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Clothes Encounter of the Personal Kind

by Emma Bowler

7th April 2008

When it comes to clothes shopping, I'm about as far from the Victoria Beckhams and Colleen McLoughlins of this world as you can get. I hate traipsing around the shops only to go home empty-handed and frustrated because my body doesn't conform to standard beautiful proportions, shape or size.

But is there a cure for my near phobia of clothes shopping, or am I beyond retail therapy?
Years ago I came across an article about personal shoppers, and it's been lurking in the back of my mind ever since. The idea is that someone roams the aisles for clothes that might suit you. Meanwhile you relax, flick through the latest glossies, sip a cup of tea and nibble on biscuits. They then bring back those items for you to try on and buy, if you like them.

Surely this is the stuff of (accessible) dreams? A disability shopping paradise? Very little walking around coupled with a clothing expert with an eye for design, an understanding of what works well for who, and a knowledge of the entire stock?

It certainly sounds great, but the thought of booking my very own personal shopper terrified me.

What if I turned up and they just laughed in my face? "You want to look good? I'm terribly sorry, madam, but you've got a disability. It's impossible for us to help you."

Or maybe they would scuttle off full of enthusiasm, returning with a wipe-clean top, a cagoule and some plastic knickers ...

I have several issues when it comes to clothes. Firstly, I'm four foot tall and my arms are shorter than normal. Add to that a pair of wonky legs and a curved spine and, hey presto, it's a clothes shopping nightmare!

Last month, my limited wardrobe was starting to get me down. It was pitiful. I figured there was only one thing left for it. I had to bite the bullet and book the personal shopper.

So, was it humiliation all round or do I now have a wardrobe to rival a footballer's wife?

I opted to try out the personal shopper service at John Lewis and Debenhams, both in Oxford Street, London - though you can take advantage anywhere in the country.

The service at both stores is free and appointments take about one and a half to two hours. Just call the store you wish to go to and book an appointment, but be aware that even weekday appointments usually need to be booked several weeks in advance.

I really wanted to try out the Selfridges service ahead of writing this article for Ouch, but a lot of dithering by them left me wondering whether they were aware that disabled customers have an annual spending power of £80 BILLION a year?

John Lewis

The Fashion Adviser at John Lewis was called Amanda. She lives behind an anonymous door tucked away in a corner. Again, I had a very warm greeting along with a cup of tea and cake; smoothies were also available, and I contemplated a lifestyle of afternoon shopping appointments that coincide with teatime ...
Amanda, the Fashion Adviser at John Lewis, browses the store to select some suitable clothes for Emma
Amanda and I spoke about the sort of thing that I would normally wear. She stood me in front of a mirror and correctly guessed my size. We talked about my curved back, which is the main thing I try to hide in any outfit I choose. Amanda treated this as if it was completely normal. I was impressed by her attitude.
Amanda and Emma check out the retro green, blue and white dress in the mirror
She then went off on a clothes hunt for me. I'd barely finished my last mouthful of cake and hadn't even picked up a magazine when she was back with an armful of clothes. The first dress I tried on had a sort of retro green, blue and white pattern; it was nice enough, but we'll come back to that one. The second was a turquoise affair, which was definitely the loser of the afternoon.

Then Amanda put a skirt in front of me. I don't do skirts. But there was something persuasive about how she did it. Her approach was: "You don't have to do this and it may not work for you, but if you want to have a try, then do". So I did.
Emma is very pleasantly surprised by the dark brown skirt
It was a flowing, dark brown, soft cotton skirt that swirled around when I moved. I liked the feel of it. We then experimented with various tops to go with it. One was a brown vest with sequins and finally a small jacket with circles of shell along its edges.

In the mirror I saw a different me. As Amanda said: "a younger me". It was really quite strange. Though there was nothing to hide my post-baby-belly, I quite liked showing it off. It made me realise that I always go for dresses like the green one I tried first, but this outfit brought out a totally different Emma and it made me feel quite excited. Maybe I'd go as far as to say - a little bit liberated?

Debenhams

At Debenhams I met my Personal Shopper, Christine. We kicked off the appointment by going through some details like what sizes I wore, my clothing preferences and lifestyle. All this took place over a cup of tea in a very pleasant, private changing room, complete with a selection of glossies and perfumes.

Armed with some very basic information about me before I arrived, Christine had done a pre-shop. She showed me what she had selected and left me to try them on - though the offer of help with getting clothes on and off was there should I have needed it. While I did this, Christine went in search of other clothes that she thought might suit me now she had seen me.
At Debenhams, Emma meets her Personal Shopper, Christine
I had told her that I was mainly looking for dresses. If you met me you'd know I only wear dresses, in the belief that they work best with my body shape. She had selected quite a variety for me.

There was a peacock feather patterned one. I loved the design but hated the way it clung onto every curve, a definite no no. A couple of safari uniform dresses just weren't my style - one in green another in vivid red - so they got ditched too.

But others surprised me, as I would never have taken them from the clothes rail even to try.
Emma has doubts about the peacock patterned dress
One was the closest I'll get to putting on a wedding dress - a beautiful cream number that set me off humming "here comes the bride". The next was a subtle pink with a row of pearls just under the chest; I would have judged it as too long and 'fitted', but just lifting up the shoulder straps made it work quite well. Another was a sort of patchwork of a light brown silk type material. Again, on first glance it looked way too much of a snug fit, but turned out to be a surprise favourite.

All of the dresses selected needed some alteration in terms of length, but handily the store can provide a tailoring service too.

Christine introduced me to the idea of trying clothes from 'petite' ranges. I'd always ignored these before, believing that they would just be too tight on me. This wasn't the case, so that has opened up a whole new avenue for me to explore.

At the end of the appointment I left with three special occasion dresses, sure that I'll be calling on a personal shopper again in the future.
Photos: all images by Peter Kindersley.

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