Author Judy Babcock Wylie knows how to make shopping a breeze, and it has nothing to do with walking her fingers across yellow pages.
Three years ago, when Wylie became a busy travel writer, she joined the growing legion of American consumers who don't have the time, knack or desire to be their own fashion hounds. Instead, they let professionals, who love to shop and have titles such as image consultant, wardrobe consultant or personal shopper, do the legwork for them.
Stores--and consultants who sell merchandise at retail prices--rarely charge for their services.
Independent consultants, who ferret the merchandise and bring it home or take the client shopping, charge by the day or the hour. Sometimes paying the bill is easier than finding the pro who will take charge of your wardrobe or revamp your total image. Word-of-mouth advertising is often the only kind they do.
Since Wylie discovered Roslyn Diener, the wardrobe consultant at Bullock's in Pasadena, she no longer "spends three hours bumping into racks of clothes. I go into a fitting room and everything is there waiting for me."
In addition to scheduled shopping forays, she calls Diener with emergency requests, like sweaters warm enough to wear in Scotland or a dress that wouldn't wrinkle even if it traveled for hours in Wylie's handbag.
A professional's personal touch can mean the end of impulse buying and the beginning of a closet filled with only compatible components.
The forte of Los Angeles fashion consultant Ellen Krane, who charges $35 an hour for her services, is a house call to weed out useless pieces: "My rule is, if you haven't worn it for a year, get rid of it."
She works with what is left, creating new outfits and making notes of the combinations, which she puts on index cards for the client. And she makes out a shopping list.
Sami Dinar, owner of a menswear store in Beverly Hills, also makes house calls to determine what stays and "what is going to be thrown out." If an objectionable item isn't discarded, Dinar asks "the man to put it in a different closet. Even a pocket square, if it's the wrong accent color, can ruin an outfit."
Back in Dinar's store, he uses a pool table as his demonstration area, laying out combinations of new clothes. Everything purchased is listed, numbered and hung on corresponding hangers so the client can't make a mistake--if he follows the rules, such as this one: "When No. 7 shirt, which goes on No. 7 hanger, is at the laundry," Dinar explains, "he can't hang another one there. He has to leave it empty."
Some of Dinar's clients are colorblind, others are switching careers or marital status, others just like the benefits that go with personalized service. While a wardrobe gathered from the store's expensive Italian merchandise can run into five-digit figures, customers don't seem to mind.
Ron Morrison, a 51-year-old business executive, thinks his money has been well spent. Not only has he "acquired flair and confidence," he says he uses everything he buys. "Before, I would nonchalantly go shopping, buy a beautiful shirt, get it home and find it wouldn't go with anything I owned. It would stay in my closet until I finally gave it away."
Not everyone has a hefty clothing allowance, and some personal shoppers, such as Betty Coffey at Robinson's in Beverly Hills, will work with any budget, she says. She recently helped a film executive "upgrade her appearance" for all of $300.
At Bullock's in Pasadena, Diener helps college graduates and ex-servicemen put together career wardrobes. She starts the women off with sportswear and the men with a "blue blazer, because they can wear five different pairs of pants with it." When she gives seminars to women's organizations and sororities, her favorite trick is showing the mileage obtainable from "two bottoms and 15 tops."
At Nordstrom in the South Bay Galleria, Barbara Zwelling's work as a personal shopper brings her in contact with everyone from teens (whom she has put in a "total look" for about $100 to $150) to senior citizens, and includes people "with special needs," she says, "the speech impaired and the blind."
Sometimes personal shopping can get very personal. Zwelling once helped a couple select clothes for their 50th wedding celebration. As they stood in their party finery, "the man told his wife she looked prettier than the day he met her," Zwelling recalls. "They hugged and kissed and both of them started to cry."
Such emotions can be expected in a field where at least one practitioner, Janet Marie Kisling, calls herself a "wardrobe doctor." More specifically, she is a wardrobe consultant who specializes in accessories. She works out of a cheerful studio attached to her home in Studio City. Her twin sister runs a second Janet Marie Studios in Fort Myers, Fla., and a third store will open soon in Darien, Conn.