Inside the World of Personal Styling for Non-Celebrities

It's a lucrative (if lesser-known) career path that involves much more than just shopping.
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A Paris Fashion Week guest in March. Photo: Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

A Paris Fashion Week guest in March. Photo: Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

When I used to think about what career I wanted as a grownup but had no idea what any career actually entailed, I thought it would be so cool to be a personal shopper. I don't remember how I found out that was a job — and certainly didn't know anything about what it involved — but I loved shopping, so of course getting paid to do that was my dream!

Today, as an adult with a very different type of fashion career, I recently realized that I don't know much more about being or becoming a personal shopper or personal stylist than I did in my youth. It's not something you can go to school for, nor is it a high-profile career like celebrity red-carpet styling. So, I sought to learn more about the people who get to call shopping a significant part of their job. 

Of course, it's much more than that, and there isn't just one way to go about entering this entrepreneurial career. We spoke with several women — one who focuses on the contemporary market, one who works exclusively with Nordstrom, one who styles celebrities and does costume design in addition to personal styling and one who's building a team of stylists to work across the country — to learn what it really takes to get people to pay you to build their wardrobes.

There is significant demand for personal stylists

While those of us who work in the fashion industry may find joy in shopping and getting dressed every day — and thus not see the appeal of having someone else do it for us — many others do not, but still want to dress well and on-trend. "There's not a lot of me," says Andrea Lublin, a Los Angeles-based stylist and blogger who has found a niche among working mothers like herself. "This group has some money to spend," she explains. "This is a specific 35-50 age range where people are feeling good and they want to look good; they want to look polished and put together." 

Leesa Evans does personal styling for people in a range of professions, from Hollywood executives to entrepreneurs, in addition to costume design, celebrity styling and designing a clothing line called Le Cloud with client Amy Schumer. "It's people who, for whatever reason, clothing and getting dressed every day hasn't come easily to them and they're just looking for a lot more ease in their lives," she says of her clientele. "I always say that my biggest hope is that ultimately someone won't need me anymore because they found their way to doing it on their own, but even when people get to that point, the ease of personal shopping is too appealing to start doing again themselves."

Even for those who may not feel suited to self-employment, there's a growing need for personal stylists at digital-native platforms like Stitch Fix and Trunk Club (which also has in-person options), as well as at brick-and-mortar retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom. (Most department stores have some version of a personal styling service.) Or, you could work for someone like Bree Jacoby, who is working to build out her membership-based personal styling startup with a growing team of stylists, as well as a backend platform for personal shoppers.

"This is a tough time for fashion; everyone's game has to be so up with all the photography and Instagram — people are sick of spending and not looking good," says Lublin. "For the amount of money they're spending, they should be standing out. They want to buy; they're ready to do it. I think they're just getting a little tired of it not taking them to the 'next level.' It's insane how many people want a stylist or a shopper."

It may help to start elsewhere in fashion or retail

Lublin worked in retail as a teenager and went on to become a talent booker for E! and The Style Network, where she often booked stylists. She took a break from work to have children and got back into it when a friend asked her to style e-commerce shoots for Ella Moss and Splendid. From that gig, friends (and friends of friends) started asking her to style them and it quickly snowballed. "I knew one mom who turned into a music industry executive, somebody [else] found me on Instragram, word-of-mouth with an attorney — I just got hooked into very high-powered women, one after another," she explains. 

Amanda Schwartz, a Nordstrom personal stylist in Nashville, owned her own boutique before also taking a break to have kids, joining Nordstrom as a personal stylist for her second career.

For Evans, personal styling came out of her work as a costume designer — she's done films like "Zoolander 2" and "Bridesmaids" — and both actors and executives would ask her to style them for their daily lives. She feels her experience, as well as her passion for art, made her a good fit for this career. "I came from a fashion background and that helped, but I have always been a painter; so much of art, architecture, nature and fashion are based on a ratio of proportions," she adds. "I've just always seen that."

Jacoby worked in retail for Alice & Olivia and James Perse. Later, after taking a break from fashion, she became a stylist for Trunk Club before striking out on her own.

It's all about word-of-mouth

Each of the stylists we spoke with named word-of-mouth as their number-one way of reaching new clients, though every now and then someone might find them through Instagram. "I've never tried to get a new client," says Evans.

As with many fashion careers, Instagram can act as a resumé of sorts. "I have my Instagram and I have my blog; those are a great point of reference," explains Lublin. "You can get a real feel for who I am. It's my resumé, it's exactly my aesthetic, you can see the price points."

For a less-established stylist or one without a built-in way of finding clients (like working with a retailer), more hustling and networking may be necessary. Jacoby and her team think about their potential clients' lifestyles and find them in places like Soho House or by participating in summits and panels attended by high-level executives.

It's not always fun or glamorous

"It's a lot of grunt work," says Jacoby. "Building your own business can be daunting and lonely. If you're not a very self-motivated person, it would be almost impossible."

"It's so much work," echoes Lublin. "When they say styling is a schlep, it's a schlep." Lugging garment bags and returning every item your clients don't end up buying are among the job's unsexy tasks. It's also difficult to find the right pieces for your client, especially given that standard sizing is not designed to fit every body type perfectly — and personal stylists are generally dressing a much wider range of shapes and sizes than celebrity stylists.

"I can see how the perception could be [that] it's perfect for anyone who likes to shop, but the reality of it is, you're constantly looking for a needle in a haystack — there's such a finite and specific shape that truly evokes a feeling of confidence and wellbeing in any particular person," explains Evans.

"You have to take so many things into consideration," notes Lublin. "Coloring to me is so important, I've got to put [clients] in the colors that work for their skin tones. Also busty [versus] not busty. People have so many things: 'I don't like to show my arms.' Each client is so different."

Get to know your clients... and genuinely want to help them

Each stylist stressed that each client is different and emphasized the importance of pinpointing what is unique about them. The process of working with someone new begins with a consultation, typically in person, or it could start with a phone call.

"I'll go to them and talk about what they're looking for, what their needs are and look at their stuff to get a feel for their aesthetic — what they like, the colors that work for them, the fit and what makes them feel comfortable or uncomfortable," says Lublin.

"It's understanding who each person is as an individual and what it is about their life that is unique to them," explains Evans. "So much of what I do is understanding how someone's proportions dictate the type of clothes that they feel most at ease in and, as a result of feeling comfortable, things get a lot easier on a daily basis. It's about finding what works for that person as an individual in conjunction with what it is they do in life."

You should also have a certain amount of genuine interest and passion. "I think that wanting to help people feel good is a must," says Schwartz. "Also, it's important to love fashion. Those are the primary functions of the job, so it's important to be passionate about those things."

Look at it as a full, beginning-to-end service

Evans's advice for aspiring personal stylists? "View it more as a service business — know that your goal is to be helpful to people who are vulnerable or intimidated when it comes to clothing and fashion." And that's a full service beyond just shopping: You're not just finding things your clients might like, you're helping them build a perfect wardrobe over time.

"It's a matter of gathering the pieces that make the most sense and from that point, no matter what that is, creating this sort of staple wardrobe that fills their closet where everything fits and works," says Evans.

Schwartz begins by asking her client a few questions over a call and then has them come into Nordstrom. "Before they come in for the consultation, I will set a fitting room that includes all aspects of a good, buildable wardrobe. Then, we work together to try everything on and find items that accommodate their personal style, as well as needs and wants. After the appointment, I set a follow-up for a closet consult to [incorporate] their new pieces into their existing wardrobe," she explains.

After the initial consultation, the stylist spends some time — maybe a few weeks if they don't only work with one retailer — shopping. "I treat every pull like the biggest pull of my life, you have to," says Lublin. That can run the gamut from online to in-store, and stylists typically develop special "VIP" relationships with retailers that might include discounts, early access to new collections and dedicated personal shoppers to work with them

"It gets better and better as you get to know more stores. I do a lot at Saks and a lot at Barneys; Saks particularly makes it enjoyable and easy, they're accommodating and they have a perks program for the stylists which I think, at this point, if you don't... I mean, there are so many [other] options," says Lublin. "I also do a lot online: Matches, Net-a-Porter, Shopbop, keep it at that level. Most of my clients come to me for $250-$700 an item. That's my sweet spot."

Evans even scours resale and vintage retailers, as well as utilizes her costume-design resources to build custom pieces for her clients.

Then, the stylist meets with the client again for a fitting — this could be at the client's home, in the stylist's office if they have one, or, in Schwartz's case, at Nordstrom — where the stylist isn't just presenting the client with options, but is also styling full head-to-toe looks, even if it's with items the client already owns.

"I have the same websites and stores you guys have, I think it really just comes down to styling," says Lublin. "I definitely open their eyes to different ways of wearing things — different shoes, things they don't think of. It brings people a certain sense of confidence, like: 'You think I can wear this?' 'Yes! You can wear that.'"

It's also important to be thorough. "You really have to see it through to the end, every detail. You can't trust them [to put the full look together]; they could really veer off. I had that happen to me and I'm like, 'I swear I didn't pick the shoes!'" says Lublin. "It's just like being an interior designer: You could do the whole room but they pick the worst table to put in the middle of it and your name is on it."

Some times are busier than others, but you can create consistency

Relationships with clients should be ongoing. The stylists I spoke with see the majority of their clients around twice per month as part of their wardrobe-building and updating process, so unlike some other freelance careers, this can be a consistent gig as long as you have a solid, loyal client base. 

"That's up to you — you can make it as consistent as you want," says Jacoby. "It depends on your network of clients and how much you hustle." 

"I've been fortunate to maintain a consistent business throughout my career, but there are periods like Christmas and the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale when my customers tend to need more," notes Schwartz.

That said, people often choose this line of work because of the flexibility it offers. All of the stylists I spoke with use this flexibility to pursue other professional projects and/or take care of their children. 

As far as income, payment structures vary. Some, like those who work with a particular retailer, make most of their income through commission based on what their clients buy. Evans's clients hire her on a retainer, with a predetermined number of days' work per year, and she does not take a commission. Jacoby has different membership tiers, ranging from a shopping appointment with a $1,000 clothing purchase minimum to a customized plan with a flat fee and no minimum.

It can be very rewarding

"It's incredibly rewarding to meet someone and change their negative opinions of themselves into positive ones," says Schwartz. 

Evans echoes that sentiment: "The most rewarding part is knowing that you're truly helping someone be who they want to be in the world on a daily basis, knowing that you helped someone get that job, reconnect with their friends and family, feel confident enough to be brave and courageous."

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