BY LINDA BAKER
“Did you really wear that to work, Mommy?“ My 15-year old daughter is gazing with a critical eye at my gray Ann Taylor Loft pants, sorely in need of hemming, and a black cashmere sweater suffering from a mistaken tumble through the hot water cycle.
My daughter may be my fiercest fashion critic, but she’s not always the most useful. That descriptor may fall to a new digital startup that launched in Portland and 23 other cities this past Monday. The brainchild of Stacy London, host of TLC’s What Not to Wear and Cindy McLaughlin, an MIT-educated serial entrepreneur, Style for Hire is a network of independent wardrobe stylists that offer their fashion expertise to “real” people — not celebrities.
Five of those stylists are in the Portland area, among them regional manager Paula O’Neil. Early this week I spoke with O’Neil about democratizing fashion, hiring a personal stylist in a down economy, and Portland’s promiennce in the national fashion arena. (FYI: I was wearing a white stretch turtleneck, from Bebe, and maroon pants from Nordstrom, hemmed in house).
Style For Hire is part of a nationwide trend making fashion more accessible to the common (wo)man, says O’Neil, who also runs her own "wardrobe consulting" business, Est Ovest Style. “Fashion is not a privilege but a right,” she said, inverting the old fashion aphorism, “wearing a bikini is a privilege not a right.” Full disclosure: I wasn’t familiar with that particular fashion aphorism until enlightened by my colleague Vivian McInerny, managing editor of Oregon Home and a former fashion writer at the Oregonian.
In recent years, notes O’Neil, “new designers have created opportunities for people with less of a budget to play with trends and add fashion pieces to their wardrobes.” What’s more: as the economy changes, more people are “living portfolio lives,” she says. “They are both moms and dads and soccer coaches and teachers and executives, and they need wardrobes that transition for all those different lives.”
Style for Hire aims to smooth out the wrinkles of this new fashion economy. Customers go online, find a stylist — specially trained in the “body-centric science of styling” — and make an appointment. Services include personal shopping and "closet audits" and cost $65-$300 per hour, depending on location.
Wait a sec. These prices seem pretty steep given the company's fashion-for-the-masses spiel. McLaughlin, whom I spoke to separately, didn’t see the contradiction. Style for Hire is very “budget sensitive,” she said. “We help you shop smarter, we know where sales are, and we can go to national retailers and negotiate discounts on your behalf.”
As a national network, Style for Hire also aims to shore up the notoriously fragmented personal styling industry. “Typically, stylists are lone wolves; they eat what they kill," said McLaughlin, deploying a rather evocative metaphor. "They have to build all their own partnerships, they have limited to no access to national retailer or corporate partnerships.” Style for Hire, which takes a 25 percent cut from participating stylists, partners with national retailers and malls, thus giving independent contractors access to more resources and opportunities.
Four years in the making, Style For Hire recently completed its Series A funding, netting $1.5 million from Golden Seeds, a firm that invests in women–owned companies, and New York Angels. The company has run a beta site in Washington, D.C., since 2010, and Style for Hire says nearly 50 percent of clients have scheduled additional appointments and 25 percent have come back three or more times.
Will this pattern take root in Portland, a city famous for its independent fashion ethos?
“Portland actually holds a very special place in fashion industry right now,” says O’Neil. Thanks in large part to reality fashion show Project Runway, with five wins from Portland designers, the city is seen as a mecca for emerging talent. The city’s thriving television and movie production industry has also made it a good place to be a personal stylist.
Then there’s the changing economy: “There are a lot of people in life transition," says O'Neil. "Once we get the message out there that this service is available to all sorts of real people," she says, business should grow.
I like to think of myself as a real person. And according to McLaughlin, Style for Hire's sales strategy includes targeting professional services firms such as lawyers and banks, companies “that care about the image their employees project.” Since a business magazine fits those criteria, perhaps I should talk to my publisher about using personal styling as an employee retention tool, another one of Style For Hire’s marketing strategies.
At the very least, it would get my much beloved but pesky filial fashion critic off my back.
Linda Baker is managing editor of Oregon Business.