They hang out at Neiman-Marcus, Saks-Jandel, Loehmann's; they dress in the likes of Saint Laurent or Perry Ellis; they dictate the wardrobes of attorneys, doctors, vice presidents and advertising executives.
Personal shoppers, wardrobe developers, image consultants, whatever they call themselves, have made it their business to help those with no time or confidence -- to shop for themselves. Most will shop for you (if you don't want to set foot in a store), or they will guide you (gently) around. They differ from the in-store personal shoppers in that they shop the market, and each consultant caters to a different type of person.
As consultant Melody Gilsey puts it, "My clients need me because they have demanding jobs. They don't have time to shop the fashion market and keep up, and many of them have had a closet ful of mistakes. This way, there are no mistakes."
If you think you need help, it's your job to find a consultant who meshes with your personality: a shopper who will appreciate your life style and needs, who you can trust to decide what goes on your body from morning to night.
Some people need help in projecting an executive image. Others want to make a grand entrance at the Symphony Ball. Consultants are as different as, say, shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue or Classic Clothing, or as subscribing to the John Molloy or the Fiorucci school of dressing.
"I look like 'a bag lady'; my house is full of shopping bags, and I'm always carrying a bag," says personal shopper Nikki Nicodemus (who once won a Halloween prize as a bag lady).
Starting in retailing, she has been free-lancing as a consultant for about six years. The first thing she does for a client is organize his/her closet.
"I tell them how to color-coordinate. I take the clothes they can't use to a consignment shop, and we go over accessories and shoes and stockings. Then we go shopping."
She likes to shop for her clients at smaller specialty stores: "It's easier and doesn't intimidate people. I run across so many insecure people who just can't shop and put it together for themselves."
Personal shopper Helen Moody's face -- well known in this town as a top model -- is also well known at Loehmann's where employes point out jokingly that they have set up a Moody Memorial Cot in the back room. In business as a personal shopper for about four years, Moody runs into Loehmann's sometimes three times a week, grabbing armloads of Calvin Kleins, Halstons and Diors for her clients.
"A lady came up to me at Loehmann's one day and angrily said, 'I wish I knew you were going to be here. Because every time you're here, you get all the good things.' I just flashed her a big smile," says Moody, who prefers to shop for her clients instead of with them.
"I operate better on my own. After I get to know my clients, they have to trust me because it has to come from my gut. I find I'm a freer spirit on my own, and it winds up costing the client less.
"What I give to my clients is an extension of myself. I love clothes and I understand clothes and I interpret them well. I can make a female feel good about herself."
Moody likes to see professional women in suits, but that doesn't mean a dark suit with a bow blouse. "You can take the three-piece suit uniform and change it. Your blouse can be of cashmere; the suit jacket can be a cardigan sweater. Each piece can be a different texture or color. There are an unlimited number of ways you can work with that uniform."
Barbara Blaes, who runs her own image-consulting service, also recommends a suit as a "major authority outfit," but she usually goes for a darker color for business clients. "Men have held the positions of authority for 200 years, and we should draw on them," she says. "A dark suit means 'I'm an authority figure.'
"Some of the common errors women make are bringing into the work force the look that works in other areas of their life. Like too casual a look, too sexy a look -- the slit skirts, low blouses -- it's very bad."
"I don't think I have a good sense of what looks best on me," says Martha Spice, a vice president at a management skills company, who consults with Blaes regularly. "I needed some help in looking the part I play. I'm a competent businesswoman, and now I look the part."
A consultation with Blaes includes not only wardrobe suggestions, but advice on makeup, hair style, speech and movements. "A lot of women are at crisis points," says Blaes. "They are beginning their own businesses or are involved in an expansion, and they want an image that says 'I am really successful.'"
Men don't always dress for success either, which is why Gus Palmer started his consulting business for men. His clients include lawyers, doctors and government personnel, who "need to maintain a professional image about what they are doing."
"Lawyers need to dress properly and be toned down correctly," says Palmer. "A lawyer may not trust his wife's choices and may not have time to shop for himself. After our initial interview, I don't have to see him again until I bring him the suit."
Palmer doesn't hesitate to take his clients to discount stores like Syms. "I can point out to them a quality garment at a great price. And even after they pay for my service, they've still saved money."