Make Your Life Easier: Personal Shoppers

Want to dress well without shopping? Have a personal shopper do the legwork for you.

Even if you like to shop, pulling together great outfits is time-consuming. If you hate to shop, it can be a headache.

But what if you could shop with someone who knew what looked good on you and was up on the latest fashions?

Welcome to personal shopping.

Many department stores offer a free personal-shopping service. You make an appointment–telling the shopper what you're looking for and your style–and when you arrive, a dressing room is waiting with clothes to try on. You buy only what you like–or nothing. Smaller boutiques also offer this kind of service, although they often don't have the inventory to pull together head-to-toe ensembles.

Not loyal to one store? There are independent shoppers who'll scour a variety of stores, for a fee, to find the right clothes for you, bringing selections to your home or office. Independent shoppers–sometimes called image consultants–can also work with you on hair, makeup, and cleaning out your closet.

The uninitiated may fear being pressured to buy things they don't really like or want, but personal shoppers are successful only when clients are happy and a relationship develops.

The Washingtonian decided to test some local shoppers. How would the process work? How accurately would they size up a client and pick things she liked?

I asked a busy woman, Sheila Leverone, to be the client, while I posed as a helpful friend. Sheila juggles more than the average working mom: The 40-year-old vice president of strategic-marketing programs for America Online and her husband, Tom, have four children: seven-year-old Meagan and three-year-old triplets Brendan, Kyle, and Maura.

Although Sheila loves clothes, she has struggled with shopping since the triplets arrived. "It takes too much time–particularly when you account for the trips to return items bought in a hurry that don't work." Her wardrobe was in need of updating. "You know it's bad when your husband begs you to buy new clothes," she says.

Sheila called personal shoppers at two department stores–Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus–and a sales representative for the Worth Collection, a line of clothing sold by individual sales reps. Sheila explained the kind of clothes she needed, discussed her likes and dislikes, and set up appointments.

When we arrived for each visit, the shoppers were ready, with a spacious dressing room filled with clothes in Sheila's size. We would also walk the sales floor with the shopper to see if anything caught Sheila's eye.

All of the shoppers were friendly and low-key–no high-pressure sales tactics. They cheerfully checked for alternate styles and colors, while Sheila remained in the dressing room, and they found shoes and accessories to match–so she could leave with a pulled-together outfit.

Just for Fun

Our first stop was the Personal Touch department at Nordstrom in Bethesda. Sheila had told shopper Barbara Bluford that she preferred pantsuits for work, so Bluford had selected more than half a dozen.

Some of the suits looked great on the hanger, but the jackets were too boxy for Sheila's small frame, and the pants were cut too low on the waist for her comfort. Bluford kept paring down the choices until Sheila found a Garfield & Marks suit that was just right, with a blouse to match. The pants weren't available in the size Sheila needed, so Bluford tracked down a pair from another branch and had the pants shipped to Sheila–a nice time-saver.

The biggest surprise was a fashion-forward black skirt and black-and-white shirt that Bluford suggested Sheila try "just for fun." Although Sheila didn't like it on the hanger, it looked great on her. She bought it. Personal shoppers can coax you into trying on things that might not have caught your eye.

In 90 minutes, Sheila had two outfits.

Worth Our Time

Next, we headed to a private home in Potomac to meet Worth Collection sales associate Nappy Block. The Worth Collection is one of several women's clothing lines that are sold exclusively by individuals, usually in their homes. The sample clothes travel around the country, and sales associates display them, by invitation, for clients.

Worth Collection clothes are designed for women like Sheila–busy women who like such designers as Ellen Tracy. The separates are meant to work together from season to season, so clients can get a lot of mileage out of purchases.

Sheila ended up buying a casual navy knit pantsuit and a pair of silk black pants. Block checked the inventory on her computer and set aside the items. The Worth Collection then ships the items.

Sheila found this session fun–we stayed for almost two hours–and said it was like visiting a girlfriend who happens to have a closet of nice clothes.

Pampered, Not Perfect

The last shopper we visited was Vida Samirad at Neiman Marcus in Tysons.

If this had been our first personal-shopper experience, we might have been intimidated–we had to walk through the Chanel department to get to Samirad's office. But any fears were quickly dispelled.

We happened to be visiting during a sale, and in addition to offering Sheila a selection of clothes in the dressing room, Samirad helped Sheila comb the racks for bargains. She popped over to the lingerie department to find undergarments that showed the clothes to best effect, including inexpensive camisoles to go under suit jackets.

We spent two hours with Samirad. Sheila bought a pair of black Giorgio Armani pants to replace a favorite but well-worn pair. She loved and bought a striped and ruffled beige Escada blouse that she said she would never have tried on had she seen it on the rack, plus a pair of taupe Escada pants.

But this experience also proved that personal shoppers aren't infallible. Sheila also bought, and later returned, a long black Piazza Sempione shirt that was striking on her–we joked that she looked like a fashionable lion tamer–but not really her taste, and a slate Giorgio Armani jacket that earned yawns from her husband.

Those who regularly use personal shoppers swear they make fewer mistakes than when they shop on their own. Overall, Sheila says the experience was easy and convenient, and she would do it again.

The best part, she says? Free pampering.

Where to Find Personal Shoppers

Nordstrom, call 301-365-4111 for the Westfield/Montgomery Mall store; 703-761-1121 for Tysons Corner Center; 703-415-1121 for the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City; 571-434-4000 for Dulles Town Center; and 410-715-2222 for the Mall in Columbia; nordstrom.com.

Worth Collection, call 800-WORTH-OK (967-8465) to find an associate. To see a selection of clothes, visit worthny.com.

Neiman Marcus, call 703-761-1600 for Tysons Galleria; 202-966-9700 for Mazza Gallerie; neimanmarcus.com.

Other department stores with personal-shopping services include Bloomingdale's (bloomingdales.com), Macy's (macys.com), and Saks Fifth Avenue (saks.com). Other clothing lines sold by individual associates, like the Worth Collection, include the Carlisle Collection (www.carlislecollection.com) and Nina McLemore (ninamclemore.com).

For a referral to an independent shopper, see the Association of Image Consultants International, at aici.org. Ask a consultant which stores she uses, to find one whose taste and price range match yours.

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