Friday, December 7, 2012

No Holds Barred

by Blair Sabol

I am confused nowadays over what a "personal stylist" really means. Sure, I get what they are doing in Hollywood with all those TMZ starlets who are tasteless to start, and then looking even more boring with all that help. Then again Hollywood entourages and image makers go hand in hand. But for us rookies ... do we honestly need this service?

Life coaches, yoga instructors, hookers, and real estate agents-turned "personal stylists."
J.Crew to the rescue!
It used to be, and very much still is, every major store had "personal shoppers.” They would help brides and Bar Mitzvah mothers coordinate their entire outfits from shoes to hats to jewelry and sherpa them from floor to floor. We are now way past that. Currently we have gals (and some guys) who were formerly real estate agents, "life coaches" (what the hell is that job?), yoga instructors, and Brazilian hookers all claiming (for big bucks) that they are "personal stylists."

I don't get it! Most of them have no real personal style let alone any background or actual fashion education (other than working behind a cosmetic counter as a teenager). They only know and love to SHOP. Who doesn't?! But then it gets complicated.

Enter J.Crew. The only store to offer me my own "personal stylist," online and via the phone. They headlined the service as Your “go-to” for the “how to."

And why not? They made it so easy and available. I never thought I ever needed it but lo and behold Sydney Gunn (yes, that is her real name and she is the "fastest gun" in the "one click" shopping world) appeared one day on my email and suddenly she was sending me notices of all sorts of J.Crew items. We rarely ever spoke, but she was on my case.

Finally I did phone her, and realized she had a real life in the J.Crew headquarters in Virginia. She was quite young, only wanted me to know that she was tracking my every request and return. She said she would take care of all my orders, and then discussed what was the best or worst "deal " and look for me.

I soon believed she really "knew" me and was no longer a cyber style stalker. And trust me, this gal can sell. She makes sure I am happy with every purchase or rejection. Plus she would "cut corners and "make it happen" — quickly — by taking taxes off, Fed Ex-ing when needed (for no charge), all the while making me feel "special.”

I must say, the sound of her daily "pinged" messages on my computer felt reassuring. Someone was actually looking out for ME — even if she was clueless as to who and what I actually looked like. I started signing my emails to her with "xxxooo." Sick? Maybe.

Personal stylist Marianne Smith Harrison.
But I had to hand it to J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler for coming up with yet another brilliant merchandising idea. He even re-named the service to "personal stylist" instead of "personal shopper." The latter reeks of old lady in space shoes, her reading glasses hanging from her necklace. "Shopper" means "schlepper.” "Stylist" ... is unique, and elite.

Ironically on my last NYC visit, I ended up visiting the one and only real J.Crew Collection store on 66th and Madison to meet Marianne Harrison — a 70-year-old (obviously doesn't look it) J.Crew "personal stylist extraordinaire" (no doubt their oldest too!).

Marianne’s "history" says it all. She loves clothes, and has been selling her heart out and helping a large list of "mature" clientele for over 30 years in three cities. The woman KNOWS HER STUFF!

Her father Sandy Smith was a major manufacturer/investor in the fashion business. He and his partner founded Anne Klein. They also owned and ran Pierre Cardin US, Don Simonelli, John Anthony and several other designers. Donna Karan started her career at Anne Klein. In the '70s, Marianne was a knitwear designer for her own company, Smith-Kollmar, which she started with Jill Kollmar, a boarding school friend.

So Marianne grew up in the fashion business. She's been around. She has everything from dressing to grooming to alterations COVERED! Now she finds herself selling part time at The J.Crew Collection, and is still freelancing. She is scouting constantly — and not for the Bravo Housewives. And she is a true "consultant."
J.Crew Collection's cashmere "altar" room.
When I met her at J.Crew Collection she whipped me through that store's amazing inventory in record time. There was the cashmere "altar" room ... all arranged according to color. The front room and downstairs were also laid out in color codes with matching bags, chunky sequin pumps and iPad covers.

There were some vintage Miriam Haskell baubles showcased around as well. It dawned on me you would have to be an idiot not to be able to get yourself together just by going from the store's table to table. The selection is brilliant and high end but all around are "sales associates" with names like "Tiffany," "Ashley," and "Crystal" who were all young and skinny-jeaned, high-heeled and though cordial, often looked right through me. Marianne could fill that gap.
J.Crew Collection "pink" cashmere  room.
The glory of the J.Crew Collection Store is it’s more expensive than the regular J.Crew line. It obviously attracts the neighborhood Upper East side ladies and their daughters and their dogs (didn't notice if there were J.Crew dog collars available).

The store is "a club" — cozy and well designed, and PACKED with dedicated customers (some visit every week). J.Crew Collection merchandise falls in between Ralph Lauren and Loro Piana in style. I prefer it because The J.Crew colors are always jazzier and the scene is less intimidating. Besides I would follow J.Crew's creative director Jenna Lyons;fiscal cliff." They are known to be the best in the business, and for a reason.
J.Crew Collection front table, all color coded.
J.Crew Collection's jewelry.
But the glory of working with Marianne is she moves fast, does a quick study, and followed my vague lead. We only sat down at the very end to edit what she considered "not really necessary." (silk window-paned tight pants ... really?)

A day later she took me on a short cruise of certain stores she felt I should know about. Like Fifth Avenue's Uniglo and Zara. No disrespect to J.Crew, just on a "need to know" basis for decent pricing and awareness. Yes, they all had similar A-line cocktail dresses and pink puffer vests and smart T-shirts, underwear and handbags and shoes, all at a cheaper price point.
Uniglo on Fifth with its popular skinny jeans at a price.
But I must confess after that tour I ended up back at my J.Crew "temple" simply because Uniglo's escalators, background music and Zara's multiple rooms gave me a panic attack. In the end I realized something crucial: if only I cared that much about acquiring a wardrobe at my age.

I had to remind Marianne that my lifestyle involves making "appearances" at Safeway and my doctors’ offices. No parties, no dates; maybe a few memorials and funerals. She totally understood. But what she taught me is the importance for "high/low” dressing, no matter how you find it. Yes, Target is okay but you need to be careful. Face it, H&M is everywhere but is often too silly and young; Forever 21 and Old Navy are wonderful for those on especially tight budgets, and for some fun jewelry but it all falls apart in a week.
Stylist Harrison showing me Uniglo underwear pieces. And showing me a Zara dress for $189.
Nothing wrong with any of that, but we are still looking for some durability as well as wearability. Sometimes a bargain is not such a bargain. The day I met Marianne she herself was wearing a vintage 60-year-old Kelly bag (her mother's) with a fake fur vest ($150.) and her signature eight-year-old Prada boots.

Good stylists have it all in their DNA ... she can shop for chic with an accountant’s mind. She is a cheerleader for the older woman who still wants to look good and feel good withouth breaking her bank.
Harrison's authentic 60-year-old Kelly bag.
As she says "With all that is available today in all price ranges there is no reason for anyone to look awful. And there is no reason to dress strictly high end today. In fact, she continued, “if I had all the money in the world I would still go high/low ... diamonds and denims. Everyone knows that. It is more creative and in the end simply smarter all the way around."

Celine's "mini luggage" at $2,750.
At the end of two hours with Marianne I felt like I had been stylistically "rebooted." NO matter how much I thought I knew or didn't know she was there to educate and suggest. She even gave me the name of a small neighborhood hair colorist who does exceptional highlights and low lights for a mere $100. Talk about the ultimate in high/low!!! And before she left me she insisted I check out the latest "status bag" at Celine called the "mini luggage" at a mere $2,750. She comforted me by saying "NOT for you ... stick to your utilitarian hobo bag from QVC. It works for you." Marianne Harrison won my heart. Contact her at 917-836-8030 or

On the opposite end of the stylistic seesaw is 64-year-old Linda Rodin. I met her accidentally through my pal Susin Fair (NY Times "Samurai Shopper " columnist) after we struck out at the Antique Pier Show.

Susin felt I should meet Linda since she is a notorious "editorial" stylist and fashion icon in her own right. Rodin even modeled for a recent J.Crew catalogue as herself in her own Crew picks. I knew about Linda Rodin as the creator and founder of Rodin Skincare. I am a huge fan — as are many others — of her high end face and body oils made from exotic essential oils like jasmine and neroli.

Rodin Luxury face and body oil.
Many plastic surgeon are supporters of her line as well. Currently she is working on a candle and perfume and no doubt she will strike it rich with those also. Her scents are transporting but the oils are REAL elixirs for the skin. She has gone so much further with her line than the current fad of Argan oil (Go to: and order up a storm!!!). Linda is not only a businesswoman but she looks the epitome of "cool.”

Stylist/skincare creator/fashion icon Linda Rodin.
Nowadays everyone downtown thinks they are, but she really is! Lean and tall and dressed in black Uniglo (there we go again) skinny cord jeans, Mark Jacobs zip-up sneakers (no longer available, of course), Rag and Bone leather and knit jacket, and J.Crew navy blue cashmere big sweater. Her jewelry was meaningful and vintagely stacked but understated. Her white hair was slicked back in a bun. And her eyeglasses were a one of a kind statement from Henry Miller optical.

I wanted every item she had on. But knew none of it would ever work on me. She makes her style look so right and easy and original. Rodin reminds me of the musical comedy genius Kay Thompson in her quick wit, flash bulb presentation and authentic wisdom. She stays so thin "cause I work my ass off, no gyms or Pilates for me and I must get 9 hours of sleep a night or I am psychotic."

I have a feeling she survives on green organic juices and air all day. As for facial surgery; "Whenever I see all that on women I think they look so much older. Sure you can always chase youth — but imagine getting addicted to a face that is not even yours."

Her pink lips are her trademark ... (she wears no other makeup but her own facial oil) ... and the recipe is Fran Wilson's mood Match green lipstick first, and then 2 lip pencils from Makeup Forever, and lastly Nars' "Schiap" shocking pink. I wanted it all even though I knew I would end up looking like Dame Edna.

Remember Rodin is NOT a personal stylist but she does do major movie stars for magazine shoots and Fashion Shows.
It is clear Linda has mastered an ageless sense of chic for herself and her life. She is fearless in how she presents herself. In fact in today's vernacular she is "fierce" in the best sense of the word. She has successfully combined classy with quirky ... tough combo to pull off.

"The truth about my dressing is the devil is in the details. I don't care about clothes as much, it’s the exclamation points of the shoes, the jewelry, the glasses and of course 'high/low" is the only way to go."

Marianne and Linda are really opposite ends of today's popular styling scene but they both have sensational inner compasses. I still don't know about that word "stylist.” However, I think they are both gifted with a remarkable eye and a real passion. Sure, they can help and inspire many of us visually-challenged slobs. But in the end, I think we can only look at them and admire their gifts ... and MAYBE just maybe learn a thing or two.

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