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Sunday, January 25, 2004 - Page updated at 01:17 A.M.

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Off the rack and into the closet: Personal shoppers spruce up images

By Sarah Anne Wright
Seattle Times staff reporter

ANNIE MARIE MUSSELMAN
Personal shopper Rebecca Luke, right, helps find a look for musician "Chela" at the Red Light Clothing Exchange in Seattle's University District.
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In a walk-in closet, a semiannual ritual took place: a wardrobe consultation in the Issaquah home of Lou and Rosanne Ross.

As she scanned racks of neatly arranged clothing, personal shopper Rebecca Luke, 37, recognized something that didn't belong: It was a coral number that Rosanne Ross explained was a gift.

"OK," said Luke, who has helped attire the Ross family, mainly Rosanne, for six years. Luke has a few simple rules for the closet: There has to be a system, everything fits and nothing stands alone. Jackets, for example, should match at least three different pants.

As a personal shopper, Luke is determined not to be an errand girl for those who can afford her. She's had to break up with difficult clients — not because they were beyond help, but because they didn't see her as a consultant and refused to heed her advice.

"I am not going to just shop for you," said Luke. She encourages her clients to donate castoff clothes to charity and to do more with fewer pieces. Just seven pieces will make a wardrobe, she maintains. For her, shopping is a learned art that's not about buying and spending more, but about making fashion choices without waste.

Hired to shop


Titles: Personal shopper, image consultant, stylist

Earns: At Nordstrom, about $32,000 annually; independent shoppers bill hourly rates of $75 to $125

Demand: In casual Seattle, demand is concentrated but growing

For more information: Les Egoistes, www.lesegoistes.com; Seattle Pacific University Textiles, Clothing and Interior program, www.spu.edu/depts/fcs; and Fashion Group International, www.fgi.org.

"You can have a sustainable style without wearing hemp and Birkenstocks," she said.

Personal shoppers are gaining clientele locally by helping people shop smarter, saving them time and money so they look better and feel better about their appearance.

An average client spends about four hours a month with Luke. Seventy percent of her clients are women.

"I get a lot of people coming to me saying, 'I've been dressing in sweats for 10 years,' " said Luke, who works with a lot of technology professionals.

Luke and some of her colleagues say business is picking up, possibly due to television's reality-makeover craze, evidenced by shows such as "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and "Extreme Makeover."

Luke says she's nearing client capacity as more people come to her for advice on navigating the retail jungle. They're trying to find what fits their budget and lifestyle instead of the media images of what is in style. She thinks there is opportunity for others in the Seattle area, too.

There are only a few dozen personal shoppers per se working in Seattle, most of them at the Personal Touch department at Nordstrom, plus a few independent consultants. There are also customer-oriented retail salespeople who function as one-store-only personal shoppers. Luke works a few days a month at Nordstrom and then for her own clients through Les Egoistes, a creative-services company she founded four years ago.

As a personal shopper, Luke shops efficiently.

"I don't really like shopping that much — that's why I'm so fast. I don't want to get stuck in that store for hours and hours," said Luke. She tries to limit shopping appointments to two hours.

She also keeps shopping in perspective. It doesn't have to be designer duds. It doesn't even have to be new. On a recent outing with 21-year-old vocalist "Chela," Luke dug into packed racks looking for original garments at the Red Light Clothing Exchange in Seattle's University District.

An education in textiles — plus a mother who designed clothes — nourished Luke's passion for fashion. She received a marketing degree with an emphasis in clothing and textiles from Seattle Pacific University. Luke understands how clothes are made, how they ought to be altered, and can identify a fabric with a touch.

Though she liked clothes, Luke spent the better part of her twenties working as director of a nonprofit and as a fund-raiser for a private school.

She earned her shopping chops seven years ago when hired as a personal shopper for Nordstrom. She got the job after she pulled together outfits for store employees that were within budget and flattering to a variety of body types. It's there that she met Rosanne Ross, who needed guidance on purchasing a black suit.

"I was just really frustrated and I didn't have a lot of time and needed help," recalled Ross, 52, a mother of three who frequently travels for work.

Before long, the two were collaborating on building Ross a smarter, leaner wardrobe. They purged the tired, the frayed and the too familiar.

"I literally had a closet full of stuff," said Ross, who liked to buy sale merchandise and worried about matching it later.

Ross learned to not be preoccupied with garment size, and came to appreciate the work of a good tailor. She quit shopping for kicks.

"I don't impulse-shop anymore," said Ross. While she misses a few sales, her husband says she probably saves money having a personal shopper.

"She goes in there at a scheduled time and they do the damage," said Lou Ross.

Lou Ross is also happy to be left out of the what-to-wear powwows each day. "None of this, 'How does this look?' " he said. "Makes my life easier."

Clients like the Rosses help Luke grow her business by word of mouth and referrals. She doesn't advertise.

Stylistically, Luke is proud of her work. She's got people wearing more colors and better textures, and has helped some to break up with pleated pants. Plus, they are trying new styles.

It is compliments about her clients that give Luke satisfaction:

"There are so many stories of people saying, 'I feel absolutely fantastic in everything I wear and I don't have to worry anymore.' "

But there are challenging moments when clients don't want to hear Luke's opinion, such as the bride who planned to wear an unflattering, traditional white gown.

"I looked at her and I said, 'Honey, this is your third wedding. Let's try to oomph it up,' " Luke said.

They went with a multicolored, beaded gown.

"She looked absolutely gorgeous," Luke said.

Sarah Anne Wright: 206-464-2752 or swright@seattletimes.com


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