It Takes a Lot of Money to Look This Good
By Geraldine Fabrikant
Lori Zaslow runs her own matchmaking business, ProjectSoulmate.com, but for a long time her look suggested less entrepreneur than anything goes. When she finally decided she needed a more sophisticated persona, she worked with Amanda Sanders, an image consultant she had met at a playgroup for their young children in the basement of a friend’s home. For a business event, Ms. Sanders put Ms. Zaslow in a Marc Jacobs red cocktail dress and clip-on pearl earrings.
“I had always worn earrings for pierced ears, and I associated clip-ons with my grandmother, but I got a million compliments on the outfit,” said Ms. Zaslow, now 37 and a devoted client of Ms. Sanders.
The recession may not be over, and retail sales in many quarters have slowed, but American women who can afford it are still willing to pay for personal shoppers and stylists who charge anywhere from $200 an hour and up. But even these enthusiastic consumers are watching their pocketbooks more than they once did, private stylists say. As a result, fashion advisers have learned to be more resourceful: shopping in clients’ closets, mixing Prada with H & M and digging out unused store credits.
“Women buy far more clothes than they need,” said one stylist, Redman Maxfield, known as Rig, who has a large following of executives and socialites in Manhattan. “They buy because things are on sale, or they buy for the designer name, thinking they can always return it. They keep it, and then they find out that they have nothing to wear the piece with.”
That was somewhat true for Melva Bucksbaum, a well-known philanthropist and art collector. “At a point I realized that I had not worn a lot of the Chanels and other designers I had bought,” she said. A friend suggested she call Mr. Maxfield.
Like all stylists, Mr. Maxfield has his own point of view. He likes Chado Ralph Rucci, preferring visits to the showrooms to stores, which buy only parts of the collection. But he does not think clothes need to carry a brand name to be chic. “Style is style,” Mr. Maxfield said. Ms. Bucksbaum said she had found accessories he liked at T. J. Maxx, the discount store.
But that’s not to say one can accumulate recklessly. Mr. Maxfield believes he needs to be ruthless in dealing with old clothes. “A client’s temptation is to keep something that she will wear someday, though she has not worn it in years,” he said.
Emma Sosa, a stylist and member of the faculty at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she teaches a class called “Secrets From a Professional Shopper,” agreed that these days women are “trying harder to reassess what they already have.” She generally starts with a stern edit of her customers’ closets.
Ms. Sosa likes vintage and consignment clothing from places like Beacon’s Closet and Angela’s Vintage Boutique, but she once had a customer who shopped only at Bergdorf Goodman. “Her mother-in-law had given her a lot of clothes she had returned there, and she wanted to use up the store credit,” Ms. Sosa said.
Ms. Sanders prefers Barneys and Saks Fifth Avenue. “It is one-stop shopping where all the finishing touches are available,” she said. As she gets to know new clients, she may try to winnow down choices ahead of a meeting.
This courtship can take time. Hiring an outside adviser is often prompted by a special event. “Most people don’t wake up and say, ‘I want to change,’ ” Ms. Sanders said. “Somebody has gotten a promotion or has gone back to the work force, or they are starting to date, or they move here and they want help.”
When Ms. Zaslow met Ms. Sanders for an initial consultation over coffee, “she tore apart my outfit,” she said. But rather than feeling like a bad date, Ms. Zaslow said: “I appreciated her frankness. I had gifted a session with her to my husband. But it took me time to admit I needed help and hire her. I have a lot of stuff from high school … like hoop earrings. She said: ‘You can’t dress in flip-flops. You have to have a commanding presence.’ ”
Ms. Zaslow “needed to look like a lady and she never did,” Ms. Sanders said.
Sometimes a soft touch is more appreciated than such tough love. When Linda Chester, who heads a literary agency, is going to spend a day with Mr. Maxfield, “I am excited,” she said. “My husband always tells me when he doesn’t like something. It is wonderful to have a man say: ‘Oh, that looks wonderful.’ ”
For Ingrid Edelman, an interior designer who also works with Mr. Maxfield, part of the pleasure is roaming around town. “We will go to a young designer on Seventh Avenue and then go down to SoHo for jewelry or Uniqlo for cashmere sweaters,” she said.
Ms. Sosa tries to be similarly budget-conscious. “A younger woman or man who is a fashionista might have a $25,000 budget and give up lunch for weeks in order to buy that Chanel handbag,” she said. “We have to teach her that she is spending too much of her budget on very expensive trendy items and she should be more selective on a lower budget. I might advise her to go to a consignment store to find the same thing for less. Since I charge by the hour, I can be more honest about what is attractive for her.
“On the other hand, some wealthy clients don’t spend enough on quality clothing,” Ms. Sosa said. “They need to look at clothing as a lifetime investment. We teach them the importance of quality because they will wear something like a great handbag 280 times out of the year.”
Though shoppers may be holding their purse strings tighter, students are still interested in going into the field, whether they come from the United States or elsewhere. “Right now we have a lot of students from Brazil, Argentina and Asia,” she said.
Her colleague Joan Volpe, who runs the Center for Professional Studies at F.I.T., says that, recession or not, the need for stylists is as great as ever. “Companies have swung to a more formal look,” she said. “Employees are expected to look more tasteful. And then there is the reality of an aging population. How does the older employee look age-appropriate?”
Outside the workplace, though, is often where the stylist truly shines. Frances Beatty Adler, president of the Richard L. Feigen Gallery, needed an outfit to wear for a benefit, so she called Mr. Maxfield. He promptly took her to Chado Ralph Rucci, where she found a short black silk and taffeta evening dress covered entirely with tiny feathers that shimmered in the light.
“Rig insisted on dangling earrings, but forbade a necklace and suggested plain black Manolos,” she said. “I felt like a work of art. I have never gotten so many compliments.” She remembered, with a hint of competitive pleasure, another woman there: “She was wearing a featherless version of the Chado dress and nobody noticed her,” Ms. Adler recalled.