As told to Arielle Pardes by Michelle McFarlane September 06, 2016
It can be easy to trivialize a job like this, but you can change someone’s life.
1. You have to learn the basics of fashion — you can’t just “wing it.” I didn’t go to style school, but I was a model and learned from my stylists on photo shoots why certain clothes worked and others didn’t. I’d ask, “Why this length of pants and not that length of pants?” and my stylist would say, “Well, you don’t have a very defined calf muscle, so this one works better.” I tell stylists that if at least 85 percent of what they’re pulling doesn’t look fantastic on the client, they need to work more on perfecting their style, fit, and fashion skills.
2. Besides styling people, you’re also running a business. You can be the best stylist in the world, but if people don’t know how to find you, you’re not going to be styling anyone. In the beginning, I spent about 25 percent of the time working with clients and the other 75 percent of the time doing other tasks related to my business — working on developing my website, figuring out my accounting, and so on. The business side is not glamorous, and it has nothing to do with fashion, but if you want to make a living doing what you love, you have to think like an entrepreneur and a salesperson. You can get styling jobs at department stores, but most personal shoppers are independent entrepreneurs like me.
3. You have to be prepared to take on a client of any age, body type, and lifestyle. We once had a male client with narrow shoulders and wide hips. It was challenging to find clothes for his shape because unfortunately, most retailers just don’t cut clothes for that body type. In his case, we chose to do custom-made clothes, but we had to figure out a way to make that affordable. You should be just as good at finding clothes for a 45-year-old heavy-set lawyer who lives in suits as you are at finding clothes for a 25-year-old, statuesque model looking for date outfits.
4. You have to encourage people to be vulnerable with you. Clothing is really intimate! People bring all kinds of insecurities and hang-ups with them when it comes to their clothes and their image, so you have to be adept at making people feel at ease. Part of it is just having a kind, friendly, and understanding personality; the other part is prepping things ahead of time so the shopping experience goes off without a hitch.
5. Shopping for other people isn’t as fun as shopping for yourself. People aren’t paying you to leisurely stroll through Bloomingdale’s like you would with your friends. When I’m shopping for a client, I have to be super efficient. I prep ahead of time so I have a mental blueprint of the stores we’re visiting. By the time I walk into a store with my client, I already know where everything is, which salesperson I want to help us out, and what styles I have in mind for the client. If you don’t know what you’re doing, why are your clients paying you?
6. You’re not just picking out clothes; you’re giving someone an experience. I like to treat my clients like VIPs when we’re shopping. I’ll pull a rolling rack to hang pieces and make sure we have a really nice fitting room. Some stores, like Saks Fifth Avenue, offer complementary champagne, so I’ll make sure my clients have that if they want it. Basically, anything to make them feel like a million bucks.
7. You need to have excellent relationships with salespeople. I like to scope out my salespeople way ahead of time to find the ones who are going to be most upbeat and helpful. If I’m working with a moody salesperson or a salesperson with attitude, that does not make my client feel good. In certain stores, I go to the same salespeople every time, and those relationships means I can always count on my clients getting the best customer service and attention. I’ve also built great relationships with makeup artists and hair stylists, because many times clients hire us to do an entire image overhaul.
8. You shouldn’t work on commission. Then your client can trust that you’re not just trying to sell them something so you can make a percentage off of it. Instead, you can either charge hourly or a set a package price. I originally did package prices — for example, a wardrobe consultation plus five hours of personal shopping might go for $800 — but I found that structure to be extremely inflexible. Some of my clients’ closet consultations took six hours; some took one hour. Some clients wanted more time to shop, while others wanted less. So I switched to customized packages where I charge hourly, which allows my clients to do whatever works for them.
9. You can’t expect consistent income. There have been periods of three or four months where I’m not seeing any clients. And then the next month, I’ll get slammed with people trying to book sessions. There’s no consistent ebb and flow, which makes it really difficult to plan ahead financially or figure out when to go on vacation. To offset unstable revenue, some stylists sell retail on their website, some sell advertising, and during quiet months, you can even reach out to corporations and suggest events, like teaching employees and staff proper presentation skills.
10. Don’t be afraid to keep in touch with clients. When I first started out, almost all of my clients were one-offs, meaning they’d come in for one session or a series of sessions all in one week, but that was it. Then I started personally following up with some my clients, offering them discounts, and maintaining the relationship. I might remind people that it’s time for seasonal updates, or that the holidays are approaching and it might be a nice time to get a new outfit. Now, about half of my clients are repeats.
11. You should learn how and when to say “no” to certain clients. There are two reasons I’ll choose not to work with someone: One is personality. I usually chat with people on the phone before I start, and if we don’t vibe, I won’t take them on as clients. I’m spending hours with each client and if our personalities don’t click, that’s just going to be miserable for everyone. The other reason is if it seems like the client isn’t ready for a real change. In order to work with a personal stylist, you have to be open to a certain amount of the transformation that we’re going to bring to your life, and sometimes it’s obvious that someone doesn’t actually want to change their wardrobe. I reject about 5 percent of would-be clients, and although it’s hard to turn down money, I would rather do that than risk someone not getting value out of the service and asking for a refund or giving us a bad review down the line.
12. It’s truly amazing how much an outfit can change someone’s life. It can be easy to trivialize a job like this, since it seems like it’s just shopping for clothes. It’s not. I’ve witnessed major transformations inside of fitting rooms, where you can just see someone’s confident building and their surprise at what they see in the mirror.
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