Singer Rihanna is a beloved Barneys client. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/CATWALKING
Singer Rihanna is a beloved Barneys client. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/CATWALKING

New York  — In the 1990s era of must-see TV, Barneys New York was immortalised as the city’s retail holy grail. Seinfeld’s Elaine spent an entire episode obsessing over a discounted dress. Titular characters Will and Grace would plan their social calendars around markdown events. The store was referenced so frequently in Sex and the City, it dedicated its holiday windows to Carrie Bradshaw one year. 

And while sitcoms may have lost the battle to streaming apps, the shopping behemoth has so far weathered the storm of internet shopping. Its 18,500-plus square metres of space — filled with 1,400 luxury brands — remains an essential destination for Upper East Siders and passport-toting stiletto-hounds alike. And the store’s personal shopping division still offers one of New York’s ultimate conveniences: free styling services for clients with loose wallets and tight schedules.

Year after year, Barneys personal shopping department outperforms itself, despite the grim retail forecast just beyond its flagship’s nine-floor-high walls; it currently represents about 15% of the store’s sales volume. That should only keep rising. In its jointly filed The State of Fashion 2018, The Business of Fashion and McKinsey called personalised shopping the biggest trend of the year. “More and more people are looking for niche brands or niche stock keeping units (SKU),” said Richard Liu of Chinese retailer JD.com in the white paper. “No one wants to [put a bag on the table] when a lot of ladies have the same bag with the same style. They want to find something special.”

So when Barneys offered me a position at its Madison Avenue store, I decided to see retail’s best remaining weapon in action. I may have a style vocabulary based solely on The Devil Wears Prada quotes and be one stomach flu away from my goal weight, but it turns out that the skillset of a personal shopper extends far beyond understanding the vicissitudes of the fashion world.

In fact, picking out a cocktail dress is probably the easiest part of the job — try hand-delivering take-away food to a hospitalised client, organising a private jet for a client’s old wardrobe, or sourcing $300 bibs for those still in the womb.

Six-figure shopping sprees are no big deal

In order to hold a place among the pantheon of personal shoppers at Barneys, you generally need to demonstrate the potential to provide $2m in annual retail sales. But most Rolodexes are worth way more: each of the store’s 10 stylists maintains at least 50 regular clients; one claimed more than 200.

What stylists earn depends on the products they sell and their stature at the company. Shoes, for instance, garner some of the highest product commissions in the store, at 5.75%. One former employee says it’s possible to make enough commission on a good day to put a down payment on a house

Robert Nguyen, Barneys’ personal shopping and studio services manager, estimates that the department collectively claims at least 20 clients who will dish out more than $1m for fashion each year. And each stylist has a handful of shoppers who will easily drop $250,000 to $300,000 every season.

Sometimes customers spend this much in one day: the biggest single sprees on record have totaled more than $400,000. Such numbers are easier to hit if you’re buying one-of-a-kind jewellery pieces for $150,000 each, or replacing an entire wardrobe in a pinch. Remember the episode of Friends in which Rachel had to suit up a handsome client whose entire closet had been incinerated by his ex-wife?

In a less-dramatic, real-life version, one Middle Eastern royal stopped by the store a couple of hours before his flight to Coachella wanting a new wardrobe for his trip. All the outfits ended up in a store-bought suitcase wheeled back to his hotel, while his old clothes got shipped back home — with his family — on a private jet.

It’s all about the commissions

Unlike at other luxury retailers, Barneys’s personal shopping services are scattered across the store, rather than centralised. Each stylist maintains an autonomous office, a fashion fiefdom complete with dedicated assistants and a unique point of view on the store’s mantra: “Taste, luxury, humour.”

Things aren’t always so funny, however, in an industry with the potential for bank-breaking commissions. What stylists earn depends on the products they sell and their stature at the company. Shoes, for instance, garner some of the highest product commissions in the store, at 5.75%. One former employee says it’s possible to make enough commission on a good day to put a down payment on a house.

With stakes that high, competition for new clients is fierce. Nguyen estimates that roughly 80% of first-time clients will go home with a new purchase, and half will come back to buy more. Sixty percent of the regulars are local New Yorkers — ladies who (stare at their) lunch — meaning they can come in on a near-daily basis.

In other words, every fashionista-in-need has the potential to lay a golden egg. That’s why Barneys constantly shuffles the order of personal shoppers’ names on its booking website and requested anonymity for the stylists in this story. The company wanted to mitigate any unfair advantages (or disadvantages) for those quoted.

They don’t call it ‘retail therapy’ for nothin’

Clients rarely bring friends or family along when they’ve booked a consultation with their “fashion doctor”. It’s a very intimate process. There’s a certain vulnerability that occurs when you take off your cashmere-swaddled shell, and wardrobe appointments inevitably devolve into therapy sessions. Sometimes customers ask stylists for advice, such as one who wanted to know which colour Porsche to purchase. Most of the time, it’s purely confessional. We’re talking affairs, bad business deals, divorces. One client offhandedly confessed to poisoning her husband — “Don’t worry, she’s not a regular,” I was told, as though I’d find that qualification reassuring.

You’re never too young for a proper fitting

The youngest customer a stylist has ever pulled an outfit for? This would-be trendsetter hadn’t yet been born. One of the shoppers on staff had a favorite client who was expecting a child, so she sourced a wardrobe of trendy onesies for the arriving baby; sizing is never an issue with a Gucci burpie bib! Neo-natal collections such as these are pulled gratis for longtime regulars, but under-age customers are a real thing, too. Most often, stylists are tasked with kids’ requests for special occasions such as weddings; once, a 14-year-old came in with dad’s credit card and mom’s supervision to source outfits for her upcoming boarding school interviews.

To shoppers’ relief, no one’s been styled for their funeral just yet. But with several elderly shoppers on the regular rotation, it’s inevitable.

Celebrity clients can be … complex

When famous people come in for personal styling — from movie stars to athletes — they are often more problematic than the average shopper. Some have their own team (read: peanut gallery) that can complicate easy shopping decisions, while others have become overly accustomed to getting things free. Some are simply narcissists. The team says that the trick is anticipating all the details, from precise sizing needs to outsized personality quirks.

For example, one diva always requires that an ice-cold bottle of Dom Perignon be waiting for her when she arrives at the store. Another famously demanding chanteuse has garnered a reputation for sticky fingers; she’ll have dozens of outfits delivered to her home, then claim they were returned to the store when, in fact, they’re still hanging in her closet. (Her personal stylist — unaffiliated with Barneys — creeps into her wardrobe while she’s away and slyly returns the missing items.)

One pop superstar — who had the store shut down when he shopped — purchased a Hermès bicycle on a whim and then insisted it be delivered to his hotel bedside in the middle of the night. He wanted it to be first thing he saw in the morning when he opened his eyes.

Not all A-listers get Fs for behaviour, of course. Rihanna is a beloved Barneys client; she even attended the wedding of her in-house stylist. And renowned authors are almost always in personal shoppers’ good graces. One famous novelist, during the height of her designer appetite, was dropping a cool $2m a year; another, an elderly Pulitzer Prize winner, is seen as one of the store’s most stylish, savvy customers.

Fashion doctors make house calls, too

Busy shopaholics with reliable sizing can have Barneys stylists messenger fashion picks to try on at home, as part of the store’s consignment programme. For one loyal customer I worked with, this meant $75,000 worth of clothing every week, sent out on Wednesdays, as a means to stay on top of the latest looks.

Several stylists have clients that are needier and ask for full-on house calls. These requests are often driven by special needs: say, a total closet overhaul, or packing help for an upcoming holiday. As a result, Nguyen gauges that many of his stylists spend from four to 12 hours a week offsite, rummaging through clients’ wardrobes.

When it comes to weight gain, stylists are adept at not pointing out the elephant in the room, especially when the elephant is responsible for their income. They’ll sooner cut off a garment’s tags than confront clients with the reality of a size change

On the more extreme end, one personal shopper estimates that she visits about 25% of her customers’ homes and is on more than 10 round-trip flights a year to chuck outdated outfits, from California to Europe. During my stint, she had just gotten back from a Marie Kondo-inspired marathon in London: some 48 hours of closet cleaning for a fashion victim whose wardrobe no longer inspired joy.

Skinny, little lies are the most important kind

There’s a golden rule I learned that every stylist must follow: never be the first to mention any negative changes in a client’s appearance. The point of a personal shopper is to make clients feel good about themselves, after all. When it comes to weight gain, stylists are adept at not pointing out the elephant in the room, especially when the elephant is responsible for their income. They’ll sooner cut off a garment’s tags than confront clients with the reality of a size change.

This is especially true with regulars who see fashion as wearable art and maintain sample-size statures in order to maximise the breadth of their designer purchases. Obsessed with their measurements, many of them simply won’t try on an article of clothing if it’s not in their desired size, even if the brand runs small. (They get the ripped-tag treatment, too.) According to the styling team, no one ever seems to notice the missing labels.

Want a private jet with your Balenciaga?

Little known fact: Barneys has two concierges to help arrange all the non-clothing-related details of its clients’ lives. The store is actually the first member of the New York City Association of Hotel Concierges that doesn’t have its own accommodations.

On any given day, concierge services manager Taylor Piedra and his associate co-ordinate from 20 to 50 restaurant bookings for store customers, usually at trendy spots such as Frenchette and Le Coucou. He also co-ordinates much bigger asks, such as hotel reservations in France, last-minute plane tickets, and private jet holds. Occasionally, he’ll help organise an in-store proposal, such as the time a bride-to-be got the question popped in the Louboutin salon. Her boyfriend said he wanted to surround her with her favorite thing in the world: shoes.

The biggest ask in recent memory was from a VIP shopper whose husband dreamed of throwing a first pitch for the New York Yankees. When that exact experience went up for auction, she had the service team place bids throughout the day while she shopped — and eventually won it.

Barneys’ ‘impossibles’ are hardly superheroes. They’re intrinsically miserable shoppers who erroneously think that material goods will boost their happiness

Few New Yorkers realise that these services are offered to anyone who walks in the store, not just personal shopping clients. And yes, Piedra will even provide directions to Bloomingdale’s — a request that came in while I was on duty — if that’s what you really need.

Actions speak louder than words, especially when a stylist is watching

Some clients are very straightforward about their clothing needs: one woman shops exclusively around her husband’s odd hatred of buttons. There’s a cardiologist who won’t buy anything unless it has hearts on it. But many customers require a black belt in behavioural analysis when closing a sale. One Long Island dame says she doesn’t like the lighting in her stylist’s private office —  but really, she enjoys soliciting “oohs” and “ahs” from strangers as she struts around the store’s aisles.

Then there’s the “rag hunter” — one particular client derives shopping pleasure from feeling as if she was the one who sourced her new look. At the beginning of each visit, her stylist wheels in a rack of clothing, stacked with pieces he knows she’ll love, and says it’s all on hold for someone else. Then, he leaves her alone as she pulls out her favorite pieces. Apparently, it works every time.

Some shoppers are impossible — even here

Barneys’ “impossibles” are hardly superheroes. They’re intrinsically miserable shoppers who erroneously think that material goods will boost their happiness. But there’s one trait even more irritating to a personal shopper: paralysis by analysis. One client still simmers about the one-of-a-kind pearl earrings she bought and returned twice; by the third time she tried to buy them, someone else had snatched them up. This type of craziness rarely warrants a break-up between stylist and client, something to be avoided if at all possible. But it does happen, particularly when clients abuse consignment privileges or are verbally abusive toward Barneys staff.

Employee perks go both ways

The real perks of being a personal shopper (aside from a minimum employee discount of 35%, which goes up to 45% semi-annually) are better than cold, hard cash. While in-house tailors get tips — often $100 a pop for a simple hem — personal shoppers get such indulgent presents as cases of top-vintage wine, bouquets of flowers from the Plaza, coveted couture from Dior, or tickets to Hamilton.

Invitations to birthdays and weddings are practically everyday occurrences, and it’s fairly common for personal shoppers to sit at the bride and groom’s table in the place of the happy couple’s relatives. One stylist mentioned going on an African safari with her clients; another flew down to the French Riviera for a week of poolside lounging, gossip, and rosé.

Perks aside, these are trusted relationships. When one stylist’s father was unwell, his client — one of New York’s top oncologists — made himself available to attend all of his medical consultations and had $24,000 of uninsured cancer medicine hand-delivered to the store.

It goes both ways, though. One stylist referred his client to a plastic surgeon, then chaperoned her to and from a facelift, twice. Another made a special visit to the hospital with take-away food from Freds (Barneys’ signature restaurant) after one of her elderly clients was hit by a taxi and broke both legs.

What every stylish person needs

During my tenure at Barneys, the most requested fashion labels by name — based on queries at the concierge desk — were the Row, Nili Lotan, and Ulla Johnson. The typical female customer was on the hunt for designer shoes and lingerie, while the men made beelines to the suit department. All seemed concerned about finding their favourite denim.

As for fashion advice, however, one size never fits all. According to a senior stylist, you can’t go wrong if you’re checking off these boxes: every stylish woman, she said, should have a day bag, an evening bag, five pairs of shoes per season, a luncheon dress, a cocktail dress, a sexy pantsuit and, for this season, high-waisted pants. And a man should possess one amazing suit (in navy or gray), a tuxedo, and excellent shoes — both casual and dress.

The fashion rule I found most useful? Buy only what you love. You might have a million bucks to spend at Barneys, but you’ll only look that part if you feel it, too.

Bloomberg