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Personal style gurus for common people

Fashion advisers are no longer the preserve of the rich and famous

by Tomoko Otake

When Japan’s star pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka inked a $52 million deal to play for the Boston Red Sox in mid-December, one of the most memorable comments he made in a packed news conference on his return from the United States was that he was frustrated with having to go through an agent in the negotiations.

“I was not used to relying on agents,” he said, mirroring the wariness pervasive among many Japanese in leaving such high-stake matters as salary talks in someone else’s hands.

But in the equally high-stake world of fashion, the hiring of “agents” is quietly gaining ground, and seekers of their professional services are not necessarily super-rich or famous. In fact, Shizuka Inoue, a 41-year-old mother of two, who is one of about 15 “personal stylists” who register themselves with a Web site titled Personal Stylist Databank, says most of her 30 or so clients are working moms aged between 35 and 43; women who want to look good, but don’t have the time to pore over fashion magazines or browse in boutiques. Inoue has more than 10 years of experience in the fashion industry, first by working for a major apparel company as a store clerk and then by helping her in-laws’ boutique shop as a buyer (while also raising two children). She has built her network of clients mostly through word of mouth and her Web site since starting her business, named fashion_planner, in January last year.

“A lot of my clients are very busy, parenting and working and housekeeping all at the same time,” she said. “But at one point they have paused and looked in the mirror, wondering, ‘Do I look OK? Maybe not.’ “

One of her jobs is visiting the homes of her clients to “rummage” through their closets. This usually leads to her telling her clients what they already know but don’t want to face up to — that some of their items are long past their expiration dates; clothes they have not been able to dispose of for various reasons, such as their hefty price tags or an “emotional attachment” that they may carry.

“Coats with huge shoulder pads and girly one-pieces, the Pinkhouse [a Japanese brand featuring clothes with layers of lace frills, which was massively popular in the early 1980s] types,” Inoue said when asked for examples of clothes often found gathering dust at the bottom of her clients’ closets.

She also accompanies clients on shopping trips, giving honest and impartial advice on which items look more flattering than others, and how they can best coordinate new clothes with ones they already have. (Inoue says she receives no kickbacks from any merchants or retailers she takes her clients to.)

Inoue specializes in serving women in their mid-30s through to their early-40s, partly because she also belongs to that generation and also because she knows women in this group especially have a hard time finding the right clothes, she said. “Women over 35 suddenly feel that it is much harder to find appropriate clothes,” she said. “Yes, their physique changes, but it’s not just that. For many, this is the time in their careers when they get important posts and feel they need serious work clothes.” But people in this age group are also in an “air pocket,” she said, between the market for young women and the “misesu (Mrs.)” clothes market, which targets women in the late 40s to 60 with often gaudy (and tasteless, at least to the eyes of this reporter) dresses with big floral patterns and long black skirts whose only merit seems to be hiding their round features all the way to their ankles.

Despite the 24,150 yen fee that Inoue charges for a two-hour closet inspection and 16,800 yen for a two-hour shopping escort, one client said she was happy to have Inoue’s help. “It’s really reasonable when I think about the time I might have to spend researching and browsing various stores,” said a 31-year-old career woman in Tokyo who recently met Inoue in Ginza, which Inoue had chosen, to pick clothes for her upcoming sightseeing trip to Europe. It was her second shopping trip with Inoue, following on from the first occasion about a year ago.

“You can easily waste that much money on clothes that you won’t wear twice, especially at the moment, when there are bargain sales and you feel like you must buy something,” she said.

The woman declined to give her name, saying that styling was such a personal affair that she found it embarrassing to reveal that she was getting professional help. But she did agree to a photo.

“I guess some people ask people close to them, like their sisters, to come shopping with them, but I didn’t happen to have such helpers around,” she said.

The slim, attractive woman, who is single and whose demanding job with a fast-growing IT venture makes her miss the last train home almost daily, had already told Inoue her shopping priorities of the day: A long, down jacket; a pair of long, leather boots; a bag to match the coat; and maybe a snazzy one-piece dress, too — so long as they all stay within her budget of 200,000 yen. Inoue, through e-mail exchanges and the previous shopping trip with the client, knew the woman’s style preferences (“casual yet elegant”), and she had already browsed stores in the area and picked out her recommendations beforehand. So the shopping session progressed smoothly, with Inoue keeping her professional smile intact and leading the way, while the career woman simply followed her into one store after another and tried on the suggested items. Inoue asked all the questions, requested different sizes from clerks and even decided which color of dress her client would try on. All the client had to do was to put them on, stand in front of the mirror and, of course, pay for the clothes she chose.

Despite the beginning-of-the-year bargain-hunting crowd, the whole session lasted only about two hours, and every time the career woman got a bag of clothes, Inoue reached for it and carried it for her.

While she stayed professional throughout, Inoue emphasized that it was her experience as a thrifty mom, rather than her fashion expertise, that made her stand out as a personal stylist. “I’m a housewife after all,” she said, pulling the fabric of a dress with her hands to test its sturdiness. “I don’t want anyone’s money to be wasted.”