Clothes Encounters

By Suzanne D'Amato
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 22, 2007

If you could see my closet, you'd be surprised -- and not in a good way.

As a fashion editor, it's my job to pore over the most ravishing clothes and accessories you can imagine. Bubble skirts molded out of glossy strawberry satin. Quilted handbags worthy of a 50-person waiting list. Dresses dusted in sequins, edged in tulle, lathered in eyelet, dipped in gold.

I may write about how to wear such clothes (or at least the knockoff versions), but I'm not good at taking my own advice. Year-round, I stick to baggy sweaters, blousy tops, ballet flats and jeans I've had since college. And when I'm at a store, I overthink everything. Confronted with styles that I've focused on too much to appreciate in purely personal terms, I look at little and try on even less.

This is why my closet (while including a few nice items, such as perfectly weathered motorcycle boots and a vintage coat the color of a ripe tomato) currently contains:

· Ten almost-identical tunic tops in gray or black. All are long and droopy. (And, no, I am not expecting.)

· Ten cardigans in varying shades of cream, brown, gray and black.

· Seven pairs of jeans, one of which fits as it should.

· An expensive evening dress with a ragged, asymmetrical hem that strives for avant-garde but, after only four wearings, says, "Send to Goodwill, stat."

· A curious (and somewhat disturbing) number of items that would be appropriate on a 12-year-old, including a Boy Scout shirt, Kangaroos sneakers and a baseball T-shirt with unicorns and rainbows on it.

Equally bad is what I don't have. For someone who works in an office, I possess a startling lack of Grown-Up Clothes. This is probably because I used to work at a fashion magazine where everyone strove to look like stylishly disheveled art students. I'm not there anymore, but I still dress the part: slouchy layers, thrift-store jewelry, the kind of lank hair and chipped nail polish that make people wonder if it's Take Your Daughter to Work Day. It occurs to me that it wouldn't be so bad to invest in a few polished pieces: structured jackets, pants that aren't jeans, shirts that fit and don't have unicorns on them.

As it happens, the D.C. area is home to several personal shoppers who are only too happy to help people like me. They can be found at department stores, in boutiques and on the Internet; their levels of experience vary widely; and their fees range from free to you-don't-want-to-know. I decide to seek out two wardrobe wizards: a personal shopper at Lord & Taylor, whose services are available to customers gratis, and a freelance shopper who charges a cool $100 an hour. What does each teach me about adding some chic to my closet? Find out ...

The Department Store

I've always liked department stores. Comfortably ensconced in one well-lit, temperature-controlled environment, I can try on lipsticks, shop for sheets and groove to the Muzak. Even better, if I'm at Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus or any of their upscale brethren, I can have the attention of an on-staff personal shopper all to myself, for free.

The lackluster look of the Friendship Heights Lord & Taylor initially gives me pause, though. The store is weirdly uncrowded for a Saturday, and the personal shopping area is disappointingly dull -- just an empty office and a biggish dressing room painted the same bland beige as the women's suits being peddled outside.

The day improves when my shopper, Patrice Vailes-Macarie, arrives. She's elegant and stylish in that offhand "Who me?" way. Patrice apologizes for being late, but it's a busy day, and her daughter's here selling Girl Scout cookies, and would I like some water? I accept, hopeful that Thin Mints will follow, and she hands me a short questionnaire: height, weight, sizes. I fill it out and explain my work-clothes conundrum. No beige suits for me, but polished separates that I can mix and match. Patrice nods, all polish herself, and we head for the sales floor.

You can imagine my surprise when one of the first things she shows me is a suit. A youthful suit, to be sure -- there is nothing even slightly Nancy Reagan about this trendy cropped jacket and pencil skirt by Cynthia Steffe -- but a suit nonetheless. I'm especially uncertain about the skirt. I'm six feet tall; do I need help looking more pencily? Patrice answers my question with one of her own. "Would you like to try it?" Well . . . if she says so.

Patrice snags the suit in a couple of sizes, and we move on. It is nice to have someone else doing the heavy lifting. If Patrice or I spot something good, she finds my size and carries it for me. Once we've accumulated a pile of maybes, she totes it all back to my dressing room. All I have to do is walk, look and point. At first, our arrangement feels almost uncomfortably fancy. But after about, oh, four minutes, I'm thinking: I could get used to this.

As Patrice schleps, she asks me questions. What do you think of this length? Would you wear a boat neck? I try to be open-minded (she's the pro, after all), and often we end up grabbing whatever skirt or top she has suggested. But while I don't want to distract her from the very serious business of finding me cute clothes, I have many questions of my own. Which colors suit me? Am I too tall for a mini? They're things I've never gotten a salesperson to give me a straight answer on, and Patrice proves to be no exception. It seems that she doesn't subscribe to strict fashion maxims, and after an awful lot of polite pestering, the most she'll offer is: "You have broad shoulders. A square neckline would look nice."

I'm distracted, mid-interrogation, when I spot BCBG's swingy trapeze dress. It has a globby abstract print that strikes me as very Marni, and that non-shape shape I love. I'm not sure how much Patrice loves it, but she totes it dutifully, along with a couple of sweaters, a few skirts and another cropped jacket she wants me to try. (The woman has strong arms, that's all I can say.)

An OC by Oleg Cassini dress ($98) features a broad but not deep neckline.
An OC by Oleg Cassini dress ($98) features a broad but not deep neckline.(Renee Comet Photography)
She's also expert at shopping less-than-likely departments. The dresses section strikes me as totally wrong -- I'm blinded by its sparkly disco-ball sheaths -- but shepherded there by Patrice, I spot a stylish work dress from OC by Oleg Cassini. It has a pretty ruched bodice and (yes!) a square neck. Patrice nods approvingly. Next, she shows me wonderful pieces from what I formerly thought of as McMom brands: Ellen Tracy, Dana Buchman, Jones New York. (Or maybe they're still McMom brands, but my style's more McMom than I thought. Who's to say?)

An hour later, I have nearly 40 items in my dressing room. Each piece seemed like a viable candidate on the sales floor, but as I survey the stacks and racks of sweaters and pants, skirts and tops, all I can think is: Do I really care about my clothes this much?

The answer is obviously (if somewhat mortifyingly) yes, so I dive in and show Patrice every item I'm brave enough to exit the dressing room wearing. Given the number of clothes we've accumulated, this is no minor undertaking. But Patrice waits outside the door, ready to offer a compliment or (more often) grab me another size.

We both think the Oleg Cassini dress is a winner -- flattering and as soft as a T-shirt. But the BCBG dress I was so sure I'd love is a snooze on, with a tentlike cut that brings to mind Mrs. Roper and her muumuus. Patrice smiles sagely when I tell her it's a no-go.

The Cynthia Steffe pencil skirt is as un-me as I'd thought, but the jacket looks great. Score a big one for Patrice. Thumbs-up as well to navy linen pants that she found in the Ralph Lauren section -- a little cruise-shippy, but I can see them being cool with layered tanks and flat sandals. I also love a yellow Ellen Tracy cardigan: The hue is different for me, though at more than $250, it seems like a lot for a simple sweater. It's almost the same price as a Dana Buchman embroidered skirt I'm considering. I probably shouldn't buy both, but I want to.

Dana Buchman's lavishly embroidered skirt ($295) is made of cotton, so it dresses up or down easily.
Dana Buchman's lavishly embroidered skirt ($295) is made of cotton, so it dresses up or down easily.(RenŽe Comet)
When I ask Patrice which piece offers the most bang for the buck, she doesn't hesitate: the Dana Buchman skirt. I go with her pick, both because I agree and because, after more than three hours, my mind is turning to mush. I have a new respect for the Paris Hiltons of the world; shopping really is hard work.

A week later, I've already worn the square-neck dress twice. But I return the Lauren linen pants. They're a bit saggy, or a bit shorter than I'd like, or . . . I don't know. Maybe they're just a bit more grown-up than I'm ready to dress.

The Freelancer

There's a difference between telling someone how bad your clothes look and showing them those bad clothes while the two of you stand in your very small bedroom. My second shopper, Alison Lukes, is at my apartment for the latter activity. In a word: Yikes.

I originally agreed with Alison's suggestion that looking at my closet would be the best way for her to determine what I need. But now that she's here, my nerves are racked. The morning has been spent in a cleaning frenzy, and Alison's posh, peep-toe-pump-clad presence brings on the kind of intense self-consciousness I associate with job interviews that are Not. Going. Well.

This is all self-imposed, of course. Alison is calm and evidently used to such silent anxiety attacks, because she tells me that she always signs confidentiality agreements. "I mean, I'm in your bedroom," she says. (Later, she tells me about showing up at one client's apartment to find a scant two items in the closet. The woman had purged her entire wardrobe before Alison walked through the door. This makes me feel better about my pre-cleaning.)

I show Alison the few things I own and like, including my new Lord & Taylor finds, then everything else. She has a great poker face: I could be pulling out a polyester dress from the Salvation Army, but she acts as though it's Yves Saint Laurent. We discuss the fact that I have some cute tops and really, really need some pants. Then she's off to scout stores and formulate a game plan, and my tidy apartment is mine to mess up again.

When I see Alison a few days later, she is optimistic. She has done some hunting around, she says, and Georgetown is the place for me. We start at Club Monaco, where Alison shows me a floaty printed blouse that's a dead ringer for some of my thrift-store scores, with one key distinction: It fits. How did I miss it when I was at this exact Club Monaco two weeks ago?

The difference is Alison: She's perennially a step ahead, asking me questions about colors and shapes. She can tell how a dress will fit by the way it hangs on the rack and is constantly inspecting linings and pocket placement.

Not that this helps when it comes to Club Monaco's pants. They're all too short or too tight, shiny gray and shinier white. This is why I don't like to try on clothes: It takes only three or four ill-fitting garments before I feel like a lumpy, misshapen freak. Alison seems aware that I'm feeling a little, shall we say, tender about the pants issue. Maybe we should spend more money on pants, she says.

We move on to Cusp, then Barneys Co-op. I notice a slight awkwardness with some salespeople. I think they assume that Alison and I are two gal pals out shopping. Then they're confused when:

A) Alison never tries anything on.

B) She carries my clothes for me.

C) I exit the dressing room and ask Alison for an opinion, mostly ignoring the salesperson.

Do I seem like the worst friend ever? Or more like a D-list celebrity -- not famous (and therefore rich) enough to skip Club Monaco but vain enough that I can't possibly shop sans stylist?

The situation reaches its apex at Barneys, where an overzealous salesman is apoplectic that I tried on a black Marc by Marc Jacobs dress and didn't show it to him. Alison and I are in silent hysterics about this -- lots of covert eye-rolling -- and for a moment she's like a snarky friend, not a freelance employee.

Once we're done snickering, I try on my first pair of pants that fits -- a wonderfully sleek black pair created by Theory expressly for Barneys. The pockets are a little bunchy, but Alison assures me that I can get them sewn up pretty easily. At $245, they're expensive but worth it.

This Banana Republic scarf ($58) adds polish to a basic sweater or a white T-shirt.
This Banana Republic scarf ($58) adds polish to a basic sweater or a white T-shirt.(RenŽe Comet)
We head to less rarefied territory: Banana Republic, where I score a cropped sweater and a chocolate scarf. Then on to Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase, where the young women's section is a riot of amusing but useless babydoll dresses and short shorts. Where do 20-something women with jobs shop these days?

A Tory Burch silk shell ($195) mixes a simple shape with a punchy pattern.
A Tory Burch silk shell ($195) mixes a simple shape with a punchy pattern.(RenŽe Comet)
Alison is equally turned off by the flashy wares, and she takes me to another floor that's home to career-woman labels such as Tahari and Tory Burch. A slightly less exciting atmosphere, but it's there that I fall in love with Burch's red patterned shell. I also like a cotton cardigan by Saks's house brand. Even though its big buttons and boxy fit are cozy rather than dressy, Alison allows it because "It is just so you." Aw, shucks.

But mostly, Alison is determined to find me more pants, and we hit pay dirt in the form of Tevrow & Chase's wide-legged slacks. I want to know why pants are so hard to find; are they this tough for everyone? I'm hoping for tips I can keep in mind the next time I shop, but Alison is as wiggly on this topic as Patrice was about, well, almost everything. I have a long waist and need to try a lot of options, it seems. True, but it doesn't have that "teach a man to fish" usefulness that I had in mind.

The "just so you" cardigan ($295) is from Saks Fifth Avenue's house brand.(RenŽe Comet)
When I get home, I line up my shopping bags and try not to think about how much money I've spent. But Alison's not finished: She e-mails me with links to dresses, tops and more at online retailers. They're smart suggestions, in keeping with my new-and-improved style; one Loeffler Randall handbag, in particular, is on my wish list.

Still, I just can't bring myself to buy more stuff. I love my new clothes, but after two shoppers and nine hours, I'm happy to say that I am finally done shopping.

Three Things You Can Learn From Me

Shopping with a professional isn't easy. Having someone assess your taste, figure and closet can be stressful. Even though both of the women I worked with were the epitome of professionalism, I couldn't help but feel a little judged. After all, judgment was what I was there for, right?

It also isn't cheap. My experience was expensive, which was both good (I now have a vastly improved wardrobe) and bad (duh). Yes, I asked for it: I didn't start out with a set budget, and I wanted my shoppers to help me replace some of my cheap mistakes with high-quality staples. Still, I ended up spending more than $2,000 (and that's not counting the $550 the Post paid for 5 1/2 hours with Alison Lukes). Gulp. Bye-bye, summer vacation; hello, dinners at home.

All shoppers are not created equal. As with finding a great hairdresser, you may need to try more than one shopper before meeting your match. I initially expected Lukes's services to outshine Patrice Vailes-Macarie's -- after all, Lukes had every store in Washington at her fingertips, while Vailes-Macarie was limited to Lord & Taylor.

But though both women found me great clothes, I just don't lead the kind of life to make Lukes's pricey services truly pay off. I don't own enough clothes to make good use of her closet-organizing skills, and I rarely attend the kinds of events for which I suspect she'd be a lifesaver -- calling in that right-off-the-runway gown before a big gala, for instance.

Both women taught me a lot, but given my wardrobe needs and the amount I'm comfortable spending, Vailes-Macarie came out on top.

Five Things I Learned From the Pros

Allot enough time (but not too much). So often, I have an hour to spare and decide that it's the perfect time to score that workhorse day dress or classic pair of pants. Not a smart strategy. A few hours is enough to spend some time without getting tired and losing focus: Vailes-Macarie tends to book her clients for two hours, while Lukes likes three.

Size really doesn't matter. It's not that you can be a 4 in one brand and a 6 in another: You can be a 2 in one brand and a 10 in another! This was enough to convince me that: (A) Clothing manufacturers have even less sense than I thought, and (B) It pays to take as many sizes into the dressing room as you can.

Surf the sales racks. Fashion is increasingly seasonless, which is why you'll see layerable tanks in winter, featherweight cashmeres in summer. This spring's palette is mostly neutral, so don't snub any winter finds that are still on sale.

(RenŽe Comet)
Know where to spend -- and save. I can't stay away from fast-fashion retailers such as H&M, Club Monaco and Zara. That's not bad, Lukes says. The problem is when you end up there for pieces you rely on day in and day out -- cardigans, dresses and so on -- and then are surprised when they look worn-out after five wearings. Lukes's tip: Buy trendy pieces (such as Club Monaco's chain-link necklace, left) at inexpensive stores, but spend most of your budget on staples such as great pants and well-made shoes.

Tune in to tailoring. If something doesn't fit perfectly, I leave it in the dressing room. (Or worse, let it collect dust in my closet.) That is a mistake: Not only are basic alterations inexpensive at most tailors, but many major department stores, including Nordstrom and Lord & Taylor, offer basic alterations on many non-sale items free of charge.

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