By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
This is my nightmare. I am in a dressing room outfitted with dark mahogany walls. The place smells faintly of cedar and, fainter still, sulfur.
Behind me, several crisp new shirts glare viciously at me from their smug, shape-preserving wooden hangers. White and boxy, these shirts are the very color and shape of fashion evil. Some—the deceptive ones—have light blue stripes, but I know that they, too, have nefarious plans for my closet. A humming air conditioner blows an icy retail wind into my tiny cell, lifting and twitching these sleeves of imminent style death. Lacking any trace of flair, these are the clothes I am destined to wear in a dismal future full of business luncheons, PTA meetings and other "grown-up" activities.
Suddenly animated by the powers of darkness, the collared demons begin grasping at my throat, squeezing any semblance of fashion sense out through my gaping mouth. For me the future is now, and it's wearing high-waisted mom jeans and vests patterned with embroidered farm animals—except in December, when, of course, they will be covered with tiny Christmas trees.
In desperation, I fling the dressing room door open and am chased down an endless hallway by three or four swift-legged pairs of pleated khakis that overtake me in a cloud of brushed cotton. My fate is sealed.
See, few things scare me like the possibility of dressing like an adult. Global warming, grizzly bears and thigh-high pink argyle leggings are not threats in my world. Tastefully cut black pants and boring button-up shirts? Somebody get the smelling salts; Mama's gonna have a spell.
So when I found myself wide awake, standing in the dressing room of a real grown-up store, J. Crew, surrounded by collars, cuffs and various finely tailored garments, I was apprehensive. Looking in the mirror, I tried to visualize a me who liked Andrea Bocelli records and Shiraz priced more than $7.99 a bottle. Every inch of my body cried, "Flee! Flee to Forever 21, where you can buy four plastic headbands and a tank top screen-printed with tiny skulls-and-crossbones for less than the cost of one of these ungodly collared numbers!"
But there was another, louder voice coming through, and it was telling me to try on a classic white button-up shirt with a woolly gray sweater. It kept telling me I was going to be fabulous.
"You're going to be fabulous!"
There it was again. It belonged to my stylist/fashion cheerleader, Harriet Gibbe. The tall, thin former model flashed a photogenic smile at me in the mirror as she folded and bunched my sleeves.
I surveyed the results uncertainly. From the waist down, I was all Andrea: beat-up cowboy boots and a weathered pair of Fossil jeans I'd bought for a quarter of the retail price from Buffalo Exchange. These were my "nice" jeans, the ones that didn't fall off my ass, displaying my great divide. But on top, I was, um, kind of classy. The shirt tapered just under my rib cage, and the gray sweater that had looked so frumpy strewn across a table in the store was surprisingly fetching with its oversized cowl neck.
As I started to fasten a key button right over my cleavage, Harriet stopped me.
"Leave it open!" she squealed. "Bosoms are so in right now."
It was then that I knew Harriet and I were on the same page. I had come to her seeking an image overhaul, hoping to go from a thrift-store chic 20-something who still gets carded buying cigarettes (I mean lottery tickets—hi, Mom!) to a sleek, sophisticated professional journalist. There couldn't possibly be animal-embroidered denim vests in my future when my stylist so deeply understood the intrinsic value of making sure everyone knew I had two powerful weapons 'neath my blouse. Viva bosoms, indeed. Perhaps they could protect me from those insidious khakis.
First, of course, there's Neiman Marcus, Dallas' 100-year-old flagship shopping outpost, and America's first shopping center, Highland Park Village, home to Chanel, Escada and Tory Burch. Plus there's the big-haired, overdressed mother of all malls, the Galleria, complete with an Old Navy (for your $5 flip-flops) and a Saks (for your $5,000 handbag.) And of course the newly revamped NorthPark Center, the tastefully dressed rival of the deliciously tacky Galleria, where Dillard's and Barney's live together in harmony, uniting the classes like a good old-fashioned communist revolution.
This is Dallas. We bleed cash and soak it up with the deeds to luxury hotels. We have entire urban enclaves modeled after Beverly Hills (Highland Park, represent). So, when I'm trying to convince friends to fly in from exotic locales such as New York and Los Angeles, and there is hemming and hawing about how there's no way the grassy knoll can be entertaining for two straight days (without the aid of a different sort of grass), I have to admit it: We may not have centuries of American history on display or a plentiful supply of Impressionist art, but we do have tons of places to buy shoes, purses and the odd one-of-a-kind Balenciaga ball gown.
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.
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.
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.
What did I do for a living? What did I do for fun? Who were my style icons? Did I have a crush on anyone on my friends list? Peering over a clipboard from behind his desk, Guillaume let each question—OK, not that last one—lilt out of his perfect throat in his perfect French accent.
I write, I told him, and I go to bars and hang out with my cats. Style icons? Probably a tie between Gwen Stefani and Lindsay Lohan when she's not doing too much coke, er, suffering from exhaustion. As he scribbled, my eyes wandered to Guillaume's bookshelves. Biographies, magazines, fashion tomes. And, just over his left shoulder, a learn-to-speak-French text I remembered from school.
How curious. But the questions kept coming. If I had to go to a trendy party tonight, what would I wear? Probably a pair of Seven jeans I still feel guilty about buying, some vintage heels and a sparkly tank top. Trendy clothes are not my problem, I told him. I need the opposite of trendy. I know all about skinny jeans and how bad they look on anyone with more than a half-percent of body fat—not that that stopped me from buying two pairs. I have an oversized watch and the ridiculously large handbag. I'm fully capable of opening a Lucky and buying the knockoff version of whatever's trendy this Wednesday, so long as there's a possibility somebody else is going to think it looks completely silly. I just need to look like a normal person sometimes.
So Guillaume tossed around a couple of words that sounded nice, like "sophistication" and "class," and I decided I was in. He sent me home with a binder full of scary prices—$120 per hour with a three-hour minimum to do some "closet surgery" on my existing wardrobe, same thing for personal shopping. When I e-mailed him to talk about my article, we negotiated a deal—no price is too small to pay someone to tell me what I look crappy wearing—and I was ready to roll.
I stayed ready to roll for a few weeks while my calls and e-mails weren't returned. What had I done? Had I offended Guillaume with my so-last-season Diesel leg warmers? Maybe he didn't like the way I penned my e-mails, though I always try to keep exclamation mark usage to a minimum. Maybe "Call me back when you have a moment" means "Please ignore this message" in French. Whatever the case, I knew I'd been dumped. Better to just eat a few cans of soul-comforting Cheddar 'n Bacon Easy Cheese and move on. My dream stylist was out there somewhere.
This was "professional business lady," and the outfit had a reputation with some of my office mates. It even had a song. So when, post-interview, I hustled down the hall to my desk and realized I'd been spotted by a co-worker, I braced for the inevitable.
"Professional! Business! Laaaa-dy!" he sang, chugging his arms from side to side. An appropriate backing band would have been Survivor, composers of the sports film classic "Eye of the Tiger." I didn't like to admit it, but maybe I did have a small, tiny, petit fashion handicap when it came to making my work clothes look as stylish as the rest of the trend-conscious parts of my closet.
A couple of calls to local fashion folk pointed me to Gibbe, a perpetually smiling and occasionally cynical former Neiman Marcus house model who agreed to meet me at a North Dallas coffee shop to discuss my plight. I learned quickly that this would be no wham-bam-thank-you-mademoiselle one-stylist stand. Clad in stick-straight-legged pants and leopard-print heels and carrying a giant Cole Haan bag, Harriet looked like a walking, talking mannequin.
Harriet spent the '80s jetting across the world on modeling gigs, then started producing documentaries and, eventually, fashion shows for the likes of Chanel and Armani. Fashion is not frivolous for this woman, and she let me know it the first moment we met.
"Your closet is your history," Harriet began, taking the occasional sip of hot tea and placing a blue notebook in front of me. I wouldn't just be getting some nice clothes for work; I'd be expanding my identity. The notebook was my "transformation journal," where I'd write down my goals and dreams so that we could determine the clothes I'd need to achieve them. With the right wardrobe, I could do anything.
Ooh, it was corny to hear. It was even a little bit New Age-y, especially when Harriet told me, "Clothes have energy." At the same time, it rang true.
The most enlightened, anti-materialistic among us can go on about how clothes are a superficial form of expression and that concerning ourselves with what anyone wears is a sign of vapidity. Clearly these people have never worn a really great pair of jeans. Less effective than most narcotics but without the pesky comedown, clothes have a powerful mood-altering effect.
On my worst day, I can slip on my favorite Levi's, a sparkly pair of gold heels and a favorite green sweater and feel a little less like committing mass homicide in Thanks-Giving Square than if I'd walked out the door in sweats and 'flops. Who wants to get blood on a pair of vintage J. Renee pumps, anyway?
At Harriet's direction, I opened my journal to a crisp, white page and wrote down my life goals. I'd like to live in London someday. And write a book. Apparently clothes were going to help make these things happen, and here I thought it'd just require saving a lot of money, working hard and begging British customs for a visa.
"This is about styling your life," Harriet told me, calling the wardrobe transformation process "deeply superficial." It's not like a pair of Prada heels were going to walk themselves, with me in them, onto a London-bound airplane next week, but, Harriet said, feeling good about your clothes can make you feel good about yourself. With the wrong wardrobe, a woman could be held back from her true destiny. I loved the idea of blaming my lack of a book deal on owning the wrong pair of sandals.
The next terrifying step would be the closet analysis. Harriet would see my deepest, darkest fashion disasters, riffling through racks of pit-stained wife-beaters, faded Urban Outfitters T's and every jacket I've owned since age 15. Two strong stomachs and a couple of extra large trash bags would be required.
I wondered if her "fun pieces" exclamation really meant "you've got to be effing crazy." This was not the walk-in North Dallas closet of a recently slimmed-down homemaker or accomplished businesswoman. This was the closet of a 23-year-old who has, on various occasions, decided that furry leopard-print bolero jackets and green wool houndstooth check miniskirts were fashion necessities. Yeah, "wool" and "miniskirt." Seems a little counterintuitive to me, too, but it was way cute on the rack.
But here's the real problem: I like my clothes. I like wool miniskirts and ripped denim and dresses over jeans. I'm proud of my collection of over-the-top vintage cocktail dresses, and I can't help but think of my lime green loafers and smile. There are 53 pairs of shoes in my closet, among them hot pink high heels and argyle-print slip-on sneakers. None looks like something a young Jackie might wear, but they're me.
My fear was not that I couldn't be turned into a pulled-together, sophisticated grown-up with good taste. My fear was that I would be. Especially since, earlier, Harriet had helped me pull some style ideas out of my magazine collection, and I'd realized the thing I most wanted to look like was a model in a Gap ad for skinny black pants.
Ever since I was allowed to dress myself, I'd made it a personal crusade to look as little like a Gap ad as possible. That's how souls get sucked away. But Harriet assured me we could do a sophisticated wardrobe with flair. I wondered if Harriet knew exactly how much flair some of my clothes actually had.
Harriet pulled out one of my favorite jackets, a giant, red, fuzzy knee-length thing bought years ago at some outlet mall. I braced myself; this is the moment someone would finally come out and tell me I dress like a crazy person.
"This is fabulous!" Harriet said with a grin. "Put it on!"
Hey, I thought, I'm not a crazy person! Or, maybe Harriet's a crazy person too! Whatever the case, I modeled it proudly and Harriet nodded with approval. After that, things went like clockwork. Instead of breathing fire and sentencing me to 40 lashes when she came across something she knew wouldn't work, she'd just hold it up on the hanger.
"How do we feel about this?" she'd say, fingering an ice-blue velour zip-up hoodie circa 1996.
Well, Harriet, we feel it's freaking ugly, but we were waiting for ice-blue velour zip-up hoodies to come back in style. At the end of a frenzied hour, I had a trash bag and a half full of clothes to give away. Even then, Harriet's innate sweetness shone through: "These will become fabulous for someone else."
Good luck, future owner of my ice-blue hoodie. Let me know how you manage to make it fabulous. I made a list in my transformation journal of all the things I now needed to buy: black pants, button-up shirts, a blazer. My new "uniform," per the Gap ad, was sleek and sophisticated black on bottom, white on top. This would, of course, require shopping. Not the fun, solitary kind I like to do, when no one is around to tell me not to buy a bright orange halter dress just because it's on sale, but the kind where there are multiple sizes brought into dressing rooms and talk of tailoring.
Harriet told me not to be frightened. At the end, she said, I would be happy.
"I want you to be able to walk into your closet with your eyes closed," she explained, "reach out and touch something, and be able to say, 'I am fabulous for owning this!'"
My new wardrobe sounded potentially great, until she told me I'd be a perfect fit for J. Crew, and Banana Republic and Neiman Marcus would have lots of great buys during their after-Christmas sales. How clothing stores named for stuffy white guys were going to make me fabulous, get me a book deal and a flat in London, I didn't know. But everything in my transformation journal was riding on it.
She answered the door in a tailored black suit and a polka-dotted blouse I recognized from up-and-coming designer Tory Burch. With chin-length, fluffy blond hair and a pair of mod rectangular glasses, Gwenna didn't exactly scream "fashion disaster." What could this petite woman possibly want with Harriet? She led me back to her dressing area, where I found that Gwenna had much more than just a transformation journal. She had a transformation table, right in the middle of this gargantuan closet that made my living room look like a nook with a chair.
Under glass, Gwenna had pasted together photos of yoga pants, shots of beachfront sunsets and skies full of clouds. She wanted to relax. As the owner of her own incentive travel company, Gwenna was a nonstop woman with a schedule full of business luncheons and hours-long teleconferences. Worrying about what to put on in the morning was probably not something Gwenna was keen on stressing about, given all the other things on her plate. She needed—and, as far as I could tell, had—a simple, sophisticated wardrobe ready to mix-and-match.
But as Harriet pulled boxy jackets and lovely—but totally wrong for Gwenna—vintage suits handed down from Gwenna's mother-in-law from their hangers, I saw that the Tory Burch-clad woman standing in this closet hadn't existed a few months ago.
"I didn't have a lot of femininity," Gwenna told me, of her pre-Harriet wardrobe. "Harriet gave me permission to show my figure." A couple of months of shopping with Harriet brought home nipped-and-tucked suits and daring V-necked blouses. At first, Gwenna admitted, "I was a little scared." But a little fear goes a long way with Harriet, who thrives on taking people out of their fashion comfort zones. After all, she had me walking into stores that used actual wooden hangers to display their clothes.
Harriet and I started off our first shopping trip with a two-hour binge at NorthPark Center, where the primary destination was J. Crew for shirts and, possibly, a "fabulous" pair of black slacks. Whereas I'd have shuffled into the store, done a lap around the button-ups and decided I didn't belong in a preppy place like this, Harriet made herself a presence from the second we walked in.
"We're going to find some fabulous shirts," Harriet told the salesgirl. "And maybe some pants, but we're just going to zip around here and have a look." It took her all of two seconds to scoop up a couple of items and have a dressing room started.
Before I knew it, I was living the nightmare, trapped with rows of collared shirts blocking my only exit. As an afterthought, Harriet had added a gray sweater, which had been bunched up on the sale table doing its best to look cute. "I think this is you," she said. If I am a gray sweater, I thought, then everything I know is wrong.
But I was a gray sweater. I was a gray sweater over a blue velvet vest over a crisp white shirt. I was also a black striped shirt with that extra button undone for a little cleavage action. As I stood on a dressing stool and looked at myself in a three-way mirror with Harriet grinning behind me, I had a revelation: I was J. Crew.
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?"
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.
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.
The Barney's personal shopping dressing room, bigger than most efficiency apartments, was designed by celebrity decorator Jonathan Adler. His irreverent style—gray, fuzzy rugs and powder-blue walls with low-seated lime green chairs—says, "We're freaking posh, and we're going to have a long laugh about it in these $2,000 boots. Muah."
If you're browsing the racks, you're not getting half the actual Barney's shopping experience. For the serious customer, personal shopper Paula Acosta, who handles more than 800 clients, sets up champagne or even brunch in the dressing room. She pulls outfits from Comme des Garçons and French fashion house of legend, Vionnet. Marc Jacobs, Miu Miu and Diane von Furstenberg are all at her fingertips. After all, anyone who's thinking of spending $800 on a party dress doesn't spend 10 minutes searching for her size. She sits in the little green chairs and waits for Paula to bring in her precious size 6.
Paula's a very busy woman, though, and while she's off running around the store, I'm left alone in the dressing room. Just outside the doorway, a floral-print Peter Soronen dress sits prettily on a shiny white mannequin. This is a one-of-a-kind frock, printed in two colors. The New York Barney's got black and white, and Soronen did the colorful print just for Dallas.
It is $3,690, roughly equivalent to my yearly salary after deducting whiskey and Taco Bell costs. I am rather scared of it. I peer down the hall at its perfect, corseted waist and poofy skirt. It's gorgeous, and it makes my $90 pants seem like sad little sacks of stitches. What would Harriet do? She'd visualize her fabulousness. So I do a little twirl in the giant floor-to-ceiling mirror and grin at my $7 thrift store blazer.
I may not have any $3,690 dresses in my closet, but I can go in it—OK, stand outside—with my eyes closed, reach out and touch something, and say "I'm fabulous for owning this." Even if I happen to grab that seersucker-striped button-up from J. Crew.