How to give someone the gift of style (without insulting them)

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This story is part of a new MarketWatch series, “Gifts that pay off.” Between now and Dec. 25, we will look at gifts that could potentially earn the recipients money or improve their lives.

We’ve all had the experience of excitedly opening a holiday gift only to find that it’s a sweater, tie or pair of pants we’d never wear — and there’s no gift receipt.

Here’s the secret to avoid giving that dreaded gift: Let your loved ones pick the clothes out themselves — with assistance from a professional. Across the country, stylists and wardrobe consultants offer their services as gifts. While it may be tempting (and less expensive) to simply give your family and friends a gift card to Amazon AMZN, +0.67%  or what you think is one of their favorite stores, time with a stylist will likely leave a more lasting impact.

What about a $1,000 gift card instead? “That could actually cause a lot of anxiety,” said Darcy Camden, the founder of Styled Seattle, a Seattle-based wardrobe consulting company. “It could be a huge waste of money.”

Why time with a stylist is a great investment

With the help of a stylist, the recipient may have better luck choosing flattering and appropriate clothing. That’s important because the way you dress impacts more than your outward appearance, research indicates. It also affects your mood and, yes, your career.

Michael Slepian, a professor at Columbia University’s business school, found that dressing more formally can push workers to see the big picture in a given situation more quickly and they may be more productive.

Michael Slepian, a professor at Columbia University’s business school, found that dressing more formally can push workers to see the big picture in a given situation more quickly and they may be more productive. “When people were wearing more formal clothing they felt more powerful,” Slepian said.

Unfortunately, dressing to suit your mood or personality is actually a talent that many struggle with, said Vanessa Valiente, a San Diego-based stylist. She sees her role as helping clients reflect on the outside the way they see themselves on the inside. Often that means working with an executive or business owner who has risen the ranks, but hasn’t had the time or the wherewithal to update their wardrobe accordingly.

“They feel a little insecure sometimes speaking with clients and employees,” she said. The new clothes give them “that confidence, that control, that accuracy.”

That concept stretches beyond the workplace, Valiente said. She works with a lot of single people and divorcees and says at least two of her male clients credit her with helping them find their wives.

“You’re not going to get a mate by the way you look, but when you’re dressed [a certain way] it allows them to come to you,” she said. “It’s like the spotlight is on you when you’re dressed really well.”

MarketWatch photo illustration/iStockphoto

This is the latest article in a new MarketWatch series, ‘Gifts that pay off.’ Between now and Dec. 25, we will look at gifts that could potentially earn the recipients money or improve their lives.

How to give the gift without offending the recipient

But giving the gift of style can be a delicate undertaking. You don’t want to imply that the recipient has poor taste and needs the help. Though clients always have the best intentions when they hire her services as a gift, Camden, the Seattle-based stylist, always tells them to proceed with caution.

Surprising someone with an offer to destroy and rebuild their wardrobe isn’t typically received well. A lasting makeover is collaborative and not something that gets done to you.

When Camden started her business about 10 years ago, the TLC ambush makeover show “What Not to Wear” was all the rage and she constantly found herself fielding calls for similar services. But surprising someone with an offer to destroy and rebuild their wardrobe isn’t typically received well, Darcy said.

“A lasting makeover is collaborative and not something that gets done to you,” she said. Darcy said she’s had situations where a well-meaning spouse hears their partner complaining about their closet and purchases her services as a gift only to find that what the spouse wanted is for the closet itself to be renovated.

Camden has a policy of not performing makeovers on people who don’t want them. That’s why when a gift giver pitches the idea of gifting her services, she first asks how the gift came about — in some cases it’s because a spouse or friend explicitly asked for time with a stylist. If that’s not the case, she’ll often warn gift givers that even though their gift is well-intentioned, they should think critically to make sure “the person who receives this isn’t insulted or confused,” she said.

Once the gift giver has decided to go through with the present, Camden will often tweak the wording of the styling package so it emphasizes time or money-saving, instead of simply a style revamp. She’ll also try to set up a meeting with the recipient shortly after they receive the gift to assuage any of their concerns about the experience.

When given tactfully, the present is often a success. “We’ve had people tell us that it’s one of the best gifts they ever received,” Camden said.

How the packages typically work

For the most luxurious gift experience, Valiente recommends clients buy 10 hours of her services and supply a clothing budget. (She charges $150 an hour on weekdays and $175 on weekends, plus a free consultation). She says clients can typically get 10 new pieces for about $1,000.

Some of these stylists charge as much as therapists. Stephanie Mack, a New York City-based stylist, said one of the biggest things she works on with clients is finding the right fit. She charges $200 an hour with a three-hour minimum.

Often the gift giver may give Valiente the money directly, so the recipient never even touches money throughout the experience. Though gift givers may purchase one of her specific packages, the recipient can redistribute the hours in the package to suit their needs. They may want to spend more time organizing their closet than actually buying new clothes.

When clients buy Camden’s services as a gift they can typically choose from a variety of options. Those can range from time with her and a clothing budget at the high end, to just a few hours with her. The cost of services offered by her company range from $150 to $695, depending on how much time clients spend with their stylist and what the session involves. A $1,500 clothing budget can be a nice number to work with, she says.

But even a couple of hours can be a nice gift for a close friend or sibling, Camden said. That’s because the lessons can often last beyond the sessions themselves.

How the gift keeps on giving

Camden says she works with clients to try to get them to think more in outfits instead of pieces. Valiente helps clients pinpoint the exact reason why a piece doesn’t work for them — say a neck or waistline. “There’s that big aha moment constantly throughout the session,” she said.

Stephanie Mack, a New York City-based stylist, said one of the biggest things she works on with clients is finding the right fit. Often, they’re insecure about moving up a given size, even if they’ll look better in it.

Mack will also work with clients to help them see their closets differently — pairing leather jackets with dresses, for example — to make better use of what they already have. She charges $200 an hour with a three hour minimum. “Most of the time they end up buying very little because they’ve basically shopped their closet,” she said.

And there’s another way time with Mack can last beyond the initial session. Every time she sees a piece online or in a store that reminds her of a client, she’ll send them a picture or link. “I do that for fun for free,” she said. “I’m a gift that keeps on giving.”