The evolution of men's personal shopping services

Department stores and new online retailers are rebooting the personal shopping experience with services that broaden men’s style horizons for both the office and weekend downtime. Mark C O’Flaherty reports. Portrait by David Ellis

A Harrods Men’s Adviser with a client in the store’s personal-shopping suite
A Harrods Men’s Adviser with a client in the store’s personal-shopping suite | Image: David Ellis

Like many men, I’m interested in clothes but apathetic about shopping. Over the past 20 or so years, I’ve distilled my wardrobe to the point where new items all meet certain criteria: they come from one of six or seven shops in London or New York and are in black, charcoal or white. Only one cherished dark green Harris tweed Nigel Cabourn jacket and a midnight blue Lanvin bomber hang in my closet as exceptions.

From left: Paige Lennox jeans, £215. Brown piqué cotton polo shirt, £135
From left: Paige Lennox jeans, £215. Brown piqué cotton polo shirt, £135

Men like me are the reason department stores and new online retailers are investing so much in developing their personal-shopping services and the technology that drives them. Personal shopping used to be dominated by female clients (men’s appointments even used to take place inside the womenswear department at Harvey Nichols) and when men did ask for the service, it was usually because they needed something for a specific event. Now rebooted menswear shopping services are more about styling for a lifestyle – from weekend downtime to the office – and most department stores offer a complimentary service; at Harrods, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols there’s no minimum spend. Personal shoppers are there to take the tedium and bewilderment out of the retail experience, but more significantly to second-guess what the customer will like – to take them beyond what they know suits them to what might suit them but they haven’t had the time or inclination to discover.

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Like Spotify’s weekly “Discover” list – which compiles songs that I’m unfamiliar with, and gets me saving about 10 per cent of the material to various permanent playlists – department-store and online stylists are tuning into customers’ tastes and selecting clothes and accessories that aren’t necessarily on their radars. Understanding a client’s lifestyle as well as personal style are key. When I recently shopped for the first time with online service Dappad, which launched last year, I first had a telephone conversation with one of its stylists, who talked through my work and social life, existing wardrobe and style icons (1980s David Bowie, when he was into belted trenches and voluminous Yohji Yamamoto pleats). We discussed my travel apparel – the seven similar black boiled-wool jackets from Comme des Garçons and Issey Miyake, the 20 identical black James Perse T-shirts, and my made-to-measure shirts from Budd in Mayfair; essential rather than indulgent, as my neck is two sizes out of step with my chest in terms of off-the-peg sizing. Two days later, a head-to-toe outfit arrived: a long-sleeved polo shirt (£135) in grey from Orlebar Brown, with enough stretch in the fabric to allow the top button to fasten neatly and comfortably; a grey wool unstructured blazer (£350) from Barena that could be folded into the overhead locker on a plane and emerge pristine at the other end; and a pair of skinny, pure black Lennox jeans (£215) by Paige, a brand I was unfamiliar with and a product I liked. It was a solid, stylish travel outfit and I was unlikely to have picked any of it myself.

The Chapar’s smart-casual business trunk
The Chapar’s smart-casual business trunk

“We have a 50 per cent return rate, but that reduces the longer we know the customer,” says Dappad’s founder, Erika Nilsson-Humphrey. “Men are willing to take risks, but I know that when they say they want to try something new, they are more likely to embrace a new brand rather than adventurous colour or pattern. It’s about being subtle – if you are selecting five items for a client, add one that is different from what he’s used to.”

Selfridges’ personal-shopping area for men 
Selfridges’ personal-shopping area for men  | Image: Gareth Davies/SnapMediaProductions

“The key for us is to stay one step ahead of our customer, but not three,” says Sam Middleton, founder of online personal-styling service The Chapar; launched three years ago, it has doubled its sales every year since and now has 35 stylists. “It’s always great to hear the words ‘I never would have picked that, but I love it’. Men have less time than ever – they are working harder and travelling further, and time is one of their most valued assets.” The Chapar invites customers to create a digital style profile, working through sample outfits and the kinds of brands they usually buy. Then a trunk with a capsule wardrobe is prepared and sent to their home or office. “We see it as a transportable changing room,” says Middleton. “Customers usually buy about 40 per cent of what we send them.”

Off-White quilted flannel shirt, £520
Off-White quilted flannel shirt, £520

There’s definitely a type of client who gravitates towards personal shopping. “He’s time-poor, City-based and works in finance, law or business,” says stylist Joe Ottaway, who charges £250 for a consultation and £450 for a personal-shopping experience. “People often perceive the kind of service I offer as something only for the famous, but I couldn’t disagree more,” he says. “Men’s expectations and tastes have changed dramatically, and I guide them in a direction that they might not have considered before. A lot have simply been overwhelmed and intimidated by the options.”

From left: Vetements nylon and jersey bomber jacket, £1,480. Denis Colomb cashmere coat, £3,075
From left: Vetements nylon and jersey bomber jacket, £1,480. Denis Colomb cashmere coat, £3,075

Bricks-and-mortar stores are enhancing their personal-shopping services, from offering 24/7 access to sales teams to building digital profiles for clients. “We recently launched a new online technology platform, in partnership with Salesfloor, which provides customers with direct access to our sales teams,” says Tom Ott of Saks Fifth Avenue. When US customers access Saks’ website, a widget will pop up asking if they’d like to speak to a local sales specialist who can suggest a selection of items based on their shopping history and lifestyle. Harrods in London does something similar: “We put together a virtual wardrobe based on what our customers have bought,” explains Sabrina Cannon, the store’s deputy director of personal shopping. “We can refer back to it before any appointment, or work through it if we are putting together a trunk of options to send to someone’s office or home.”

The personal-shopping area in Harvey Nichols’ recently expanded menswear department
The personal-shopping area in Harvey Nichols’ recently expanded menswear department

Harrods’ recently launched Men’s Adviser Service also now invites customers to have direct contact with the adviser via telephone, email, WhatsApp or FaceTime in addition to in-store, and provides the option of meeting at their home, hotel or at the office. After a consultation, pieces can be gathered in-store or sent directly to the client. When I tried the service, I set my stylist – Thomas Lazzarini – the task of introducing me to colour. After a telephone consultation, I arrived in the personal-shopping suite at the store and he talked me through a rack of choices, including a burgundy bomber jacket by Ami Paris (£350) (“a colour that’s not black, but absolutely isn’t bright red either”) and a floral print shirt by Sandro (£175) that was garishly Monet on its own, but looked good under a workwear-style Tiger of Sweden navy jacket (£335). I could have happily worn everything.

Maison Margiela wool rollneck jumper, £405
Maison Margiela wool rollneck jumper, £405

As part of the new “360 Service”, stylists also pull stock from other departments. I am bearded, so Lazzarini suggested Tom Ford beard oil (£40) and a beard comb (£29). No one needs a Tom Ford-branded beard comb, but I love the idea of small, affordable objects that bring a frisson of pleasure every day. I was also shown a selection of Roja Dove’s fragrances, of which I am a huge fan. Lazzarini has a close relationship with many of his regular clients and knows when he hears a WhatsApp alert on his phone between 2am and 3am it’s inevitably a customer based in Asia who needs something.

Wooster + Lardini Donegal tweed trousers, £330
Wooster + Lardini Donegal tweed trousers, £330

And while made-to-measure tailoring has long been the backbone of the personal-styling service at Harrods, it now also sees “clients come in with a much‑loved piece that they want a new outfit built around”, says Cannon. “One man came in with a chalkstripe Tom Ford jacket that was originally part of a suit, and we created a variety of looks to work with it. And we can now also access certain designers’ archives. If there was something a client loved from Acne two years ago, we can often get it from them, even if it’s not on any shop floor any more.”

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Some personal shoppers also have the connections and insights into the key collections and new brands that are traditionally the domain of a fashion editor or independent stylist. “There is a new generation of clients who use our services for access to the latest collections, exclusives and hard-to-find pieces across every category,” says Lampros Tsitras, men’s personal-shopping manager at Selfridges, which has spent two years refining its services for men and now offers the option of home consultations. “Personal shoppers will also be the first ones to know about new arrivals, before they even launch on the shop floor.” Tsitras points to Virgil Abloh’s Off-White label as a contemporary brand that customers are responding well to – particularly the new season green and blue checked (£365) and quilted shirts (£520).

Over the past 12 months, the in-house stylists at Matchesfashion.com have also been bringing customers up-to-date on potentially unfamiliar brands. “We try to educate in terms of new designers,” says customer-experience director Ines Lareo. “We have introduced clients to Vetements via signature pieces such as the oversized hooded bomber jacket (£1,480) and fine cashmere brand Denis Colomb (coat, £3,075), whose clothes are designed by a former architect.”

Many men, particularly those in the City, have a working wardrobe that is set in stone; as a result, they stick to one tailor for their core weekday look. All my made-to-measure suits are from Pokit – I like the relaxed cut and often rugged textiles. But for those who have an interest in their off-duty wardrobe beyond jeans and a T-shirt or sweater, shopping for clothes can be more challenging because there are few rules or codes. This is where the stylist’s eye becomes invaluable. “I have one client who owns a legal firm, and splits his time between London and Dubai,” says Harvey Nichols personal shopper Dean Alexander. “He doesn’t need help with his suits, but he likes a very contemporary off‑duty look, which is where I come in. I introduced him to Dries van Noten, which he likes, and Kolor, which this season has a great white shirt (£355) with a cream chiffon and grosgrain front panel. He’s been wearing it with Balmain jeans.”

When I tried out the personal-shopping service at the recently expanded menswear department at Harvey Nichols, Alexander and I talked through my likes and dislikes and what I have in my wardrobe. He then took me to a rack of autumn pieces by South Korean brand Solid Homme, which I wasn’t familiar with, and picked out a long-sleeved collarless black top (£260) in suede-like rayon with a zip down the front. He predicted, correctly, that I’d want it immediately. “I like to call this design a ‘shacket’,” he said. “It’s light, and styled like a bomber – you could wear it alone or layer it with a T-shirt underneath.”

There were a few misses: a blue Marni shirt looked like surgical scrubs when I tried it on. But he suggested plenty of things I would wear, and which I wouldn’t otherwise have tried on: a sand-coloured Rick Owens shirt (£350), elongated in length, looked slightly peculiar on the rack on the shop floor, but relaxed and chic when worn with a pair of Neil Barrett pinstriped trousers (£300) with cuffed ankles and chunky, ivory coloured Rick Owens x Adidas shell-toe trainers (£550). Later, in an attempt to steer me towards colour, he put me in a Maison Margiela rollneck (£405) in a muted red that matched the coloured flecks in a pair of grey Donegal tweed tailored trousers (£330) by Wooster + Lardini. Again, I liked it a lot.

Personal shoppers such as Alexander are nowadays closer to personal stylists who help their clients develop an individual style by introducing them to designers and brands they would not normally come across or consider. It’s about inspiration as much as convenience. It’s back to that moment pinpointed by Sam Middleton of The Chapar: “I never would have picked that, but I love it.”

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