The Wealthy Bounce Back: Personal Shoppers on the Rebound to Prove It

How a resurgence in luxury spending is boosting consultants cultivating clients with deep, couture pockets.

In the exclusive world of the Saks Fifth Avenue Club, survival of the fittest is all about the eye, the gab, the loyalty, and yes, the tailored fit. Proving to be one of the fittest is Gustavo Tabares, 50, one of six of the Saks personal shopping consultants at the Biltmore Fashion Park’s store in Phoenix, where he has robed and Spanxed, bejeweled and accessorized women from 18 to 85 over the past 12 years.

It’s a tough job but somebody has to do it – somebody who uses their innate gift to guide affluent shoppers in making smart choices that endure.

“I love my clients, I love the city here and my partner is here, so it isn’t important for me to leave and dress celebrities in Beverly Hills,” shares the stylist, who gave up his retail biz at the Biltmore because of the 24/7 grind. “I don’t want to work for one person who is very demanding and you have to be at their beckon call at all times.”

Instead of the Rachel Zoe devotees desperate to stand out or at least not flop on the red carpet, Tabares services everyday executives, doctors, housewives, sports wives, a handful of men and local celebs attending society events and fund raisers, jetting out to second homes or planning weddings.

They are varied but what they share is money to spend and a reliance on a consultant savvy at amassing a rack of gems that suit them and who are able to inform about fashion houses, fabrics, colors, as well as completing an ensemble.

“Not everyone with a lot of money has great taste, and the biggest advantage for them is the personal service and the convenience, especially for those who are too busy to shop,” he says. “My clients walk from the parking lot to the dressing room and then back to their cars, never needing to peruse the store. I do it all for them.”

He and other club consultants like New York’s Fay Ricotta, featured in the Wall Street Journal, do it all in large, hidden closet size rooms where they line up what they have amassed for their clients. While the service is free, clients lusting after labels are willing to fork over big bills for their clothes, and the consultants earn their livelihoods from these healthy commissions.

The percentages amount to six-figure incomes for top consultants in good times, but after 2008 the club saw a decline as shoppers cut back, nothing staggering but enough to worry salespeople at Saks without salaries. Wardrobe consultants at Barney’s and Bergdorf Goodman also reported feeling the pinch.

“Clients were more careful and did not continue shopping the way they once did,” observed Tabares.

He shares this season’s pattern and color fest is one way his shoppers are coming back – the bright geometric explosion spilling over to everything from shifts to beads and bags, working like eye candy.

“When you walk into the store and see gorgeous color everywhere, accessories, shoes, ready-to-wear, it makes people smile,” he shares. “When the economy is bad, designers go for color.”

Even if the picture continues to be bad for most taxpayers, the start of a dramatic sales spike in the luxury category segment was reported by the New York Times a year ago with July 2011 seeing an 11.6 increase, the biggest monthly gain in a year due mostly to a Dow Jones recovery of 80 percent and the success of marketing to convince the public that extravagance is chic again – or at least quality over quantity should prevail.

As evidence luxe is alive and kicking again, marked- up designer goods began flying off of the shelves at department stores, where consultants were cultivating a new consumer, one seeking the couture image as long as the investment was more than one season deep; not just trendy but with a classic longevity.

Neiman Marcus closed its own personal shopping salon, yet the store gloated over selling out almost every size of its Christian Louboutin Bianca platform pumps at $775 a pair, while Nordstrom kept a waiting list for a $9,000 Chanel sequined tweed coat.

As stylist Tabares points out, customers seeking high design have still learned lessons about spending frivolously, adding that a focus on the quality argument is actually in line with the eco reductionist mantra less is more. “You can go to Marshall’s and spend $100 and buy three outfits and wear them once or twice and if they go to the cleaners they will look old,” he says. “When you buy quality it always looks good.”

If stores like Saks resorted to mark downs in 2008 to swipe more plastic, buyers and designers are now peddling over-the-top accessories, including fancy footwear which has suddenly shot up as reflected in the most extreme example, this Spring’s strappy Wave Wedge at Neiman’s  – yours from Alexander McQueen for $4,630.

The increase prompted a snarky outcry from Jezebel asking what has happened to designer shoes since 2000 when full priced YSLs and Pradas were $400. “They really got f—ing expensive!” said the fashion watch site, which quoted Barneys as agreeing $900 as the average price for shoes is disconcerting but adding it opens up with ballet flats for a reasonable $395.

Which all begs the age-old question of restraint: if you have $395 for flats or $9,000 for a beaded jacket,  does that mean you should spend it? Jenny from the block used to have a little now she has a lot, but stays grounded and never forgets where she came from.

This is what we expect from big celebrities, but what about professionals living in a country with hungry children and depleted public schools? Should they be careful and conscientious buying stuff on sale like the everyman?

Personal shoppers rarely if ever pull discounted items for their customers; in fact one flamboyant, unnamed top consultant at Saks in San Francisco confided, “I don’t believe in sales.”

One of this stylist’s longtime clients recently held a gala at a five star hotel the city, showcasing a feathered gown he had plucked for her and entertaining guests with a lavish display of ice bars with caviar, boatloads of sushi, a half dozen open bars, candy rooms to rival Willy Wonka’s factory and bags of gourmet gifts for guests. It led her husband to quip, “she had an unlimited budget yet managed to exceed it.”

Some were taken aback by the extravagance during this recommended era of belt-tightening, but as one fellow board member of the hostess aptly put it: “These people may throw expensive parties but they also are the first to write a check for a good cause when you need them.”‘

Images: Arizonafoothills; Kendrascott; Wall Street Journal;metro




Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.