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.

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