The moment Anita Cox saw Salli Ward's jacket, she knew she had to have one. Indeed, it's fitting that the Catonsville resident caught a glimpse of Ward and her tailored jacket in church, because she recalls the pivotal moment in almost reverent tones.
"There was this lady in this absolutely drop-dead gorgeous jacket," she says with a half sigh. "I said to her, 'I absolutely love your jacket.' And that was it."
"It" was the start of an ideal business relationship. To Cox's surprise (and delight), Ward was a seasoned personal shopper, armed with a stack of business cards, over a decade of experience, and a file cabinet full of fabrics and color swatches.
For 18 years, Ward has not only been making women look good, but teaching them how to do it on their own. She runs her personal shopping business, Wonderful Wardrobes, out of her Owings Mills home, specializing in the upscale women's clothing line Doncaster. When she's not evaluating clients' needs at her home, she's making house calls.
The house calls are an important step in the wardrobe renewal process. Before you head out to buy new things, Ward (and other personal shoppers) need to assess what's already in your closet.
For an hourly rate, the fashionista helps clean out overflowing closets, tossing out monster shoulder pads and "mom jeans" and breathing new life into purchases that haven't seen the light of day in years.
"My wardrobe never quite looked right," Cox says of life before Ward. "She really looked at how the clothes fit me, and then we looked at building a wardrobe."
Once they hit the stores together, Ward taught Cox a new way to shop.
"She's taught me the skill of saying, 'Is this a good buy? How would it work with other things that I have?' She really has taught me how to be put together."
Cox knew she wasn't a fashion disaster, per se, but felt like she needed a boost to take her middle-of-the-road fashion sense to new heights.
"I always knew I was okay, but I wanted to be more than okay," she says. "I just had no idea how to do it."
Ward says that Cox is not alone.
"That's what I see my job as—educating women about what looks good on them," the shopper says. "By dressing the outside, I help women discover their inner beauty."
Maybe you love clothes but hate to shop. Or perhaps you want a certain look, but you're completely clueless how to get it. You're not alone. In fact, the shopping averse (or shopping bewildered) are the impetus behind the business of personal shopping—an industry that's alive and well in Baltimore. Thanks to style-conscious consumers and an influx of boutiques and department stores with enough merchandise to satisfy even the pickiest (and most fashion oblivious) among us, a small group of personal shoppers are thriving in Charm City.
Finding the time to shop is one of the main reasons that clients come to Tricia Ratcliffe Davis, an independent personal shopper. The experienced retail navigator says she can get her often time-starved clients in and out of a store within a half hour. Without her, they may go in, wander around, and eventually leave with nothing—and leave frazzled at that.
If a regular is too busy to go shopping at all, Davis will do all the work for them. "I can run in a store [for a client] and find something in 10 minutes," she says.
Good relationships with local women's vendors—such as Octavia, Panache (which Davis used to own), and Jones & Jones—allow Davis the freedom to take merchandise to her clients' homes to try on. If they're not the right fit or style, she simply brings them back. "I can go to [Octavia owner] Betsy Dugan and say a client needs an evening gown and she'll just pull things and let me take whatever I need," she explains.
Personal shoppers can also provide a buffer for insecure shoppers who don't know how to say no to even the most well-intentioned salesperson. "Some people aren't comfortable saying no to a salesperson or an owner," Davis says. A personal shopper can intervene and say, "No, this is not [my client's style],'" she explains.
Personal shoppers are also on staff at large department stores like Nordstrom at Towson Town Center. Beverly Hill, a manager and personal shopper—or "personal touch stylist" as they're known at the upscale store—works with women and a growing number of men and even children. Longtime clients like Jill McCuan can't imagine life without her.
"I always had things in my closet that didn't match," McCuan says candidly. "She's given it more style and versatility. She's helped me pick out things that I wouldn't normally pick out and shows me how it all works together. I just kept buying the same things over and over again."
Now the Glenwood resident is completely hooked, rattling off half a dozen names of friends she's referred to Hill. "They're all very loyal customers," she says.
Arnold resident Laura Westervelt started working with Davis at private Carlise Collection showings around town seven years ago. The in-home presentations turned into occasional shopping outings with Davis and eventually some much-needed closet-cleaning sessions. Westervelt, a busy commercial real estate broker and avid golf and tennis player, didn't have the time to shop—or stand in front of a closet full of every woman's nightmare: nothing to wear.
"I just needed some help," she recalls. "The last thing I want to do on a weekend is shop."
After nearly a decade of working together, Davis knows Westervelt so well that the shopper will pick things up for her client even when she's not on the job. And come Christmas time, she'll talk to Westervelt's husband about what gifts Laura might like—sometimes even buying them for him. ("My Christmases have been a lot better these days!" Laura says with a laugh.)
Beyond offering perfect holiday gifts and time-saving tactics, personal shoppers provide clients with an endless array of confidence-building moments—from receiving unexpected compliments to realizing they can wear things they never thought possible.
Hill gets plenty of thrilled feedback as well, likening many of her clients' experiences to TV shows like the Style Network's How Do I Look? where a "fashion-impaired" individual gets a much-needed makeover—and is absolutely elated with the results.
"It's exactly like that," she says. "They're withdrawn when they begin, and afterwards they can conquer the world. When you get that one compliment, that's all it takes."
Fashion stylist Allison Berlin knows the power of a compliment. As a stylist for TLC's hit makeover show What Not to Wear, Berlin helps dress snarky hosts Stacy London and Clinton Kelly ("Even the stylists need a stylist some days," she jokes) and runs a booming national personal shopping business called Style Made Simple. Berlin, who also consults for the Today show, says that her busy clients complain they simply don't have the time (or the patience) to go shopping. But the most frequent complaint she hears? That her clients are stuck in a fashion rut.
"It's a confidence issue," she explains. "They're not really sure what works, so they err on the side of comfortable or boring. They're just going for extra safe and buying things they already have. It's hard for all of us to buy outside of a comfort zone."
Berlin's first order of business with a new client is a lifestyle questionnaire that focuses on what styles they admire, what they're trying to achieve, and what look best fits their lifestyle. Then it's off to her (or his; Berlin has male clients as well) closet to do a comprehensive "edit." After she gauges where her clients are on the fashion spectrum, she either goes shopping with them or—if they're too busy for a shopping excursion—she shops for them on her own.
Often it's the willingness of a personal shopper to go above and beyond that keeps clients coming back. A friend introduced Ingrid Foland to Salli Ward a year and a half ago, and the duo hit it off immediately. The Baltimore County resident drives, but because of an illness, has trouble getting around a mall or department store. Ward saves Foland the trouble of a shopping trip by putting aside some items that she thinks she'd like. Instead of heading out for an uncomfortable trip to the mall, Foland can make the quick drive to Ward's home to try things on at her leisure.
"I'm very happy that I found her," Foland gushes. "I'm not totally mobile. To have a personal shopper like Salli, it's just the best that you can have."
Ward also has a blind client to whom she describes colors and styles. And while television shows like What Not to Wear tend to favor the tough-love approach, Ward never puts anyone down for fashion blunders and ill-advised scrunchies.
"I will be honest, but I'm not the fashion police," she says. "That's not my role. My role is to make women look gorgeous."
As for Cox? Since joining forces with Ward four years ago, she's feeling good about herself, basking in compliments from her fashionable teenage daughter and inspiring, no doubt, the envy of jacket-loving women throughout Baltimore. Some, perhaps, even in church.