Those familiar with Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes will know that putting your sartorial choices in the hands of someone else comes not without its risks. Indeed, one only has to type ‘worst Oscar dresses’ into Google to uncover reams of deprecating comments, making the work of some of the world’s most skilled stylists redundant – apparently, not even the finest haute couture can escape the wrath of a keyboard warrior.
But when they get it right, boy, do they get it right. Who can forget Angelina Jolie’s thigh-revealing Versace dress at the Oscars in 2012, or Lupita Nyong’o’s powder blue Prada 2014 Oscar gown? That’s not to mention pretty much everything Kate Moss, the Duchess of Cambridge and Michelle Obama have worn, ever. When the world is watching your every move, it’s only natural to tailor your wardrobe to suit – and it would appear that the trend for carefully orchestrated style is trickling down to the standard shopper, too.
Where once having your own stylist was the mark of the elite, nowadays personal shopping services are ten a penny, with bespoke outlets cropping up in stores across the high street. At the top end of the market, an effort to maintain an air of luxury is ever present, and department stores such as Harvey Nichols, Harrods and Selfridges are going out of their way to ensure that theirs is a service that stands out from the crowd.
"A bespoke service is where you can set yourself apart from your competitors”
“Delivering a luxurious and memorable, yet personalised, experience is at the core of what we do,” Harvey Nichols’ head of style concierge, Sepideh Shayan, tells me. “As brands become more and more accessible, the industry looks for other ways to make their customers feel special, and a bespoke service is where you can set yourself apart from your competitors.”
As is to be expected, confidentiality comes at a price that many clients are willing to pay, so much so that none of the department stores I speak to are willing to reveal the hard numbers behind their most extravagant appointments. Discretion is key, and extends not just to the specifics, but to building access – Selfridges is said to have a secret entrance specially reserved for users of its personal shopper service – and, in some cases, beyond the shop floor.
“Our team can travel to a client’s home, office or hotel depending on the request, such as updating a new season wardrobe or working on a home interiors project,” Sabrina Cannon, Harrods’ deputy director of personal shopping, says. “Our Wardrobe Management service may require one of our stylists to visit a client’s home and detox their wardrobe. Sometimes, we accompany clients to fashion shows to select pieces from the new collections.”
Harvey Nichols’ most seasoned shoppers frequent the store on average three to four times a week, making full use of the styling service, which takes care of not just fashion requests but gifting, food, and beauty products, too. The service allows the store to keep track of which brands are proving most popular, with Shayan citing “Gucci’s maximalist effect” and brands such as Off-White and Brandon Maxwell, as having a particular impact of late.
At Harrods, the bespoke offering is equally vast, with specialists from each department available to select products from the store’s eight floors. The level of exclusivity extends to the products, too, with brands such as Anya Hindmarch presenting the opportunity to personalise gifts with monogramming and engraving services, which include the option to write a message or illustration in your own handwriting. Rather unusually, Harrods has recently introduced a separate styling team known as Men’s Advisers, which caters to the needs of male shoppers – who, it comes as no surprise, tend to be more habitual than female shoppers. The team is available not just for fashion queries but for sourcing gifts, gadgets, bespoke furniture and watches, and can even assist with tailoring, too. Savile Row, who?
“This service has been meticulously designed to take into consideration how men like to shop,” Cannon explains. “Men can often be time-poor, but they have a great knowledge of trends. While they tend to shop habitually, they are often interested in exploring different options; however, expectations regarding their shopping experiences continue to have one long-standing requirement: efficiency.”
Also tapping into the trend of the time-poor man is Erika Nilsson-Humphrey, a former investment banker whose love of fashion and busy lifestyle led her to set up Dappad, a personal shopping service for men with a difference – the difference being that it is only available online. “I didn’t think that the shopping process was really tailored to modern life,” she tells me. “We outsource our food shopping, cooking and dry cleaning; we’re so busy and there’s so much information out there – it’s nice for somebody else to take care of your clothes and just deliver a ready-made outfit in which you can simply walk out the door.”
Users of the service are required to complete a short questionnaire online, giving a brief outline of their style, before chatting to one of Dappad’s four stylists to discuss further details. The team will consequently create a box of clothes selected from the 16 brands that the company stocks. The package is delivered free of charge, and anything the client doesn’t like is collected and returned to Dappad. It all seems ridiculously simple, and it is. Everything from the selection process to the delivery is tailored to create as little hassle as possible. Even the brands are limited; Nilsson-Humphrey and her team work with a carefully curated selection of boutique labels – such as Stutterheim, Tiger of Sweden and Gant Rugger – in a movement against what they believe to be an overcrowded market.
“There are the same clothes everywhere in every department store, and sometimes it’s nicer to have well-picked independent labels instead,” the founder explains. “The brands we carry have to have great style and great quality. We’re bringing minimalist styling to men’s wardrobes.”
“Online shopping hasn’t changed the habits of a nation; it just facilitates it in a different way”
On the other hand, Shayan believes that Harvey Nichols’ in-store service offers an equally effective remedy to the traditional shopping format, arguing that the rise of online retailers has done little to alter the desire for personal shopping. “If a client finds the number of options in-store overwhelming and enjoys a more bespoke selection handpicked by a stylist, it’s exactly the same online and that’s why our team works hard to unify the two experiences,” she says. “Online shopping hasn’t changed the habits of a nation; it just facilitates it in a different way.”
One change that all three can agree on is the rising demand for bespoke luxury services, whether that be handmade products, personalised gifts or, in this case, advice. “Personal shopping goes beyond functional shopping,” says Cannon. “Customers want personalised attention from a trusted consultant who has knowledge of products, services and trends.”
It’s a trend that to many may seem as one of showmanship and opulence, a desire for something that not everyone can have – but for Nilsson-Humphrey, the rise in personalised experiences is in fact a result of a more pared-back attitude to life. “If you look at the trends during the banking boom, everything was big and brash. Now, people appreciate the small boutiques and brands that offer a more personalised service, rather than ‘everywhere for everyone’. They want to go back to basics.”