New luxury shopping apps offer a fresh spin on old-school service—straight-from-Paris fashion tips! Lupita’s own stylist!—from the comfort of your own couch. Alison S. Cohn swipes right
Jennifer has the kind of effortless no- makeup makeup and perfectly mussed hair that only Parisians can pull off. She pops up in a bubble on my iPhone screen like a Francophone Glinda the Good Witch, exclaiming “Bonjour!” and asking how she can help me today. This isn’t some kind of Her-style futuristic fantasy—Jennifer is a real person, not a sentient OS, and she happens to be my personal shopper for the next 45 minutes. She works for 24 Sèvres—LVMH’s virtual extension of the iconic Parisian department store Le Bon Marché that offers express one- to two-day delivery to the U.S. on 160 labels (including the French luxury group’s own marquee names such as Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Céline, which you can’t shop anywhere else online)—and she’s helping me prep for New York Fashion Week, a dressing situation that can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned editor.
I launch into my predicament: Come September, I want to look on-trend for fall, even though it might still be 80-plus degrees outside, and make it through 12-hour days packed with shows, dinners, and at least one after-party stop per night. She listens attentively, then asks a series of questions about my favored silhouettes (midi skirts, tops with high necks and long sleeves, and pieces otherwise skewing fashion nun) and colors (black…but yes, okay, I’ll try print), and promises to come back to me with recommendations, if I could be so kind as to log on again. Same time tomorrow?
When I wake the following morning, there’s an e-mail in my inbox with product recommendations. (24 Sèvres’s personal shopping team is online from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Paris time.) At our noon appointment, Jennifer is eager to talk me through the merits of, say, an Erdem pajama set (“very trend-driven but incredibly comfortable, so it’s nice to wear during shows; perfect with Stella McCartney creepers for day or Jimmy Choo pompon pumps for night”) or Stouls leather leggings (“the ultimate Parisian uniform—you can wash them in the machine!”) or the Chloé Nile bracelet bag that, of course, I have already been coveting (“sold out everywhere but on our site”), all of which have been placed on my “Lovelist.” As we’re video chatting—her face hovering cheerfully over the list of items in question—she helpfully underlines each piece she suggests with a red squiggle. I may be talking with someone an ocean away thanks to cutting-edge technology, but I feel like she’s really seeing me as she notes my loves, likes, and dislikes—something an algorithm could never do. And while it might sound like the province of the one percent—and certainly the Le Bon Marché price point and selection is targeted to the ardent, and empowered, fashion fan—technically the personal-shopping service is available to anyone with an iPhone, via the proprietary video messaging app.
As shopping becomes more and more virtual and you’re reaching for treasures with your cursor instead of your hands, it might seem counterintuitive to focus on something as old-school as, well, human interaction. But just as brick-and-mortar stores have ramped up their menu of services in order to compete with the ultimate convenience of online shopping, Internet purveyors of luxury goods have gotten wise to the need to step up their service game, too. As egalitarian as e-commerce might seem—after all, you can shop on your phone from anywhere, at any time of the day or night, and even in your pj’s, Erdem or otherwise, if you like—luxury e-tailers such as Net-a-Porter and Matchesfashion.com are increasingly catering to their customers, especially the biggest spenders. It’s an open secret that both offer EIP—that is, extremely important person—programs a cut above your normal VIP perks, which include access to new items before everyone else and, perhaps most importantly, dedicated teams of personal shoppers who’ll send you pictures of things you might like via WhatsApp, come to your house with an edit, or even hop on a plane to make a special delivery (you know, should you forget to pack your Lisa Marie Fernandez bikini for the Maldives).
And I could use the help. For someone who makes her livelihood writing about clothes, I am kind of a terrible shopper. Maybe it has to do with being a typical overscheduled New Yorker and, concomitantly, also something of a commitment-phobe—a realization I had once I hit my thirties and found childhood friends now “adulting” with mortgages and car payments, whereas I rent a West Village apartment so small it’s best described as a closet with a bed, and I have an expired driver’s license. Maybe it’s a holdover from college years spent board-folding sweaters as a part-time retail automaton, but I honestly can’t tell you the last time I had time to walk into a store to shop for myself, let alone actually relished the prospect. A rotating cast of silk slipdresses layered over Victorian blouses serves as my monochrome workweek uniform, and when I really need to gussy up for an event, I can usually get a designer friend to hook me up with a sample, assuming it’s not otherwise committed to a photo shoot or red-carpet event. It’s a privilege, I know, but it ultimately means I don’t own much in the way of actual clothing.
“I MAY BE TALKING WITH SOMEONE AN OCEAN AWAY, BUT I FEEL LIKE SHE’S REALLY SEEING ME AS SHE NOTES MY LOVES, LIKES, AND DISLIKES.”
Which is how I found myself the morning of the CFDA Awards—the biggest gala of the American fashion industry—with a day of back-to-back appointments (seven resort-season presentations; two different shoots) learning that the dress I’d hoped to wear unfortunately hadn’t made its way back yet from a film premiere. This seemed as good a time as any to try another shopping–slash–service innovation: Armarium, a luxury-on-demand platform that is the brainchild of former Salvatore Ferragamo publicist Trisha Gregory and designer Alexandra Lind Rose. It offers designer fashion rentals from the likes of Christopher Kane, Rochas, and Marc Jacobs with the same ease as booking an Uber, plus the added value proposition of a personal styling and concierge service. I sent an SOS to Armarium’s Style Brigade, a pool of 39 bona fide celebrity and editorial stylists, including Cristina Ehrlich and Natalie Joos, available for private appointments or Skype consultations (the celeb stylists cost $165 and way, way up depending on their personal rate, but Armarium also has a team of in-house stylists on call gratis).
I was in luck: No less than Micaela Erlanger, the red-carpet whisperer to Meryl Streep, Jennifer Hudson, Hilary Swank, and Michelle Dockery, was just wrapping up a final fitting for Lupita “Is There Any Color Gown She Doesn’t Look Good In?” Nyong’o, who, it turns out, was going to the CFDAs, too, in a pale-gold, asymmetrical Grecian-goddess Jason Wu dress. I sent a short précis—i.e., I prefer classics with a twist, didn’t want to look too “done,” and wanted to support American talent—and Erlanger penciled me in for a last-minute styling session at Armarium’s by-appointment Fifth Avenue showroom.
The gowns available on Armarium, which would retail for anywhere between $2,000 and $12,000, have an average rental price of $450—which includes messenger service (or shipping for customers outside of New York), dry cleaning, and insurance for damages—clocking in at one-tenth of the price tag. For big-ticket items women use only once in a while—or once, period—ownership is not cost-effective, even for high-net-worth shoppers. Rental also opens the door for so-called aspirational customers like, uh, me. “We’re offering a more inclusive sort of front-row seat to high fashion,” Gregory says, with “access to pieces that usually are afforded to only VIPs or fashion insiders, and to the stylists that make those moments happen.”
It’s not often you get to follow an Oscar winner’s personal styling session. When I arrive, Erlanger leads me to a large private fitting room where she’s set aside several amazing dresses: a Brandon Maxwell cape minidress; a lattice guipure-lace Sophie Theallet with a high neckline and almost completely sheer skirt; and a bilayer Vera Wang pearl-embellished T-shirt dress that’s black tie in the back, after party in the front. Each plays a creative game of peekaboo I’d never have chosen had I simply perused the app myself.
Erlanger is a big fan of vintage (she has dressed Nyong’o in the great Hollywood couturier Valentina), and the cardinal rule she tells clients is “just try it—you can always take it off if you don’t like it.” Which is how she gets me into a multicolor, beaded-fringe Bob Mackie—so not my speed, though I do fancy myself Cher for a moment. With two hours to go before the awards where new Oscar de la Renta designers Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia would win the night’s Emerging Talent prize, we rather fortuitously settle on a vintage Oscar de la Renta with a full tulle skirt, an off-the-shoulder neckline, and a sheer lace bodice that makes it feel contemporary and just a bit subversive. As I step on to the creative blue carpet, I feel like the proverbial million bucks (even if I don’t have them to spend), which makes me recall something 24 Sèvres CEO Eric Goguey told me when I asked why LVMH is only now getting into the online shopping game: “The new luxury is to be able to be in contact with a human instead of speaking to a computer.” The company finally launched e-commerce, he says, when they became confident technology had reached a point where they can “treat all customers as VIPs.”