hand; in the other, a silver Nokia cellular rings incessantly. A vague, unpleasant tingling gnaws at your abdomen. Then, audible grinding of the back molars and, suddenly, a spastic tic in the left eye. It's been a day fraught with angst--power breakfasts, damage-control lunches, strategic-planning coffee breaks--then, on top of it all, the boss has suggested you update your wardrobe.  

You take a deep breath, head toward a daunting temple of menswear and wonder if you should start at ground level with shirts and ties or maneuver up a few levels to the suits that hang like exhibits in an avant-garde art gallery. Perhaps, you think dizzily, you'd do better to step over to the shoe department. At least, you know how to tell whether brogues fit or not. Through the sweat and the fret, you have a lucent thought: Need I dread shopping like a trip to the dentist?  

Not if you use a personal shopper. Personal shoppers take you where you need to go fashionably speaking, without your literally having to go along. Personal shoppers are lifestyle choices for men who either can't, won't or don't have time to make purchases in person. Many men have traditionally relied on wives or girlfriends to perform this service on a purely amateur basis, but a point comes when it's time to step up to professional help. Personal shoppers, or image consultants, can go several steps beyond the woman in your life, acting as a kind of new-age valet.  

While animation designer Robert Kopecky understands the intricacies of bringing figures to life on screen, when it comes to putting ooomph in his wardrobe, he turns to a personal shopper "because she knows what's great stylistically, where to go to get it at a great price, and what will make me feel and look the best I can. I trust her. Ninety-nine percent of the time, when I put on something she's bought for me, I feel great in it and know it's right for me."  

For some clients, image isn't only important, it is everything. Those are the show business person-alities and other celebrities who are expected to be impeccably turned out whenever the cameras are on them. Personal shoppers tend to be just one step away from those stylists to the stars who scout for and dress actors to ready them for their Oscar or Grammy close-ups. In these cases, the shoppers tend to be the unsung heroes. Even while designers bask in the credit for swathing actresses, personal shoppers usually keep mum about the male stars they have helped dress.  

Whether personal shoppers are charged with making you an international fashion plate or just spiffing up your corporate image, it is their purview to suss out treacherous clothing terrain and protect you from poor fashion risks. Indeed, men's fashion real estate, which can involve myriad departments and multiple floors, can be a daunting shopping challenge. Personal shoppers do the walking, picking, purchasing and even credit card signing. They pull everything together for you, from suits through the all accoutrements.  

The services typically don't end at the threshold of the store where the clothing comes from. Peter Elliott, owner of his eponymous men's boutique in New York City, says he goes "into people's homes to rearrange closets, to suggest they get buttons on this, or get that steam pressed. We tell them how to do things, how to salvage their clothes."  

In addition, Elliott's offers a 24-hour emergency phone service for clothing crises--saving grace when airlines "misplace" luggage. "Late one night I got this panicked call from a guy who'd just flown in from Texas and had an early-morning meeting. He came in and picked out two suits," recalls Elliott. "I used double-stick tape on the pant legs of one to create a temporary hem. I had to fine-tune that business, though, after a call from some guy wailing about lipstick on his collar. I told him, 'If you made your bed, sleep in it,' or something to that effect. We don't do that kind of stuff."  

When it is on the level, though, personal shoppers go to great lengths to accommodate clients. Color blind? Sartorially challenged? Unsure of the dress code in a new job? Putting his trust in capable fashion insider Lila Frodesen (who now happens to be his wife) has kept Terry Davidson, director of the Leo Kaplan Modern Glass Gallery, in tasteful threads. "As an artistic person who has to work within the corporate Madison Avenue arena and dress the part, Terry has had to have clothing that portrays his personality, but also is sophisticated and traditional enough to fit into an uptown business clientele," notes Frodesen.  

Often paid a commission based on total purchase, personal shoppers go the extra mile for their clients to seal a deal. Clients often recite stories of their personal shopper coming through in the clutch. One client was seeking a sold-out wool coat from a store catalogue in vain until his personal shopper, who works at a rival, "tracked down and bought the shearling coat I fell in love with--from another store!"   Personal shoppers strive to make dressing in the morning as painless as possible. Dan Samson, Barneys' men's personal shopper, codes his clients' purchases on a color-coordinated "cheat-sheet" chart. Some personal shoppers travel seasonally to provide up-to-date fashion knowledge gleaned from international designer fashion shows.  

Yet, Garanimal-esque groupings or trend pulse-taking don't always best serve the man requiring special shopping attention. Connecticut-based heart surgeon S. Jacob Scheinerman, who admits he is not a fashion aficionado, concedes, "As a regular guy, it's hard to know men's suits--not every suit fits a man well." A good personal shopper will recognize that some men profit more from a 42-regular Ermenegildo Zegna suit than the same size Prada suit--or vice versa.  

You wouldn't think a cardiac specialist would ever consider a fashion situation life or death, but sometimes the wardrobe flat lines. "It was my son's bar mitzvah and my wife drove in to New York to pick up two preordered suits, but for some reason the store was closed. Believe it or not, the guy who is my personal shopper arranged to have the suits altered and sent to us in time for the big event. Clearly, that was way beyond his call of duty, yet it meant so much to us."  

The problem is that finding a personal shopper willing to deliver this kind of service isn't as easy as letting your fingers do the walking. Most professionals come as referrals from other clients, a colleague's wife or one's own spouse. Sometimes, the referral might come from a sales person on the floor. Be assured, however, the first measurement taken must be the one that ensures a good working relationship with your personal shopper. It's imperative that he or she knows you and your preferences and that your personalities fit like, well, a glove.  

According to most personal shoppers, preliminary getting-to-know-you phone calls and face-to-face meetings are imperative to find out a client's needs and wants. Visits to a client's home are often warranted to weed out or optimize existing wardrobe choices.  

Developing trust and a close relationship with your personal shopper may ensure that he or she will be able to buy clothes for you, gifts for her (from you) and recommend or reserve hotels, restaurants and entertainment worldwide. Getting that kind of personalized service isn't cheap. These culturally astute individuals receive as much as $500 to $1,200 a day for services rendered on a per-need freelance basis.  

Be advised, you don't always have to hire from the outside to take advantage of someone shopping with you, for you or because of you. Better men's stores, such as Barneys, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf's Mens and Neiman Marcus, offer in-house catering to men who need greater assistance than that which they might receive from a sales associate manning the floor. It's not unlikely that personal shopping services were developed initially to relieve salespeople who couldn't deal with the needs--and psyches--of certain shoppers.  

If there is a psychological makeup for those who use a personal shopper, a healthy-sized ego probably plays a big part. Sometimes it comes down to boys showing off toys. Stories abound of personal shoppers traipsing down to Wall Street with tailor in tow, to find blinds on the corner office brazenly pulled up and an executive client who expects to be fitted (in the attendant state of disrobe) while coworkers blink in disbelief. Warren Christopher, style editor of Men's Health magazine, who did a 10-year tenure as Barneys' personal shopper before operating his own such business, says "Having a personal shopper is often an ego thing; it defines status. It's like having a Rolls-Royce or a chauffeur."  

Leon Hall, co-host of E! Entertainment Television's "Fashion Emergency" and spokesman for The Fashion Association, addresses questions and crises of dress in his book Fashion 411, due out this August from Little, Brown & Co. Over the years, he has become adept at dealing with various personalities--good, bad and ugly. "I used to dress a prince from Saudi Arabia," he recalls. "I shopped all over the world for him, had an unlimited budget and would buy in multiples. He was difficult, but I never had to look at a price tag. He and his entourage would pay in cash, and we'd drop 50 or 60 thousand in one spree. I'd have the tailor come into the hotel suite and spend four or five afternoons there. But none of those men would go into a store."  

Giving over an unlimited budget to any personal shopper is rarely the norm. According to Barneys' Samson, sales don't ever have to be big ticket, yet he recently registered one sale over $60,000. "But my client's house had just recently burned down. When he went to look in his closet, the only things left hanging there were the metal hooks. He had no choice but to replace his wardrobe."    

Kimberly Cihlar is a freelance writer living in New York City.