Absolutely Fabulous

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

I thought of all the tight little T-shirts and boho dresses from H&M and American Apparel in my closet. When the J. Crew stash came in, would they scoff, continue drinking their PBRs and ask who the hell told the preps about this good bar? Or would they accept the extra buttons and pressed collars, do a couple of whiskey shots and end up singing along to "Sweet Caroline" at the end of the night? Was it possible I'd limited myself by shopping at hip, cheap places, rather than opening my mind to the idea that I didn't have to be that girl with the crazy shoes all the time?

Liberation, thy name is 100 percent cotton collared shirts for $49.50 each. I'll take three. Oh, and that gray sweater and the blue velvet vest. I closed my eyes when I signed the bill but opened them wide when the salesgirl handed me my receipt in a cute little envelope.

"Can we have those in a hanging bag?" Harriet asked her. "And keep the hangers?"

Upscale department stores such as Nordstrom and Barney's offer personal shopping as a complimentary service.
Upscale department stores such as Nordstrom and Barney's offer personal shopping as a complimentary service.
Personal shopper and self-described "transformationist" Harriet Gibbe (left) combs North Dallas businesswoman's closet for clothes "fabulous" enough to make the style cut.
Personal shopper and self-described "transformationist" Harriet Gibbe (left) combs North Dallas businesswoman's closet for clothes "fabulous" enough to make the style cut.

You can keep the hangers? Clothes come in something other than paper shopping sacks? I nearly forgot about the bill as I wallowed in poshness. Clothes in a hanging bag. Look out, world, I've got some expensive crap in here!

Next, the perfect pants. After hitting up Banana Republic, Club Monaco, Neiman Marcus and almost every other store named after a country or an old dude, we had one last resort: Kenneth Cole. They had exactly one kind of black pants in the whole place. It seemed like a long shot, but I tried them on. They were wide-legged and high-waisted, the opposite of the low-slung, flare-leg pants I'd been buying for years. I walked out of the dressing room to show Harriet.

"You look this big in those pants," she said, holding up her tiny, former-model pinkie. Sold. Put 'em in one of those hanging bags, will ya?

My new uniform was complete. Yes, I'd spent a lot of money. But it also meant I wasn't going to be spending a little money a lot of times whenever I realized I didn't have anything to wear to that trial on Monday. And it felt good knowing I had some clothes that wouldn't fall apart after four months of wear. Screw snobby sales folk and marketing campaigns meant to make me feel like I was too proletarian for overpriced polo shirts.

"The world wants to tell you you're shit," Harriet would later tell me over coffee at Highland Park Village, in one of her few moments of cynicism. "They'll say that the illusion is that you're fabulous." But Harriet knew better, and I was willing to take her word for it. I needed to try out my newfound fabulousness to know for sure. I decided to confront my demons: the high-end department stores that for so long have struck fear—and a fair amount of contempt—into my heart.

Shoppers like Harriet charge hourly for their services; the argument is that paying someone up front to give you advice saves money in the long term because you don't end up purchasing clothes you don't need. At department stores, personal shopping is usually complimentary, with the catch being that you're limited to, say, Nordstrom's stock, and you won't be keeping a transformation journal in which you draw cute little hearts and daydream about a Notting Hill flat. You'll also have to live with the fact that you're being sold to.

First stop, the Galleria Nordstrom. I opted for my new Kenneth Cole pants, a white shirt and, in an effort to retain my edge, a cropped houndstooth blazer with a Nehru collar, which I'd found at Garland Road Thrift Store. Walking through the racks of $200 jeans and $500 sundresses, a different Andrea would have felt intimidated by the leering eyes of commission-driven salespersons who knew their attentions were lost on me, but not this day. I am shamelessly sporting a black bra under this white shirt because it is sexy and Harriet told me to! I am wearing Kenneth Cole! Today, I am a brand whore, and it makes me feel like a million dollars. Sometimes, it's nice to swim in the shallow end.

At the personal shopping "red room," complete with a zebra-striped coffee table, I met Lin Tanner, a McKinney woman who's been coming to Nordstrom for two years after losing 30 pounds and, hurrah, keeping it off. Her shopper, Vanessa Williams (not, sadly, the Playboy-posing former Miss America) puts together looks every season for Lin, who tries things on in an oversized dressing room.

After that, the pair usually takes a trip around the sales floor to look at jewelry and shoes. I followed along, watching as Vanessa worked a kind of live home-shopping sales pitch on Lin.

"You're going to be seeing a lot of patent leather this season," she said, picking up a pair of 5-inch heels and delicately displaying them with two hands, QVC-style. But 5-inch heels weren't Lin's thing, so Vanessa picked up another pair of shiny flats as a replacement. Lin nodded, soaking everything in and adding the appropriate "ooohs" and "aaahs." A guided tour of the Nordstrom shoe department would be nice, I thought, but it was strange to have folks leaning in to hear Vanessa's commentary and eyeing Lin, trying to figure out whether this woman was some kind of celebrity. At über-posh, couture-stocked department store Barney's, the personal shopping experience is intentionally less voyeuristic.

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