x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The secret, mysterious world of personal shoppers

A peek into the work of those who stock up the wardrobes and homes of celebrities and others who can afford such a service.

Last week I got to glimpse the very secretive world of the personal shopper and meet the people whose job it is to stock up the wardrobes and homes of celebrities, time-poor professionals and, of course, wealthy customers.

And we are not just talking clothes and accessories, either. The service can stretch to furniture, household goods, holidays, even rare dog breeds and wedding venues. Anything is possible.

Currently, in the throws of "winterising", ie updating their clients with key pieces for the new season, I was not only shown the precious, neatly edited booty heading the way of the VIP customer, but also where the fittings take place: in inner sanctums and plush suites, mostly within key department stores and exclusive shops. Fascinating.

You don't need to be a brain surgeon to work out why this retail phenomenon is on the rise in the 21st century. Blame the significant emergence of the affluent tourist, particularly the Chinese who come from a culture of gift-giving, coupled with the bewildering nature of choice and trends now available.

If you had the money, and judging by super luxury brand profits currently, a lot of people do, why wouldn't you get someone else, highly skilled in the art of shopping (and it is an art) to do it for you?

I know several time-poor, super-rich professional women who enjoy the terrific sense of one-upmanship one gets from slamming down a Birkin during boardroom meetings. Even more so when someone else has tracked down the near-impossible to get the trophy bag for them.

Celebrities who wish to be anonymous and busy housewives alike are also fans of the exclusive personal shopper who can guarantee client privacy, discretion and that elusive number from Hermès.

Having expected not to like these rarefied shopping experts one bit, I surprisingly did. Very much. They were not in the least bit superficial or scary. They were smart. They didn't take themselves or fashion too seriously. They were amusing. Besides being clued up on all manner of trends and brands, they equally were mindful about what a client should wear to suit her body/lifestyle/culture. Dressing a client to look like some dizzy Carrie Bradshaw fashion victim would be abhorrent to these people.

Having been trained at department stores such as Harrods to an almost military precision level in etiquette, diplomacy and assertiveness, they were able to instil confidence, poise and self-esteem in their clients.

One personal shopper who deals exclusively with clients for a particular high-end shoe designer told me: "Not long ago, I doubted my job and my whole life and confided to a friend that 'all I do is sell shoes'. 'You don't just sell shoes,' the friend replied wisely. 'You sell hopes, dreams, romance, therapy and seduction.'"

The most surprising thing of all was their age. Most were under or just over 30. One personal shopper at age 28 had a master's degree in social psychology from the London School of Economics.

Not every VIP customer wants to have her shopping preselected for her; some younger-generation Middle Eastern customers love to get out there on the shop floor and have some fun shopping - with their personal shopper in tow.

And what might they select, you ask? Now this was a surprise. Clothes, which differed slightly because of individual taste, age and size (the average by-appointment customer is around 40 and a size 12) all had one thing in common: they were discreetly rather than overtly fashionable.

The most popular handbag brand was Victoria Beckham because, and this is hard to believe, there is no logo. Designer clothes chosen belonged to the school of the "who's that by?" fashion. Any distinct signature that gave the game away as to its brand was eliminated in the edit from leopard print (Dolce & Gabbana) to current hits of the moment such as Prada's big sequins or Marc Jacobs' spotted suits or Stella McCartney's spotted dresses.

Even clothes set aside for Russian customers - the most fervent refuseniks when it comes to "look at me" designer bling - from ready-to-wear to homewear, was luxurious yet strictly simple.

When you get the richest, top tier of people paying (I didn't quite establish how much) for a service to make them look like they have impeccable taste but not wealth, it's an interesting conundrum.

As we know, the number of millionaires (some 875,000 at last count in China) is on the rise and yet you'd never know. Thanks to personal shoppers, perhaps?