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Why Personal Shopping Isn't Just for Rich People

Testing out the personal shopping services at a department store, a chain store, and a boutique.

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Personal shopping, in my mind, has always been something that was strictly For Olds. And not "old" as in, old enough to be confused by Snapchat—"old" as in "has multiple grandchildren and can maybe tell you about the forties."

In other words, I pictured personal shopping as something only women like Linda Rodin and Iris Apfel do, women who already have uniforms that need only minimal tweaking over the years, women who get away with saying "darling" unironically. But as a personal shopping rookie who recently took the plunge, I can admit that I was wrong. Why? Two reasons: First, it's free. Second, it's far less intimidating than you might expect—the stylists are there to help you, whether you're on the hunt for a wedding guest dress, need a complete wardrobe overhaul, or you're an actual infant (yup—that's happened).

We quizzed the staff at three very different New York City stores, all with popular styling services, on what it's really like to be a professional personal shopper, as well as the craziest things that have ever gone down on the job (one involves a twentysomething tourist who literally broke the dressing room door). Below, we've laid out the different personal shopping experiences the average client can expect at a department store (Saks Fifth Avenue), a chain store (Topshop), and a high-end boutique (Kirna Zabete), from the general vibe to special services (one has a manicurist on call).

The Department Store: Saks Fifth Avenue

Hidden on the iconic department store's third floor and tucked behind the Akris shop-in-shop, not many people are aware of the Fifth Avenue Club's existence—though it's been around since 1975. There's a dedicated team of 19 consultants on staff, led by managing director Lisa Bruni-Vene, whom we sat down with to get a peek at what the semi-secretive service has to offer:

The vibe: Each of the private rooms is absolutely enormous, and comes with a sofa (for guests, if you bring them!) as well as a separate changing room. If you happen to be placed in one at the very end of the hall, you'll also score killer views of St. Patrick's Cathedral.

The customer: In short, it's the O.G. New York fashion lady. Bruni-Vene estimates that 80% of the clients are regulars. "We have clients who have been part of the Fifth Avenue Club for decades, and what's nice about it is that they share their relationships with their daughters and grandchildren, so the relationships go very far deep," she says. "We have corporate women who have to look great in the boardroom, but on the weekend, they just want to go to the park and look fabulous with their kids."

The appointment: Upon starting your appointment, your stylist will ask questions about your go-to designers and favorite pieces. "And then we'll ask them about their lifestyle needs—you know, 'Do you work? What kinds of parties do you go to? Do you go straight from work to special occasions? What do you do during the weekends?'" Bruni-Vene says.

Stylists typically pull between five and ten looks, all accompanied by shoes, jewelry, and accessories. If it's your first time using the service, the consultant will spend a little more time getting to know you, and he or she may end up walking the floor with you to see what you gravitate towards.

How long you'll be there: Appointments here skew long—most people who enter the Fifth Avenue Club are looking for an entire wardrobe makeover, and Bruni-Vene estimates that takes about two to three hours. However, they also get out-of-town visitors who make multiple appointments over two to three days, once or twice a year.

Craziest thing that's happened: "No one's gotten married here, but we did do a few marriage proposals. We always know they're coming—they usually want us to set it up very nicely, which is great, so we'll have champagne and strawberries or something to eat. One of the most interesting times was when someone pre-selected gifts for his girlfriend, and every hour, we brought in another gift for her. It started with perfume and cosmetics, and then it built up to jewelry, and at the end of the day, the last gift was the ring, when he proposed. It was pretty exciting!"

How much you'll spend: Though it's certainly tempting, you don't have to walk away with a big name designer wardrobe: "We can mix up couture with items from the fifth floor—a great Chanel jacket with a pair of jeans from Five. Studies show that women only really wear a small fraction of what's in their closet, so we want to make sure that they have a full wardrobe that's integrated into their current one."

If you're not looking for a new wardrobe, you can also make appointments for cosmetics and jewelry (Saks will even have a makeup artist come up if you request it). "We can transform these rooms into spa rooms," Bruni-Vene says. "We can do facials, private makeup consultations, and even manicurists. Our clients can get the full entire Saks experience right here. We can also have our world class alterations team come up here."

And in keeping with on-demand beauty trends, Saks has just launched a new on-the-go service, where they send a personal shopper to you. "We have a beautiful Mercedes Benz, so we can take our consultant, the tailor, and the looks that we would have for the appointment and do it in the comfort of your home. We can even go through a client's closet and show them how to use some of their older pieces and style them again."

When to go: Saks Fifth Avenue might be one of the most overwhelming shopping experiences in New York City, so consider the stylists your personal editors. "They're very knowledgeable throughout the entire building."

And even if you can't exactly picture yourself as a regular Saks shopper at the moment, there are definite benefits to being one: "We keep a lot of information on our clients—what their next occasion is, what their preferences are, and what their skincare routines are, what's the next special thing in their life. And while we're walking the floor, we're always looking to see if we find anything exciting for a client, like, 'This dress would be great for her—she's got her daughter's wedding coming up.' It helps to have the consultants know what's happening in the next season and being able to plan out the clients' wardrobes ahead of time."

The Chain Store: Topshop Fifth Ave

Like its original Soho store, Topshop's Fifth Avenue outpost (the largest in the country) has a lengthy personal shopping menu, but appointments can also be tailored to your personal needs—whether you're looking for a bangin' birthday outfit, or a day of mother-daughter spending. We sat down with one of the brand's many personal shoppers, Andrij Deneka, for the scoop.

The vibe: After heading upstairs, you'll be welcomed by the great equalizer: free-flowing macarons, jelly beans, Diet Coke, and magazines. The changing rooms are absolutely giant (as are the mirrors).

Macarons and jelly beans for all!

The customer: The Topshop customer truly runs the gamut—"You'd be surprised," Deneka says, "It's really not just all young people. Women who are in their forties and fifties will come in and say 'I'm too old for this store.'" What binds them together? "A lot of them work in the area, but we also get a lot of European tourists." There's also the usual dose of moms looking for help on holiday gifts for their teens, or the straight-up shopping-averse.

The appointment: Customers can either book an appointment in advance—where they'll choose the time and the stylist—or simply walk in. Topshop's personal shopping homepage has pre-arranged packages like the "Newer Than Now," in which stylists fill you in on upcoming trends, the "In and Out," where stylists pull looks in advance if you're pressed for time, or the "Big Wow," if you're in need of a standout look for an upcoming event.

Three looks—one for a June wedding guest (left), one for a fashion job interview (center), and one for a look-at-me birthday party (right)—that Andrij pulled for us.

What happens if the customer hates everything? "Usually," Deneka says, "I'll ask, 'Would you like to walk the floor with me to get an idea of some more things you might like?' Sometimes they'll want things that I personally wouldn't pick out for them, but it makes them happy!"

How long you'll be there: "It really shouldn't take much longer than 30 minutes," Deneka says—that is, unless you're looking to completely overhaul your wardrobe. Customers can say, "I've got a wedding coming up," or "I need a whole new spring wardrobe—pull me five outfits."

How much you'll spend: You're apt to spend slightly more than you would on a normal trip to Topshop, if only because the stylists have a habit of directing shoppers to the brand's pricier boutique lines (when I asked them to pick a look for an imaginary fashion job interview, they brought me an undoubtedly fabulous $560 leather jacket and a $370 matching skirt). But the staff doesn't work on commission, so there's no pressure to buy.

Craziest thing that's happened there: "We had this girl, who was visiting and probably in her twenties, who was in the room for two hours, just staring at herself. We couldn't get her out. But the door was off the hinge and she was pushing it in and broke the door."

When to go: If you already spend way too much of your time at Topshop, you may as well become a personal shopping regular here. The staff will keep your information on hand—your size, what lines you gravitate towards, and what you've bought in the past—so that the next time you come in, they'll have a solid idea of what you'll be into.

Plus, they'll even let you know when they receive new items they think you might like. "You can go through someone's book and we'll text or call to say, 'We just got five new dresses in. We know you buy dresses often, so we figured we'd let you know.'" A text from Topshop could be the impetus for your next purchase—strange times, indeed.

The Boutique: Kirna Zabête

There's a reason why Kirna Zabete is a standby on our list of the most essential shopping experiences in the city—the boutique carries an incredible designer mix, from Proenza Schouler and Valentino, to up-and-comers like Mansur Gavriel. We spoke with Kirna Zabete co-founder Sarah Easley on the boutique's personal shopping philosophy ("You can't shop at Forever 21 forever.") and why it helps to have a guide when it comes to buying investment pieces:

The vibe: Unlike other uber-fancy boutiques, there's a distinctively playful atmosphere at Kirna Zabete that undercuts the sticker shock. Neon signs with sayings like "Always be yourself. Unless you can be a unicorn. Then always be a unicorn." greet you on your way in, while the personal shopping area feels pretty integrated with the rest of the store compared to those at Topshop and Saks.

Kirna's shoe section, a.k.a. heaven.

The customer
: Despite being one of the most undoubtedly fa-ha-bulous boutiques in the city, Kirna Zabete is staunchly pro-newbie when it comes to personal shopping. "That's our favorite kind of client—the beginner," says Easley. "As long as it's an open-minded beginner," she clarifies. "We don't try to ambush them with information. They don't care what the name of the Céline designer is. They don't even care if it's Céline. They just want something that suits their figure, suits their life, and makes them feel good about themselves." And though most clients don't work in fashion, many are "collectors of fashion—they love it, appreciate it, and understand the value."

As far as ages, their oldest and youngest clients are usually mothers and daughters: "With some of our older clients who have been wardrobe-ing with us for a long time, we're starting to work with their daughters, who are around 14."

The appointment: Though walk-ins are totally welcome, those who book an appointment beforehand will have already had around twelve pieces pulled for them based on key questions asked in an online form—your job, what you're looking for, your size, and your lifestyle. "It's our job to stretch them into a slightly higher level," says Easley. After you've settled on a few pieces, the stylists will teach you how to wear them from season to season and from night to day.

The (very cozy) personal shopping area.

Not into the styles they've pulled? If you've got enough time to spare, they'll also walk the floor with you while looking for the items you're drawn to and asking about your favorite designers. "They might say, 'I love Margiela,' and that tells you a lot about a person," Easley says. "Or, 'I love Chloé, and more girly designers, or 70's vibes.' They're all clues towards what's going to work."

How long you'll be there: Most appointments run about two hours, Easley says, "But we could do it in 30 minutes. If they're really tucking into it, two hours is wonderful." What does "tucking in" to a personal shopping appointment mean, exactly? Clients have brought babies, dogs, ordered pink champagne and even pizza.

How much you'll spend: There's no getting around it: The designers featured at Kirna Zabete are pricey. But for all the $4,000 Mary Katrantzou statement dresses and Chloé trousers, there's also a good selection of denim in the $200 range. "It usually starts with a pair of jeans," Easley says. "That breaks the seal. It can go crazy from there!"


The three looks Easley pulled for a fashion job interview (top left), a summer wedding (top right) and a look-at-me birthday party outfit (bottom). Those Maison Michel bunny ears cost $765, by the way—worth every penny.

Craziest thing that's happened there: "We had one major celebrity come in and suddenly there was a pizza man here. She was eating pizza with her sister, and trying on clothes. People feel at home here."

When to go: If you've got a super-special occasion coming up and you're looking for something that'll a) impress a fashion-conscious crowd and b) you know no one else will be wearing. "New customers have heard about us, and they come in because they have two weddings in June. And usually they come back to find something to wear on a Tuesday morning." However, you'll likely end up wearing the item more than once: "Everything here is an investment piece," Easley says. "You can't shop at Forever 21 forever."