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Saks Personal Shopper Hillary Harper-Neal Loves Her Job

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Saks Fifth Avenue's personal shopping wing isn't hidden, exactly, but it is hard to find. Called the Fifth Avenue Club, and located behind the Akris section on the store's third floor, it's an oasis of individual retail attention where 19 personal shoppers tend to hundreds of well-heeled clients.

The shoppers have access to designers around the city, including plenty of labels not stocked at the store. They've got a killer tailor who's approved to alter pieces by even the most discriminating designers. And they've got the power to request things directly from the runway, should something from catch their fancy. It's enough to make the average fashion lover go mad with power, but when we spoke to personal shopper Hillary Harper-Neal, she came off as refreshingly down-to-earth. Below, she tells us about what it's like dressing some of New York's most successful women.

Can you describe your typical work day?

Pretty much 90% of the day is spent face-to-face with clients, and then that other bit of free time, we're shopping. We essentially never stop doing it—we're always combing the racks. In the morning almost five days a week there are special presentations from various vendors on what's coming. So we're just constantly playing with clothes.

That sounds really fun.

It is really fun.

How many clients do you see per day?

I try to limit it to three just so everybody gets the best experience, because it takes about three hours to do a wardrobe. Everybody has different needs. Their goals when they come in might be just to get shoes for that perfect outfit, or it could be up to five hours when it gets really busy.

Do you have recurring clients?

A couple of years ago we did a special project where they actually informed us of how many repeat clients we have, and the percentage was so inspiring. There were so few who only came once. The service is complementary and it's tailored to each client. Everybody wants something different or gets something different out of it, so you just keep coming back. It's a relationship service, it's not just shopping.

Do you feel like you end up getting to know people?

Absolutely. I've made friends through clients, I've made friends with clients. There's a group of ladies I adore who all live in Darien, and I'm planning a long weekend. I'm going to go out there and do all their closets.

How did you get into this? What's your background?

It was totally accidental. I went to music school in Boston, down the street from Saks Fifth Avenue. I started working in the shoe department, and I'd have these women go, "OK, what should I wear with these?" So it was always something I loved doing, dressing head-to-toe, although I guess then it was really toe-to-head.

When I decided to move to New York, I transferred within the company. That was in 2002, and I started in Boston in 1998, so it's been a long haul. I came to New York and I worked on the second floor briefly for less than a year, and then I transferred to personal shopping.

Do you have an instrument that you play?

I played—I don't play anymore, unfortunately—classical percussion, and piano. I was a jazz vocalist; actually, that I still do.

What's your average client like? How old is she? What's her job? Is she dressing for work or for play?

I would say that I have about a 170 clients who range from coming twice a year to coming twice a month. The majority of them are business women. They work in banking, hedge funds. They're too busy to shop, and they don't truly enjoy it. Now, there are a couple of really fun fashionistas, but mostly these are just successful, brilliant women who need someone to put it all together for them.

I always say that the best moment for me in every new client relationship is the first time they go, "This is so me!" Because they don't have time to figure that out. I sort of help them define their own style.

I met most of them in their young 30s, and now they're in their early 40s or late 30s and they've had a few kids, and we've gone through various life stages. They've sort of grown up and accelerated in their careers as I have, so I feel like we've all grown up together. My clients' ages range from 26 to 90, but that really is the core of them.

Can you tell me more about the 90-year-old?

She's amazing. She tap-dances, she does Pilates, and she still works three days a week at a charity-based children's foundation. She's one of my favorites. She has better balance than I'll ever have.

How do clients come to you? Do they get referred from other departments of the store?

I have a lot of friends in the store; my good friend in one of the cosmetic counters will often send clients up to me. It's not his expertise, the clothing, so he'll go, "I have the right person for you." It's a huge building, we have some 1200 employees, and if you get to know them you'll find clients there.

But most are clients from other clients, which makes life really pleasant, because from good people come other great people. So I feel like it's building a bigger family. That said, I have to have an impressive memory so that nobody ends up in the same clothes.

The Wall Street Journal article about Saks personal shopper Fay Ricotta last year mentioned that she once put two people in the same jacket.

That's my personal nightmare. I have several hedge funds and banks where I help whole floors of women, and it's just, it's always right here. One of the top bankers in New York got married last summer—it was in the press, it was everywhere—and I didn't realize that so many of my clients knew this person, but at the end we probably did twenty different people, men and women, for this event. It wasn't until one of them came in with the itinerary that I was like, "You're all going to the same place!" And then I had to check that nobody was in the same gown. New York can be a small place.

What percentage of your clients are men?

Maybe 10%. We love our male clients, though. It's a totally different experience. They're just looking for guidance and convenience. The vast majority are women, but there's some spouses and brothers and co-workers—again, it's all referral. We don't actually advertise the personal shopping service. It's all word of mouth.

So you come in for three hours, you put together a wardrobe—how much do you end up spending?

I can't tell you that. Every single one of our personal shoppers has a different type of business—some of us have ten clients and they're all very big spenders. But everyone comes in here with a different lifestyle, agenda, and style. It really is an individual service.

Can you tell me about a time when you went above and beyond for a client?

We do crazy things. One of our top clients, one of my favorites, has gone up and down in weight over the years. She wears very important designers, and we are able to get for her fabric from Paris and expand and reduce these styles for her. The clothes look so beautifully tailored; it's almost like we restructure them for her. We have this amazing alternations person who the designers trust, which is exceptional.

Another example of that happening: a woman was obsessed with these cropped Louis Vuitton pants that had brooches on the side. They were sold out in black and she really wanted them. We had the plain ones, so we were able to get for her two brooches, and our alterations woman was able to reproduce the exact buttonhole and put the brooches on. Before we sent it out, we took it over to the Louis Vuitton department to show them, because Louis Vuitton, as you know, is very very invested in their product, and they were like "It's amazing!" So we were able to make her what she wanted.

But you know, every day is a little above and beyond. Saks is very supportive of our clients' closets. It's not something that I'm required to do as their salesperson; it's something I want to do to make what we do more efficient. And also because I love it! It's rewarding to me to see a woman feel better and feel fresh and fashionable.

How do you figure out people's style? What clues do you use?

I guess I've been doing it so long it's become second nature. I love to have a phone call with someone before they come in because the sound of their voice, the way they speak will clue me in. Sometimes I'm psychic. It really only takes that moment of glancing and five sentences of conversation for me to go "I'll be right back, let me go and get the right thing." It's just about being able to read someone and listen and understand their needs and talk about life for a minute.

But it's collaborative, too. I don't want anyone leaving here in costume or in their Superfabulous Fashion Outfit that has nothing to do with who they are. I want everyone to leave a better version of who they are already.

What about in terms of your personal taste? What designers or labels are you really excited about right now?

A few of my favorite labels are Marni—I like more adventurous, smaller labels, Proenza. But for my clients, I leave no stone unturned. And I think that's how, at the end of the day, they all end up looking different, because the combinations are so varied. I'll shop St. John for someone who's 25 if I think there's a blouse in there, and I'll know that none of her friends are going to have it. I utilize every single vendor we have here. I don't skip a room.

What's the most jealousy-inducing purchase you've ever been privy to?

That's a hard one. Every day I'm like, "Ugh, I want that bag." But my favorite one was this young woman who was getting married. Her aunt brought her in, and I think her aunt was also her godmother—they were very close. And they bought an entire bridal trousseau. There was a fur stole, there was jewelry, there was a wardrobe, there was lingerie. It was so sweet, like "This is for you to begin your life as a married woman." We sent them to the salon, they had lunch and champagne, it was just every floor of the store. They spent the whole day together. It was the most fabulous girls' day I've ever witnessed.

· Inside a Department Store's Secret Shopping Service [WSJ]
· Saks Fifth Avenue [Official Site]

Saks Fifth Avenue

611 5th Avenue, Manhattan, NY 10022 (212) 753-4000 Visit Website