Absolutely Fabulous

It's a fashion jungle out there unless you have the right guide

What we don't have is the fashion parade seen on the streets of New York City and Los Angeles, where the only thing most folks have to do to get a fashion education is walk out their front doors. Sure, there's a fashion show of sorts happening over at the Cityplace Target—if the cat litter aisle counts as a runway and pairing Wranglers with Reeboks is considered haute couture. But maybe you don't want to get your best style tips from a 10 p.m. run for dishwashing liquid.

Enter the personal shopper, trusted confidante of socialites, fashionistas and those who know they need new duds but can't find the right wardrobe themselves. Employed either by higher-end department stores such as Nordstrom, Barney's and Neiman Marcus or independently operating as wardrobe and lifestyle consultants for $50-$200 per hour, personal shoppers make your closet problems their closet problems.

Without the cornucopia of styles on display along Manhattan's 5th Avenue, but with access to everything needed to re-create them Dallas is a personal shopper's mildly moist dream. They stay on top of trends and pass on style tips to the women, men and sometimes even kids (cough, spoiled, cough) who are either too busy, too scared or too frustrated to bother with digging through racks of clothing themselves. Some clients come into their store of choice to try on selections in posh dressing rooms. Others do the dirty work themselves, kind of, by taking a personal shopper along with them on trips to the mall.

At the Galleria Nordstrom, Lin Tanner (left) gets a lesson in this season's patent leather shoe trend from personal shopper Vanessa Williams.
At the Galleria Nordstrom, Lin Tanner (left) gets a lesson in this season's patent leather shoe trend from personal shopper Vanessa Williams.
Liz Tanner (in mirror) sizes up a necklace suggested by her personal shopper.
Liz Tanner (in mirror) sizes up a necklace suggested by her personal shopper.

Why a personal shopper? Maybe you've recently lost some weight, and nothing in your closet fits anymore. Or you've been promoted, and business casual isn't going to cut it in the corner office. Or you've got an extra 1,000 or so bucks to blow on heels this month and you're not down for shopping with the little people on the sales floor.

Whatever the case, it's like having your own episode of What Not to Wear without the camera guys. The advice can be just as vicious and the clients just as demanding. The right match is key: Maybe you want the fashion expert who thinks $295 is a great buy on a blouse or maybe you want someone who can work with your fear of three-digit prices. I know I did.

I'd already been through one stylist—dear Guillaume, my Uptown Frenchman, how short our love was—before I found Harriet Gibbe, the antithesis to every catty fashion mouthpiece reciting pre-fab one-liners on the E! network. Harriet calls herself a "transformation expert." For $200 an hour, she guides clients to new levels of lifestyle Zen through a process of journaling, closet cleaning and thorough exercise of one's credit cards.

With my closets full of faded jeans, screen-printed T-shirts and a leg-warmer collection to rival the most enthusiastic '80s fashion fan, I needed help growing up. My "dressy" clothes made me look more like an Olive Garden hostess than a member of the 9-to-5 workforce. Of course, I wasn't an actual member, considering that my job as a reporter whose beat is "do stuff and write about it" varies so much that I can require cowboy boots and chaps for Monday and a skanky tube top for some Friday night undercover dance club analysis. Boots and skanky, I can do. But collars and sensible heels? Preposterous!

So I gave myself over to Harriet, allowing her to whisk me into foreign lands of fashion I'd never before had the guts to travel: Neiman Marcus, Kenneth Cole, J. Crew and—nightmare of nightmares—Highland Park Village. I'd long been convinced these were guarded by impenetrable force fields that could sense my Target tank top from miles away, but it was time to give in to these monuments of consumerism.

First came a "lifestyle designer" named Guillaume, a statuesque Frenchman with a panty-melting jaw line whom I found through an online fashion newsletter. Guillaume was bold, unafraid to leave the top four buttons of his shirt shamelessly unfastened in a bare-chested indictment of American conservatism. Or maybe he was just a little warm. Whichevs. I walked into his Knox-Henderson condo wearing my typical fare: slouchy brown boots, off-white leg warmers, a denim skirt, a green strapless top and an oversized cardigan, all modeled roughly on something I'd seen on one of the Olsen skeletons in Us Weekly. We spent 45 unforgettable minutes together. It was glorious, even if it did cost $75.

I'd brought my big stack of Vogues tabbed with Post-it notes, anxious to show him the cavernous separation between the way I wanted to look—like a 23-year-old Jackie O—and the way I actually looked—like an 18-year-old casual dining hostess who forgot to bring Band-Aids for the too-tall pair of heels she insists on wearing because she wants to impress the cute waiters.

The initial consultation is a staple of most personal shopping experiences, in which client and stylist meet to determine what needs to be done. For Guillaume and me, that meant he asked me a series of questions, much like one of those obnoxious self-centered surveys teenagers send around on MySpace.

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