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.
Deal Makers Don’t Wear Plaid (Well, Maybe Warren Buffett Can)
by Hillary Chura
A young doctor from Silicon Valley is seeking respect. A fine-rug dealer in Houston wants to impress clients and a professor in Manhattan hopes to establish himself in his new career. These men have joined the quiet swell of professionals enlisting image consultants, who help them project a fashionable, affluent presence that does not tip into slick. In some circles, shabbiness can be as grave a business transgression as licking the knife at a power lunch. To avoid the stigma, people from executives to entrepreneurs to everyday Joes are seeking coaching in the art of dapper dress. Tutelage covers shopping assistance, house calls to examine the contents of closets – smelly sneakers and all – and suggestions for skin care, hair products, eyeglasses and sock length.
Fees range from $125 an hour to $2,000 a day – and that is before a subject buys his first pair of lace-ups.
Greg Janicik, 38, the Manhattan professor, says he sought help this winter as he navigated a transition to consulting. With a Ph.D. in managerial and organizational behavior, Mr. Janicik is no cerebral slouch, but says he was stumped at what to wear. At the behest of an image consultant, he streamlined his closet, spent $3,000 on clothes and ditched his glasses for contacts or frameless specs.
“You have one shot to make an impression,” Mr. Janicik said. “Clothes are a big part of that.” Used to be, only the rich and fabulous indulged, and more often than not, it was women not men. But television hits like Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and de rigueur reimaging on morning news programs and the daytime talk circuit are edging wardrobe consultants toward the mainstream, and men, in particular. For Jane Friedman, president and chief executive of HarperCollins Publishers, the significance of apt dress cannot be overstated. “It is extremely important to be appropriate for interviews and meetings,” said Ms. Friedman, who uses a personal shopper, “and if someone is inappropriately dressed, of course, it reflects on who they are. If they are going to be hired for a decision-making post, I would question that in my own mind.”
Most high-end department stores offer free personal shopper, but they limit their advice to the goods sold by the stores that employ them, whereas independent wardrobe consultants provide a wider spectrum of services.
“Men are very hush-hush about it,” said Elena Castaneda, an image and fashion consultant in Manhattan, adding that shows like “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” are “bringing image consultants and stylists out of the closet.”
That may be so, but the Silicon Valley doctor seeking respect still felt uncomfortable giving his name, though he did allow a visitor to witness a recent image consultation. Because he is young, 34, and an anesthesiologist, his motivation for a makeover was straightforward: he said he did not want to be mistaken for an intern.
He did a Web search and found Ms. Castaneda, and he flew across the country to visit her. She met him in his room at the Mercer Hotel in SoHo. She quickly sized him up, taking inventory as she stood him in front of a full-length mirror. He stood curious at the impending transformation.
“You should smile more often,” she said. “Your smile is your calling card. It says ‘I’m happy, approachable.’ Marla Maples taught herself to smile even when she was ordering a hot dog,” Ms. Castaneda said, suggesting Crest Whitestrips for a brighter smile. She stared at his eyebrows and said he was fortunate not to have the unibrow that afflicts many men. Waxing therefore was unnecessary, but a strategic tweeze could help, she said. A different haircut would be more flattering, she said, cropping his hair with her hands to show what she meant. She told him how to make the most of shoulders, pointed out that his trousers were too baggy, and explained that less billowy sleeves would make his arms appear longer.
To his chagrin, he heard that his new $850 Loro Piana linen trousers had to go. A fine brand but too roomy, she explained. Same concept with Brioni – a high-quality label that is not cut for him. So Ms. Castaneda and her client headed to Madison Avenue and went shopping at Barneys New York. They were in the market for a spring wardrobe that was classic yet cool enough for a bachelor finally done with 27 years of schooling. At first, he could not tell if new trousers fit him or if he even liked them. Six hours and $8,000 in merchandise later, he said he was confident enough to select his own ties. Ms. Castaneda’s $1,800-a-day rate was a bargain, he said, considering the bad purchases she had prevented.
“I know I needed help,” he said. “People who see me at work probably know it, but it’s nice to give the illusion that I’ve figured it out myself.” Dr. Anouk Stein, for example, hired Ms. Castaneda after celebrating her 43rd birthday and in the midst of a career change from Manhattan radiologist to Phoenix medical consultant. Ms. Castaneda went through her closet, relegated 20 percent to the dust bin and teamed orphan pieces into chic ensembles. Soon Dr. Stein said she was wearing her Hermès scarves as belts and jazzing up dowdy suits with snappy separates.
“I had seen all these TV shows with people who had completely changed how they looked without any surgery, and they looked so much younger and better by the clothes they wore,” she said. “I was spending a lot of money on clothes, and I didn’t look a whole lot better than when I wasn’t spending a lot.”