When customers feel comfortable they can relax and enjoy the experience. Pic courtesy of Debenhams.

Up Close And Personal

29th July 2016

Heather Harris learns about dressing to impress…

It was typical of my father-in-law to stipulate a dress code for his funeral. In his final days, with typical mischief, he’d suggested specifying a ‘vicars and tarts’ theme, but, fortunately, he settled for ‘glamorous’. The event was to be a celebration of his 79 laughter-filled years, and he expected us to look the part.

Now, I’ve always hated shopping at the best of times and, as a child of the 70s, have stayed firmly in the full glare of that colourful decade. So yes, I can do cerise and turquoise. My work wardrobe back then (we’re talking 2006) was bright suits with black opaque tights, and when the sun went down my hemlines went up, with sunshine yellow and burnt orange added to my palette. ‘Smart casual’ were – and remain, actually – two words I avoid, along with dove grey and charcoal black.

My effortlessly gorgeous sisters-in-law showed me their outfits – a pitch perfect combination of subtle tones and sophisticated styles. Clearly I needed help.
And that’s how I found Jan. A passing comment on the fashion floor of John Lewis in what was then the Harlequin Centre, Watford, found me whisked, Narnia-like, into her secret ‘Personal Stylist’ room, complete with full length mirrors, comfy sofas and empty clothes rails.

A decade on, I can still remember the incredible high I felt as she spent an hour cajoling and flattering me into styles and colours I would have previously body swerved as fast as my size 12/14 thighs would allow.

The result was a cream box jacket (‘Chanel style’), a swirly cream and brown skirt (‘Such a flattering cut’), cream high heels (‘kitten’) and a scarf. These were the days, remember, when a scarf meant an ironic Dr Who knitted creation.

Not only had she turned a self-confessed ugly duckling into something approaching a swan, more importantly I felt totally comfortable and confident. This made the funeral itself a memory that stays with me for all the right reasons, and not for the fact that I kept my coat on all day – as I had originally planned (pre-Jan) to do.

“The psychological effect of the service has been undervalued. All the feedback we get talks just as much about the emotional experience as the practical,” senior marketing co-ordinator Donna Hudson tells me when we met in the Debenhams HQ in Regents Place.

Debenhams was one of the pioneers of the one-to-one Personal Shopping service that is now offered for free at the vast majority of today’s best known ‘department stores’, from River Island and Top Shop at one price end of the price and age bracket to Selfridges and Harrods at the other.

Donna explains that it is now more popular than ever, with 1200 customers a week being styled by their 200 male and female personal shoppers in 88 stores. “So many busy women delegate themselves to the bottom of their list, so end up rushing around wasting money on impulse buys for special occasions or just buy off the internet the same styles and clothes we’ve worn for years.”

Guilty as charged on both counts.

Donna is keen to raise awareness of the fact that the service is free. “None of our personal shoppers are on commission and there’s a range of options from a 45-minute Express service for a new handbag or pair of shoes to a full two-hour wardrobe update,” she tells me, adding that a tiny minority of customers leave without buying anything but that the overwhelming majority talk of the ‘confidence boost’ that comes from the experience, as well as from the new outfits.

Lorna Cox agrees. A 59-year-old mother of teenage girls, she has tried a range of personal shoppers and was particularly impressed by Top Shop. “The two ladies we saw were fantastic, encouraging my daughters to be more adventurous. They really found what suited the girls, so I actually ended up spending more than I intended to – but it was on lovely things that I knew they would wear rather than expensive mistakes!”

Unfortunately, Lorna herself was not so happy with her trip to Selfridges. “I saw a man, which was fine, but I felt he didn’t take enough details from me about what I wanted. I ended up buying something that I then had to take home and have altered to fit. It was intimidating rather than exciting.”

Donna also stresses that the initial conversation with the customer is vital so the personal shopper gets an idea of their personality, “as this is key when choosing a style.” Jan is an expert at this and displays it superbly when I meet her this week with my 19-year-old daughter – a self-confessed tomboy who, as a farming student and dog walker, lives in trousers, trainers and wellies and last bought an item of clothing six years ago.

I made the appointment at John Lewis in Watford online and can’t believe it when, once again, I am met by Jan. Not surprisingly, she fails to recognise me ten years on. I watch as my scowling, jodhpur-wearing daughter is quickly and oh-so-cleverly coaxed into designer jeans, then culottes, and then – for the first time since a family wedding when she was 13 – a dress. And not just any old dress – a tight fitting, red maxi creation that makes her figure more Jessica Rabbit than Famer Giles.

“Yes, I think that would come in useful on holiday, “Jan says quietly, as I am inwardly screaming ‘OMG, she looks amazing’ – and almost hit the deck when I hear Holly say, “Yeah, it’s really comfy, I’ll have it!” (along with the designer jeans and some lovely flowery feminine tops). Okay, so two days later she has yet to hang them up, but it’s a start.

Discussing my experience with friends it is interesting to hear how many of them have their own guilty secrets. “Don’t tell anyone, but I have a lady who comes to my home and sorts out my wardrobe,” whispers one close friend in true confessional style. When I query her embarrassment, she admits that it sounds, “very lady of the manor!”

And that’s half the problem. As Donna explains, it is getting the message across that a one-to-one consultation is for everyone – not just those on a big budget or with the perfect figure and bank balance. “We have had ladies who have come after mastectomies or in a wheelchair or just for one single item. There is no standard customer.”

Ursuline from Shine Personal Development (shinepersonaldevelopment.co.uk) agrees. For the past 14 years she has been working with large companies and individuals on image projection.
“This can include a two to three-hour wardrobe review, re-shape and plan, where I go through a customer’s wardrobe with them to assess their needs and give them ideas about how to make their wardrobe work for them.”

Blushing at the mere thought of someone looking at my cerise hot pants, still clinging on at the back of my wardrobe behind the turquoise jumpsuits and orange wedges, I encourage her to explain more.
“We all have too much. The general aim is to get a capsule collection of 16 items and then accessorize to give you 60 outfits or more. Colour is key. A quarter of women shouldn’t wear black because of their colouring.”

She warms to a subject that she clearly loves. “If you buy a £100 dress on impulse and wear it once it has cost you £100. If you love it, so wear it once a week for a year with different accessories, it has gone down to less than £2 per wear.”

And it’s not just women whom Ursuline sees. “Many of my customers are men who are struggling to get promotion or a new job. I put him in colours for the first time, a decent shirt and smart casual jacket, accessorise with a scarf, nice shoes and a belt and suddenly his confidence grows along with his job prospects.”

Ursuline is also an asset in the dating game. It apparently takes 40 seconds to make a first impression, and she helps potential suitors and recipients nail that instant look. “Interestingly, it’s not always about the wow factor. Some people don’t want to stand out but simply want to know that they look well-groomed and stylish.”

Unlike the department stores’ Personal Shopper service which is free, personal stylists who visit your home can cost anything from £150 for wardrobe planning to £500 for a whole restyle.Personally (that being the key word), they are both services that I am totally sold on. What a time-saving, for one thing. Oh, the hours of my life I have spent trudging round shops and going home in a foul mood, empty-handed, to stuff down a packet of biscuits; oh, the hours of my life I have spent queuing at the post office to send back all the clothes I have ordered online in hope and tried on in a despair as enormous as my bottom feels in a hastily-bought ‘playsuit’ or ‘new style jeans’.

Jan, Denise and all their fellow personal shoppers will tell you, ‘Yes, your bum does look big in that – but how about trying on this instead’… And you’ll end up feeling a million dollars – without breaking the bank.

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