Fashion First-Person Accounts Investigations

Are You Being Served?

The inside scoop from a personal shopper who slung beautiful garms to the stars.

The Northern Line was sticky with heat on the way to work, so I had to go to the bathroom to apply deodorant before I walked out onto the floor of a famous London department store – The Store – where I was working as a personal shopper. There was a 9am appointment I had to be ready for. They were a couple in their thirties. He was no more than 5’4″, dressed in Levi’s and loafers. His girlfriend was blonde, very blonde, and this was her birthday treat. She wanted a dress for ‘going out’. We had prepared the rails of the suite with dresses from Alaïa, Victoria Beckham and Peter Pilotto.

The short man then asked me if I could get him some trousers. I went downstairs and took some off the rails from Gieves and Hawkes – the first suitable ones I could see – and then went back upstairs to give them to him. At The Store, we were told to give clients a longer pair, so they could be tailored up by the in-house atelier. This time, as the short man looked in the mirror and saw the hems of the trousers folding over his feet like a pair of woollen shoes, he realised he looked ridiculous.

He started shouting, telling me that ‘I wasn’t taking him seriously’. The Store had taught us that we should never answer back to a customer, so I walked out of the personal suite and told my colleague, Emily, that she needed to take over.

An hour later, I asked Emily how she had got on with the couple. She turned to me and said, ‘She got more drunk and she didn’t like any of the dresses. But she did get a Gucci handbag.’ This, she told me, was because he had offered to buy it for her on the condition that she reciprocate with anal sex.

Working as a personal shopper wasn’t exactly my dream job. I was studying fashion at university in London. I needed to pay for my rent, travel, food and yes, I wanted some new clothes. I got my job at The Store through ‘Supreme Associates’, a temping agency, who paid me £8 an hour and supplied me with a dull uniform to wear as I patrolled the shop floor. After a while, I was headhunted to join the personal shoppers. Some of my colleagues were amiable enough, but more than a few were vile: a comically vain Brazilian man who cavorted around the store; a botoxed, posh Englishwoman in her early middle age, who boasted that she could afford to send her children to private school.

When I worked there, the eight personal shoppers operated a 1% commission. In theory, they could earn up to £70,000 a year. They saw themselves as ranking above the sales assistants, who stood for eight hours a day at their stalls, while the shoppers went gliding around the floors, operating under the title of ‘personal stylists’. A more accurate job description would be ‘roomfillers’. Before a client turns up, we would fill the private suite with clothes, but hardly with a discerning eye. The Store told us that the aim was to make a client spend £2,000, at the very least.

We would stand either outside the suite or inside the suite, as clients would try items for fit. If the clothes met with approval, a yellow post-it note would be placed by them. At the end of the engagement, we would tally up the desired items and head to the till. The most I ever put through for less than an hour’s work was £24,000.

The personal shopping suite is a changing room with mood lighting. There are no locks on the door, but it does have a fridge stocked with Laurent Perrier champagne and little trays of almond nuts.

As the appointment progressed, customers would leave rejected clothes in a heap for me to pick up, and it always pained me to see those beautiful clothes treated like manky gym kit. At university, I spent my time learning how to repair, refine and construct garments, and I owned no items of quality. I remember one Chinese family who came in the summer holidays, with their children in tow and a silent nanny to look after them. The father was eating truffle oil chips, which started reeking out the room as his wife tried on some of our most expensive items. He would hand them to her, smearing the oil all over the lining of the Chanel tweed jackets.

After a while, I was trusted with the bigger clients. I was given a special phone for clients to reach me on, and I would get lots of two-minute-long voice notes at all hours of the day, or, if I was lucky, blurry photos of an item. Among these clients, there was an assumption that you knew every single piece of clothing in stock by sight, so you had to match detective work to breezy confidence. It was another world for me.

I would see celebrities daily. Fiona Bruce. Eddie Izzard. Kanye West. David Beckham (who is very good-looking). The only time I got goosebumps was dressing Malala Yousafzai. She came in one day with three chatty bodyguards. She wanted to buy some clothes to look smart at Oxford, where she was starting university that autumn. I walked round the shop, picking up a pair of J Brand jeans and some Veja trainers. I could tell she was nervous about fitting in at Oxford and felt that she needed to look the part. I wanted to tell her she didn’t need these clothes. But then I thought: neither does anyone else.

My regular clients weren’t famous but they were very rich. The al-Thani princesses would remove their niqabs as they came into the suite; they were clever and funny and loved the latest fashion from Gucci and Dior. There was one of the princesses I liked in particular. Formerly married, she was now divorced and living alone in London, and the trips to The Store seemed like a much-needed form of socialising for her. Still, there was very little glamour in this rarefied world. Before one Christmas, I was endlessly stuck in the bathroom, about 30 boxes deep, wrapping up presents for the friends and family of the proprietor. Everything stopped when she came in.

After I graduated, I was asked to work at The Store full-time. I was paid £2,000 pounds a month, which I tried to balance with freelance work. But I was working late shifts three times a week. I was tired from pacing around the shopfloor all day and I was bored of playing the part of the obliging girl. The petty politics were exhausting: that fixed, permanent smile I gurned towards my colleagues, the bitchy friendships with the shop assistants (who were resentful of your increased capacity to earn commission). I didn’t want to count out the end of my twenties working as a professional personal shopper.

Eventually, providence came to my aid when I broke my leg on a forgettable date outside a Hackney pub. I rang up The Store to tell them I wouldn’t be able to walk for the next six months. They accepted my resignation swiftly and sent a courier round to pick up my work phone. Two years later, I haven’t stayed in touch with my colleagues, or even my clients, except one: when she heard about my leg break, the al-Thani princess sent me a card and a lovely bunch of flowers.

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