Putting Two Per­sonal Shop­pers to the Test

The Washington Post Sunday - - Trend Stoper - By Suzanne D’Amato

I’ve al­ways liked de­part­ment stores. Com­fort­ably en­sconced in one well-lit, tem­per­a­ture-con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment, I can try on lip­sticks, shop for sheets and groove to the Muzak. Even bet­ter, if I’m at Lord & Tay­lor, Neiman Mar­cus or any of their up­scale brethren, I can have the at­ten­tion of an on-staff per­sonal shop­per all to my­self, for free.

The lack­lus­ter look of the Friend­ship Heights Lord & Tay­lor ini­tially gives me pause, though. The store is weirdly un­crowded for a Satur­day, and the per­sonal shop­ping area is dis­ap­point­ingly dull — just an empty of­fice and a big­gish dress­ing room painted the same bland beige as the women’s suits be­ing ped­dled out­side.

The day im­proves when my shop­per, Pa­trice VailesMacarie, ar­rives. She’s el­e­gant and stylish in that off­hand “Who me?” way. Pa­trice apol­o­gizes for be­ing late, but it’s a busy day, and her daugh­ter’s here sell­ing Girl Scout cook­ies, and would I like some wa­ter? I ac­cept, hope­ful that Thin Mints will fol­low, and she hands me a short ques­tion­naire: height, weight, sizes. I fill it out and ex­plain my work-clothes co­nun­drum. No beige suits for me, but pol­ished sep­a­rates that I can mix and match. Pa­trice nods, all pol­ish her­self, and we head for the sales floor.

You can imag­ine my sur­prise when one of the first things she shows me is a suit. A youth­ful suit, to be sure — there is noth­ing even slightly Nancy Rea­gan about this trendy cropped jacket and pen­cil skirt by Cyn­thia St­effe — but a suit none­the­less. I’m es­pe­cially un­cer­tain about the skirt. I’m six feet tall; do I need help look­ing more pen­cily? Pa­trice an­swers my ques­tion with one of her own. “Would you like to try it?” Well . . . if she says so.

Pa­trice snags the suit in a cou­ple of sizes, and we move on. It is nice to have some­one else do­ing the heavy lift­ing. If Pa­trice or I spot some­thing good, she finds my size and car­ries it for me. Once we’ve ac­cu­mu­lated a pile of maybes, she totes it all back to my dress­ing room. All I have to do is walk, look and point. At first, our ar­range­ment feels al­most un­com­fort­ably fancy. But af­ter about, oh, four min­utes, I’m think­ing: I could get used to this.

As Pa­trice schleps, she asks me ques­tions. What do you think of this length? Would you wear a boat neck? I try to be open-minded (she’s the pro, af­ter all), and of­ten we end up grab­bing what­ever skirt or top she has sug­gested. But while I don’t want to dis­tract her from the very se­ri­ous busi­ness of find­ing me cute clothes, I have many ques­tions of my own. Which col­ors suit me? Am I too tall for a mini? They’re things I’ve never got­ten a sales­per­son to give me a straight an­swer on, and Pa­trice proves to be no ex­cep­tion. It seems that she doesn’t sub­scribe to strict fash­ion max­ims, and af­ter an aw­ful lot of po­lite pes­ter­ing, the most she’ll of­fer is: “You have broad shoul­ders. A square neck­line would look nice.”

I’m dis­tracted, mid-in­ter­ro­ga­tion, when I spot BCBG’s swingy trapeze dress. It has a globby ab­stract print that strikes me as very Marni, and that non-shape shape I love. I’m not sure how much Pa­trice loves it, but she totes it du­ti­fully, along with a cou­ple of sweaters, a few skirts and an­other cropped jacket she wants me to try. (The wo­man has strong arms, that’s all I can say.)

She’s also ex­pert at shop­ping less-than-likely de­part­ments. The dresses sec­tion strikes me as to­tally wrong — I’m blinded by its sparkly disco-ball sheaths — but shep­herded there by Pa­trice, I spot a stylish work dress from OC by Oleg Cassini. It has a pretty ruched bodice and (yes!) a square neck. Pa­trice nods ap­prov­ingly. Next, she shows me won­der­ful pieces from what I for­merly thought of as McMom brands: Ellen Tracy, Dana Buch­man, Jones New York. (Or maybe they’re still McMom brands, but my style’s more McMom than I thought. Who’s to say?)

An hour later, I have nearly 40 items in my dress­ing room. Each piece seemed like a vi­able can­di­date on the sales floor, but as I sur­vey the stacks and racks of sweaters and pants, skirts and tops, all I can think is: Do I re­ally care about my clothes this much?

The an­swer is ob­vi­ously (if some­what mor­ti­fy­ingly) yes, so I dive in and show Pa­trice ev­ery item I’m brave enough to exit the dress­ing room wear­ing. Given the num­ber of clothes we’ve ac­cu­mu­lated, this is no mi­nor un­der­tak­ing. But Pa­trice waits out­side the door, ready to of­fer a com­pli­ment or (more of­ten) grab me an­other size.

We both think the Oleg Cassini dress is a win­ner — flat­ter­ing and as soft as a T-shirt. But the BCBG dress I was so sure I’d love is a snooze on, with a tent­like cut that brings to mind Mrs. Roper and her muumuus. Pa­trice smiles sagely when I tell her it’s a no-go.

The Cyn­thia St­effe pen­cil skirt is as un-me as I’d thought, but the jacket looks great. Score a big one for Pa­trice. Thumbs-up as well to navy linen pants that she found in the Ralph Lauren sec­tion — a lit­tle cruise­shippy, but I can see them be­ing cool with lay­ered tanks and flat san­dals. I also love a yel­low Ellen Tracy cardi­gan: The hue is dif­fer­ent for me, though at more than $250, it seems like a lot for a sim­ple sweater. It’s al­most the same price as a Dana Buch­man em­broi­dered skirt I’m con­sid­er­ing. I prob­a­bly shouldn’t buy both, but I want to.

When I ask Pa­trice which piece of­fers the most bang for the buck, she doesn’t hes­i­tate: the Dana Buch­man skirt. I go with her pick, both be­cause I agree and be­cause, af­ter more than three hours, my mind is turn­ing to mush. I have a new re­spect for the Paris Hil­tons of the world; shop­ping re­ally is hard work.

A week later, I’ve al­ready worn the square-neck dress twice. But I re­turn the Lauren linen pants. They’re a bit saggy, or a bit shorter than I’d like, or . . . I don’t know. Maybe they’re just a bit more grown-up than I’m ready to dress.

There’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween telling some­one how bad your clothes look and show­ing them those bad clothes while the two of you stand in your very small bed­room. My sec­ond shop­per, Alison Lukes, is at my apart­ment for the lat­ter ac­tiv­ity. In a word: Yikes.

I orig­i­nally agreed with Alison’s sug­ges­tion that look­ing at my closet would be the best way for her to de­ter­mine what I need. But now that she’s here, my nerves are racked. The morn­ing has been spent in a clean­ing frenzy, and Alison’s posh, peep-toepump-clad pres­ence brings on the kind of in­tense self­con­scious­ness I as­so­ci­ate with job in­ter­views that are Not. Go­ing. Well.

This is all self-im­posed, of course. Alison is calm and ev­i­dently used to such silent anx­i­ety at­tacks, be­cause she tells me that she al­ways signs con­fi­den­tial­ity agree­ments. “I mean, I’m in your bed­room,” she says. (Later, she tells me about show­ing up at one client’s apart­ment to find a scant two items in the closet. The wo­man had purged her en­tire wardrobe be­fore Alison walked through the door. This makes me feel bet­ter about my pre-clean­ing.)

I show Alison the few things I own and like, in­clud­ing my new Lord & Tay­lor finds, then ev­ery­thing else. She has a great poker face: I could be pulling out a polyester dress from the Sal­va­tion Army, but she acts as though it’s Yves Saint Laurent. We dis­cuss the fact that I have some cute tops and re­ally, re­ally need some pants. Then she’s off to scout stores and for­mu­late a game plan, and my tidy apart­ment is mine to mess up again.

When I see Alison a few days later, she is op­ti­mistic. She has done some hunt­ing around, she says, and Ge­orge­town is the place for me. We start at Club Monaco, where Alison shows me a floaty printed blouse that’s a dead ringer for some of my thrift-store scores, with one key dis­tinc­tion: It fits. How did I miss it when I was at this ex­act Club Monaco two weeks ago?

The dif­fer­ence is Alison: She’s peren­ni­ally a step ahead, ask­ing me ques­tions about col­ors and shapes. She can tell how a dress will fit by the way it hangs on the rack and is con­stantly in­spect­ing lin­ings and pocket place­ment.

Not that this helps when it comes to Club Monaco’s pants. They’re all too short or too tight, shiny gray and shinier white. This is why I don’t like to try on clothes: It takes only three or four ill-fit­ting gar­ments be­fore I feel like a lumpy, mis­shapen freak. Alison seems aware that I’m feel­ing a lit­tle, shall we say, ten­der about the pants is­sue. Maybe we should spend more money on pants, she says

We move on to Cusp, then Bar­neys Co-op. I no­tice a slight awk­ward­ness with some sales­peo­ple. I think they as­sume that Alison and I are two gal pals out shop­ping. Then they’re con­fused when: A) Alison never tries any­thing on. B) She car­ries my clothes for me. C) I exit the dress­ing room and ask Alison for an opin­ion, mostly ig­nor­ing the sales­per­son.

Do I seem like the worst friend ever? Or more like a Dlist celebrity — not fa­mous (and there­fore rich) enough to skip Club Monaco but vain enough that I can’t pos­si­bly shop sans stylist?

The sit­u­a­tion reaches its apex at Bar­neys, where an overzeal­ous sales­man is apoplec­tic that I tried on a black Marc by Marc Ja­cobs dress and didn’t show it to him. Alison and I are in silent hys­ter­ics about this — lots of covert eye-rolling — and for a mo­ment she’s like a snarky friend, not a free­lance em­ployee.

Once we’re done snick­er­ing, I try on my first pair of pants that fits — a won­der­fully sleek black pair cre­ated by The­ory ex­pressly for Bar­neys. The pock­ets are a lit­tle bunchy, but Alison as­sures me that I can get them sewn up pretty eas­ily. At $245, they’re ex­pen­sive but worth it.

We head to less rar­efied ter­ri­tory: Ba­nana Repub­lic, where I score a cropped sweater and a choco­late scarf. Then on to Saks Fifth Av­enue in Chevy Chase, where the young women’s sec­tion is a riot of amus­ing but use­less baby­doll dresses and short shorts. Where do 20some­thing women with jobs shop th­ese days? Alison is equally turned off by the flashy wares, and she takes me to an­other floor that’s home to ca­reer-wo­man la­bels such as Ta­hari and Tory Burch. A slightly less ex­cit­ing at­mos­phere, but it’s there.that I fall in love with Burch’s red pat­terned shell. I also like a cot­ton cardi­gan by Saks’s house brand. Even though its big but­tons and boxy fit are cozy rather than dressy, Alison al­lows it be­cause “It is just so you.” Aw, shucks.

But mostly, Alison is de­ter­mined to find me more pants, and we hit pay dirt in the form of Tevrow & Chase’s wide-legged slacks. I want to know why pants are so hard to find; are they this tough for ev­ery­one? I’m hop­ing for tips I can keep in mind the next time I shop, but Alison is as wig­gly on this topic as Pa­trice was about, well, al­most ev­ery­thing. I have a long waist and need to try a lot of op­tions, it seems. True, but it doesn’t have that “teach a man to fish” use­ful­ness that I had in mind.

When I get home, I line up my shop­ping bags and try not to think about how much money I’ve spent. But Alison’s not fin­ished: She e-mails me with links to dresses, tops and more at on­line re­tail­ers. They’re smart sug­ges­tions, in keep­ing with my new-and-im­proved style; one Lo­ef­fler Ran­dall hand­bag, in par­tic­u­lar, is on my wish list.

Still, I just can’t bring my­self to buy more stuff. I love my new clothes, but af­ter two shop­pers and nine hours, I’m happy to say that I am fi­nally done shop­ping.

Tory Burch A shell ($195) mixes a sim­ple shape with a punchy pat­tern.

silk

lav­ishly em­broi­dered skirt ($295) is made of cot­ton, so it dresses up or down eas­ily.

OC by Oleg Cassini dress ($98) fea­tures a broad but not deep neck­line.

Ba­nana Repub­lic

scarf ($58) adds pol­ish to a ba­sic sweater or a white T-shirt.

PHO­TOS BY RE­NEE COMET AND KATHRYN NOR­WOOD FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST; SHOP­PER PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED BY PA­TRICE VAILES-MACARIE AND ALISON LUKES

The “just so you” cardi­gan ($295) is from

Saks Fifth Av­enue’s

house brand.

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