Haute House Calls: Designers at Your Doorstep

At some point, after a long, fruitless day of shopping at the mall -- facing traffic, cookie-cutter merchandise and disaffected sales people -- every frustrated fashionista goes home to sleep and dream about fashion.

She dreams of the day when Giorgio Armani will show up at her house with a rolling rack full of clothes, ready to spend a couple of hours picking and choosing a few perfect items from his latest collection just for her.

Sadly, it's just a dream because Giorgio still doesn't make house calls, but a growing number of clothing labels do. It's called direct fashion sales, and it's a booming business.

"It's so superior to going to a department store. It's like having your own personal shopper," said Jan Patrick a real estate agent from Wilmington, Del.

Patrick's personal shopper is really a Carlisle sales associate who has a record of Patrick's purchases, her sizes and likes and dislikes. Four times a year, Patrick makes an appointment to see the new collection.

"It's a lovely social time. We have fun trying on the clothes, but I'm still totally focused on my shopping," said Patrick. In just two hours, she can go home having ordered a season's worth of clothes.

Companies like Worth, and the other big names in this business, Carlisle and Bill Blass New York sell their clothing exclusively through sales associates. The associates receive sample collections about four times a year. They bring the collections into their homes (or showrooms) and invite their clients and friends to make an appointment to come by and try things on. More often than not, clients return season after season, year after year.

Bringing the "store" to the consumer is what's driving the surge in sales according to Marshall Cohen, chief retail analyst at the NDP Group. "Direct to market sales are growing at triple the rate of online fashion sales. It's now a billion-dollar business." said Cohen. And the growth is coming at the expense of specialty retail stores, according to Cohen.

Bill Blass New York, a heavy-hitting designer name, entered the field 2½ years ago and it's "on track to be a $50 million to $100 million dollar company in five years," said CEO Ann Acierno.

Acierno describes the home shows as a throwback to the era of exclusive trunk shows. "The women have their home set up. It's a whole environment with mirrors. It's a mini-store. The women can try on samples and see what works for them and they'll receive their merchandise in five to seven days."

Worth is another prominent name in direction fashion sales. The clothing is sold through a network of 800 sales associates who are sprinkled throughout the country. Each associate is interviewed in her home and must provide a list of 250 potential customers, before signing on with the company. "We offer women from the ages of 20 to 90 a selection of beautiful clothing they can't find in a store, that and convenience and personal service," said Caroline Davis, founding partner of the Worth Collection.

Gary Beth Baggett is a Worth associate who's been selling the collection for the past 17 years. Based in Austin, Texas, Baggett believes in-home shopping is popular with women who are short on time and who really want personal service. "I will absolutely tell them if they try something on and I don't like it on them. It's about trust. They know I'm going to make them look as good as I can," said Baggett.

Baggett quizzes her customers on their upcoming business appointments, charity galas and travel plans just so she can get the right pieces ready when they come in.

"I would put the clothes up with any designer," said Baggett. "We use the same mills as Chanel uses. My customers all shop the big names, Ralph, Burberry, but they come in and they like the quality they find here."

There's no question that the prices won't fit everybody's budget. When sales associates start asking which charity benefits you may be attending, you know that the price tag is likely to be steep. Blouses can cost $100 and up, and pants can run more than $300, depending on the collection, the season and the line.

Still the clothing is made to mix and match. So, one sweater is designed to work with several different outfits and with a simple change of jacket go from day to evening wear. As one shopper put it, it's kind of like Garanimals but for grownups.

Kate Lyons, a Delaware insurance executive, found out about the Carlisle Collection from a friend. "She was talking about going to one of the shows, and then I got an invitation. I didn't know what it was," said Lyons. That was more than a decade ago, and,yet, Lyons believes she still has the suit from that first show. "I wore it for a long, long time."

But just because you get an invitation, and there might be sandwiches or a glass of wine involved, don't mistake these shows for parties.

"We really don't call them parties, because it's not just an open invitation to anyone. It's more like a trunk show. It's done by appointment," said Caroline Bowen, president of the Carlisle Collection. "This is a huge time saver for women. Suburban moms, and professional women can come in and in an hour and a half get their wardrobe done," said Bowen.

But, obviously, there's another way of shopping that's even faster than that -- online. An hour and a half seems like an eternity compared with the click of a mouse. Analyst Marshall Cohen, however, thinks it's no coincidence that fashion was one of the last areas of online shopping to show a lot of growth. "There is a much greater propensity to connect with the consumer in direct fashion sales, and that's good for business," said Cohen.

Direct fashion fans like Jan Patrick agree. "I can't even imagine shopping on the computer. That would be like shopping from a catalog. You wouldn't be able to touch and feel the fabric or try anything on," said Patrick.

Maybe dreams of designer house calls aren't so far-fetched after all.