The one-off I want

Unique, customised, couture-quality… these are the requirements of demanding, design-savvy clients. Avril Groom reveals the stores and websites that offer ‘super service’.

September 25 2010
Avril Groom

A secret diary of clients’ social lives that notes who is wearing what to where, swatches of cloth from which customers can order outfits in different fabrics from those offered commercially, the removal of an item from stock once an order has been placed: these are all tools of the vendeuse’s trade that for the past half century have scarcely been seen outside the ateliers of haute couture. Yet in 2010, they have once again become essentials in the élite world of one-to-one retail service, as customers’ desire for the unique is met by growing competition among those striving to fulfil it.

The new level of super-service focuses on rarity and exclusivity, with boutiques, stores and now websites all desperate to offer what no one else has. So deals are signed with designers on capsule ranges for one shop or site only, hot new names are nurtured – sometimes even with manufacturing help – by just one store, and the rarest, most intricate catwalk pieces sold only to order. The best shops and websites are closing in on the customers’ retail nirvana: a personal shopper getting you the one dress that no one else can have – at least, not in your town.

It started with handbags five years ago: brands would make unique versions of a style and send them on a world tour of stores until they sold. Clothes, however, are more complex. Size, fit, climate and regional taste enter the equation, along with the questionable economics, at ready-to-wear level, of making just one item. Usually, more are made – five being a good minimum – and are then distributed round the world (hence those lists of the sartorial comings and goings of global high society).

Demand far outstrips the supply, in a process that is essentially self-limiting. “We have expanded our personal shopping staff as it is time-consuming to track down a unique item for one client,” says James Servini, head of personal shopping at Selfridges. “There is a voracious appetite for uniqueness but it is something we can only offer to extremely good clients.”

His passion lies in satisfying the most demanding customers. “These are people for whom cost is no object, who have staff to find them anything they want, so we must offer a service that is beyond that. Introducing them to a designer such as Osman Yousefzada, with whom we have good relations and who will remake a design for them in a different size or colour, or being able to secure at a charity auction a specially designed jewellery piece by Sevan Biçakçi for a collector customer, gives them a reason to come back to us.”

A similar view from a different standpoint comes from Elaine Lassman, editor-in-chief of Nota Bene Pulse, the fashion and beauty side of the online travel-management service founded by her husband – for which the joining fee with a year’s subscription costs from £3,000. With contacts worldwide, she enjoys ferreting out extraordinary pieces in far-flung corners of the globe, matching them to clients and shipping them when they say yes.

“Their desire for uniqueness overrides any cost. I have clients who collect rather than wear,” she says. “Recently I found some one-off artwork boots by Yuima Nakazato in Antwerp and immediately sent images to a particular client, who bought them.” Knowing the minutiae of shops worldwide is essential, she continues – “being able to tell people that the Paris Prada has more special items than other branches, or knowing designers well enough to ask them to make a special variant of a catwalk piece they didn’t plan to produce. Items such as Hermès bags are easy; jumping the queue is possible if they know you will pay upfront, and our name helps. It’s a matter of mutual trust, as designer special orders involve a large outlay with at least 50 per cent deposit.”

Personal stylist Georgie Pincus, whose StyleU service brings pop-up shopping into clients’ homes, agrees. “My clients are cash-rich, time-poor and mostly hate shopping because they don’t want what they see in every store,” she says. The basic service is a personal shopping evening at home, involving champagne, canapés, style advice and rails of clothes for 10 to 20 people for £500. She researches the participants’ needs with a questionnaire beforehand and selects from sources with which she has special links, including Stella McCartney (offering advance orders from next season’s lookbook), Michael Kors and Matches boutique.

“The system depends on the clients trusting my expertise, and the designers trusting me to bring them genuine customers. The appeal is having your girlfriends’ style opinions, as working women don’t have time to shop with their friends any more.”

Such designer customisation, where catwalk pieces can be altered, re-coloured or embellished, is rarely publicised and offered only to the most loyal clients. The Michael Kors Collection flagship stores offer made-to-measure gowns in a choice of fabrics and embellishment; Louis Vuitton makes handcrafted items in its Paris studio, which can be ordered and fitted in the private customer suites at the new London maison; and Dolce & Gabbana has a book showing alternative fabrics and embellishment for key pieces, in sizes 36-50 and from £2,000 to £15,000, available at their flagship stores and Harrods.

The latter store adds another level of uniqueness, as clients can order handmade couture dresses from Elie Saab and Versace’s Atelier collection (which is no longer shown on the catwalk; instead a dozen or so one-off dresses are revealed each season in Paris, at €27,000 to €75,000). Meanwhile, Harrods Launches is a ready-to-wear initiative to “nurture and promote new talent, including production help, to launch careers”, according to fashion and beauty director Marigay McKee. Autumn’s new names, unavailable elsewhere, include minimalist tailoring from graduate JJS Lee (from £459), 1940s-style elegance from Nicole Murray (from £259) and embellished, to-order eveningwear from Hasan Hejazi (from £369).

Also offering in-store exclusives, Harvey Nichols has the 10 styles that make up Lulu and Co (from £405), in which curator Lulu Kennedy marks 10 years of her influential Fashion East show with archive dresses from 10 of the young British designers it has brought to prominence, such as Gareth Pugh’s strapless style with geometric patent leather “tiles” (£1,230) in very limited numbers. Liberty has another way of finding exclusives: it invites in new names with its annual Open Call, which has uncovered labels such as Genuine Article, who make one-off pieces from vintage and recycled leather (from £700).

One-off, couture-quality pieces are the way forward for young British designers, believes collector and designer mentor Daphne Guinness, a judge of the new annual Dorchester Collection Fashion Prize. “People increasingly want true beauty, originality and structure, and that means maintaining the craftsmanship this entails,” she says. For example, one of the five semifinalists, Thomas Tait – who completed a technical pattern-cutting course before a Central Saint Martins degree – cuts and sews alone every stitch of his unique structured outfits.

Some boutiques are even more intimate go-betweens, linking customers with designers. “We go the extra mile on uniqueness,” says Josephine Turner, co-owner of London boutique A La Mode. “We can get designs altered to order by Marc Jacobs, Marni or Queene and Belle. At our pre-season trunk shows for designers such as Oscar de la Renta, items ordered privately are not bought for stock, so the client may have the only one in London.”

Erin Mullaney, buying director at Browns, says this situation presents a dilemma: “It’s tempting to order more, but the customer may want exclusivity. It depends on the piece and the clients, who are very savvy and know exactly what they want.” Browns’ recent Future Collectables (for which designers made special pieces to celebrate the store’s 40th anniversary) has inspired new initiatives: a dozen or so pairs of shoes in four styles by talented graduate Sophia Grace (from £395), intricate one-off designs by Meadham Kirchhoff (£3,000 to £4,000), two showpiece gowns from Alexander McQueen’s final collection (£9,135), and Browns’ own version of Christopher Kane’s flower-embroidered leather jacket (£4,180).

Matches’ services include taking selections of exclusives to clients’ homes, here or abroad, iPad lookbooks for pre-ordering in store and, says Matches buying director Bridget Cosgrave, “occasionally buying a piece for a customer that we won’t have in store, if we know it would suit her”.

With online shopping in Britain now worth £17.8bn (according to Mintel), up 160 per cent since 2005, boutiques such as Browns and Matches have comprehensive websites offering styling advice and follow-ups by phone on expensive orders (over £2,000 at Browns). Net-a-Porter, quoted as worth £350m in its recent deal with luxury group Richemont after 10 burgeoning years, sees unique pieces as a logical extension of its top-level business.

“We have an invitation-only service for the most loyal customers, whom we get to know just as a boutique would,” says vice-president of sales and marketing Alison Loehnis. “Today’s shopper thinks ahead, goes on and pre-books with us what she wants – a catwalk-only dress, or a non-stock size. We have exclusives each season from designers such as Roland Mouret and Stella McCartney, but it’s most unique to mix it in your own way – that is always our style advice.”

Conversely, Munich-based site Mytheresa, which has competed boldly for special pieces from luminaries such as Vionnet, Marc Jacobs and Balenciaga, also has individual pieces from several British designers: an evening dress from Richard Nicoll (£1,098), a rabbit-fur trench from Burberry Prorsum (£2,355) and print pieces by Erdem Moralioglu (from £192). The latter, being very astute at developing exclusives for different retailers, has also created a distinctive take on a Liberty print (pieces from £340) for the Great Marlborough Street store and, for Matches, five silk print pieces (from £475). Numbers are small, as with Victoria Beckham’s company (which doubtless knows the value of exclusives better than most). It allocates just a few examples of different dresses (from £950) to outlets such as Selfridges or Net-a-Porter. “They are in high demand,” says Servini. “Samples are shown to invited customers, who pay upfront, and they rarely reaches the shop floor, unless one proves unsuitable.”

However, not all exclusives come with rarefied price tags. Matches has individual dresses and blouses made with vintage-style fabrics by Beyond Vintage (from £300) and special pieces, such as a suede cape (£489), from rising Singapore-based range Raoul. Members-only website Cocosa deals primarily with previous-seasons’ designer stock in limited one- or two-day sales, but also sometimes includes samples or specially designed limited ranges – the next one being from Anna Sui. My-Wardrobe concentrates on mid-range exclusives – Anya Hindmarch for Barbour (from £249), special designs from Jaeger London (from £175) and Katia Lombardo shoes (£245) – but applies similar levels of service as its pricier sisters, and has just won the Draper’s E-tail Customer Experience award. But these are the exceptions, for as Lassman puts it, “high spenders drive this market”, and the way to join it is through loyalty to a store or site. Find the one whose choice of specials suits your wardrobe best, stick with it and enjoy the unique privileges.