It’s one of this season’s biggest trends but it’s not animal print or cycling shorts: high street fashion retailers are hiring armies of personal stylists to give shoppers the VIP treatment as they battle the slump in clothing sales.
“There is still a bit of a stigma [around personal styling] from back in the day when Trinny and Susannah and Gok Wan would strip you off and make you stand in front a mirror in your bra and knickers,” says Lucy Knight, one of the 140 stylists now employed to help shoppers find their best looks – and boost clothing sales – on the fashion floors of John Lewis & Partners department stores. “It’s not like that.”
Department stores have found themselves in the firing line as the growth of online shopping sucks sales out of the high street. To stay relevant John Lewis boss Paula Nickolds believes its stores need to get into the business of selling “experiences” as they fight for a slice of discretionary consumer spending that increasingly competes with mini breaks and nights out.
To that end its customers can now expect the kind of red carpet treatment usually found in upmarket stores such as Harrods and Selfridges. A two-hour session with Knight, who is based in the “style studio” in John Lewis’s newest branch in the Westfield super mall in west London is free but other services such as an epic four-and-a half-hour treatment in the beauty salon come with a hefty price tag.
“Your client needs to trust you in the first 30 seconds,” says Knight, who is not paid commission on sales even though well-heeled shoppers typically part with £200 to £500 on the back of her advice. “If you don’t build that trust straight away it’s going to become a difficult appointment.”
Knight’s job is to help women find the “perfect pair of jeans” or assemble a killer work wardrobe, preferably from John Lewis’s own clothing labels, which include Modern Rarity and Kin. At a time when struggling rivals are discounting heavily, selling the department store’s own brands reaps higher profit margins.
John Lewis is trying to push back against a trend that has seen women – who spend more than twice the amount men do on clothes – cut back on new outfits in favour of more socialising and exercise. The advice sessions offered by Knight and the five other stylists based at the store are proving lucrative. The six personal shoppers now generate 20% of the store’s womenswear sales.
Black Basic Neck Anna shirt Deep V T Kaffe “British fashion shoppers are down in number, buying less per trip and getting more on discount than they were last year,” says Kantar Worldpanel’s consumer insight director Glen Tooke of what is a worrying shift for fashion retailers. The total amount spent on fashion and clothing in the UK over the last year was just over £35bn – £512m less than two years ago.
The competition from retail rivals and other things to spend money on is writ large even on John Lewis’s doorstep: a couple of doors down is a vast Primark where a winter coat costs £25 and this season’s culottes just £13. Next door is “boutique” cycling studio FirstLight, where a 30ft magic mirror transports sweating spinners around the world.
John Lewis already offered personal styling but is upping the ante by giving over floor space to the self-contained style studios. Although not as plush as in designer stores such as Selfridges where multilingual helpers operate out of suites themed around muses such as pop icon Grace Jones, the space is comfortable and welcoming – not unlike the furniture department. Two studios have opened so far and a further three will follow.The service is also being upgraded in other stores.
But it’s not just women who want fashion advice. The store’s male stylist, Gursh Reandi, recounted his recent success with a retired soldier, whose wardrobe was found wanting when he started online dating. “He had the classic gentry vibe that comes with Sandhurst training but we brought his look up to date,” says Reandi, who previously ran his own fashion business in Essex, dressing Premier League footballers and the cast members from The Only Way Is Essex.
“My mind is a database so I can just tell,” Reandi explains of the mental feat that enables him to map a customer’s physique to the perfect pair of jeans. “He might be wearing jeans that are too straight a fit, which makes your legs look wider and shorter. They are conscious of not wanting to look like Joey Essex in spray-ons but you can’t confuse the words slim with skinny. It’s a different look altogether.”
Desperate price cutting by the stricken House of Fraser in the run up to last month’s financial rescue by Sports Direct has made life very difficult for John Lewis and Debenhams which has suffered a collapse in its share price. When the John Lewis Partnership reported its figures for the first six months of 2018, the eponymous department store chain was the red. But despite the red ink, sales on John Lewis’s fashion floors were up 1.2%, with womenswear ahead 4.1%.
Debenhams boss Sergio Bucher is following suit. This week he unveiled a new look store in Watford, offering personal styling, beauty makeovers and bars selling prosecco and gin and tonic, alongside its clothing ranges. The idea, he said, was to make shopping “a fun, leisure activity”.
My very own personal stylist experience
The hot pink coat hanging on the clothes rail immediately set off alarm bells and threatened to confirm my instinct that seeking fashion advice in a mid-market department store could only end badly.
I write about shopping and shops everyday, and used to love fashion, but since becoming a mum have bought most of my clothes online. The prospect of being sized up by a stranger, even if they wanted to help, did not appeal.
But it turns out having a personal fashion slave at your disposal for a couple of hours is actually quite nice. At no point did anyone say “bangers” or aggressively hoik my bra straps and the stylist, LucyKnight, listened closely when I told her the brands I liked before scurrying off to gather outfits.
Like Pat Butcher, who stuck by her 80s makeup look, it’s easy to get stuck in a fashion rut. But Lucy patiently explained not all clothes have “hanger appeal” as I sniffed at a blue Hobbs dress emblazoned with red flowers.
I had tasked her with finding me a new winter coat and initially struck a bum note with a camel-coloured “coatigan” that made me look like a matryoshka doll. But under her guidance I was forced to reappraise the tailoring of high street brands such as Reiss (not just bandage dresses aimed at Kate Middleton types) and Ted Baker, which I’d written off when I turned 40. A slate-coloured Reiss pea coat fitted my shoulders neatly and, crucially, the straight cut did not make my bum look bigger. The more sensible khaki version could easily do for winter commuting on public transport.
The biggest revelation though, was when she popped out to get a pair of jeans to try on with the coat. Here we go, I thought, and sighed out loud. But to my amazement she came back with a pair of black Levis that fitted perfectly, sparing me what must be one of the most soul destroying shopping missions.
I never did try on the pink coat though.