With wedding season fast approaching, Tori Attwood puts high street personal shoppers to the test
There’s so much lace and floral motifs blooming out my letterbox they're practically singing ‘here comes the bride’ in delicate rose-steeped notes. Wedding season is well and truly upon us. While the abundance of I-do’s leaves me feeling full for my friends, my wardrobe is looking rather empty - what the hell am I going to wear?
Cue the high street personal shopper: an alleged free, no-sales-pressure service designed to guide you into the right garms. I'm sold. Who wouldn’t want a personal stylist to do the hard work for them?
I recruited the help of personal shoppers from Debenhams and Topshop to source the best wedding guest look. The retailers claim the service is free, friendly and stress-free - but do they deliver?
THE BRIEF: I needed an outfit for a family wedding. I hate florals and definitely no pink.
Debenhams - 'surprisingly stylish'
I’ll admit that I felt dubious about Debenhams. I had rarely ventured into the department store since my pre-teen years, when mum would drag me there to scour the back-to-school sale. So yes, Debenhams hardly screams must-have fashion.
However, after discovering an online booking system for the personal shopper service, I was pleasantly surprised. A crisp, clean website helped bring dated Debs' back into the 21st century (even if the forced images of women smiling and shaking hands would look right at home on Shutterstock).
A breeze through the options let me pick who the appointment was for, the occasion in question and a simple size form. After selecting my chosen store – of which there are 88 offering the service, with the option of Market Street or the Trafford Centre for Manchester - I was presented with a choice of appointments. With a week’s notice required at a minimum, the service seems to be in demand.
I didn’t know Debs did sexy.
On appointment day, a quick whizz through the Market Street store led me to the Personal Shopper suite; small, but cosy, with my stylist poised ready to offer me a complimentary drink – I couldn’t say no to a cuppa. My stylist breezed through questions about what I was looking for; price range, colour schemes and preferred fits. Then she ambled off to scour the rails for me, whilst I made the most of the free tea.
Much like the rest of Debenhams, a loving lick of paint would have done wonders – a lack of window or decent lighting made things feel dingy and dated. It's more shabby than chic.
After 5-10mins my stylist was back, lugging a vibrant rail of garments. She led me into the fitting room – one of two on offer – and listed the items she’d picked out. Whilst Dorothy Perkins, Coast and Oasis were names I’d expected to meet, the addition of Little Mistress and Paper Dolls made things interesting; I hadn’t expected ASOS-stocked party brands from the department store.
I hadn’t expected ASOS-stocked party brands from the department store
Debenhams chosen looks:
With a limited brief and a price range of £60-£100, the stylist had done a pretty good job and selected seven wearable dresses. Bodycon, Bardot and bareback styles fitted and flattered my shape, whilst vibrant blues and reds tempted me to veer away from my usual go-to black.
For me, the winning look was an electric blue Little Mistress bodycon number, complete with a lace overlay. Sheer sections offered a sexy twist – I didn’t know Debs did sexy.
As I was nearing the end of my session, another stylist appeared – a gang move, I feared, to secure a sale. But the result was the opposite; instead of pressure to buy, I was met with encouragement to come back another day instead. “There’s no point buying it just for the sake of it.” They offered to give me a call if a similar dress in my size came into stock and asked if I’d like to book another appointment, but that was as pressured as the follow-up sale went.
Personal shopping at Debenhams was like having a couple of confidence-boosters with you to trial and test your looks – and heck, who would say no to that service? They ooh-ed and aah-ed in all the right places, but their compliments were genuine and not goaded by sales goals. They weren’t on commission, so they didn’t care. We had a natter, I spent 90 minutes twirling in dresses and then they bid me a fond farewell. The service was courteous and caring, and the result was some killer looks that were bang on brief and totally unexpected
Topshop - 'too risqué for a family event'
When I heard that Topshop’s personal shopper service was available in the Trafford Centre, my heart skipped a beat. The revamped store is now the largest outside of London and features the newly launched bridesmaid collection, so snapping up a wedding guest dress should have been a dream.
Booking online only heightened my expectations. As well as the usual booking form, I was asked for a more in-depth style evaluation including hair colour, extensive sizes and a choice of four items that I had to rate to reveal more about my preferences. So far, so good.
On the day, I was buzzing. Tucked away down a secret corridor, I discovered the personal shopping suite; a serenely stylish haven hidden away from the madness of the main store. Stripped back décor paired with luxe furnishings gave an overall plush feel, whilst a catwalk of Topshop’s latest offerings paraded on the wall to edgy beats keeping things very Topshop. Needless to say, I was more than impressed.
As I approached the reception desk, a stylist paused her conversation with a colleague and came out of the nearby staff room. I smiled. She looked me up and down, then returned to the conversation with her colleague. A little dismissive, but heck, I was so dazed by the blazing lights I hardly noticed. My stylist then arrived, immaculately dressed and beaming. My initial thought: I want everything she wears.
She looked me up and down, then returned to the conversation with her colleague.
She led me into my fitting room, where she talked me through the outfits she had handpicked ready for my arrival. There were the typical mismatched outfits that don’t really go but get thrown together because ya know... ‘fashion’ (note the feather-effect cami and asymmetric skirt upcycled from granny’s Sunday best).
A completely sheer bodysuit offered an unusual option for a family wedding; though embroidered birds flapped across my chest to protect my nipples, I didn’t think the parents would approve... A rose-patterned prom dress with a mesh bodice reigned as my favourite, though I struggled to do up the back.
Fortunately, my stylist emerged to offer a helping hand – not a size up, despite my request, but a sharp tug of the zip to squeeze me in. She squished in my back bulge, commended the look, then left. Again, a little dismissive, but hey, this is Topshop. Whilst a sheer and fishnet panelled dress and a lacy blue number also won my compliments, they felt a little too risqué for a family affair – a theme that ran across pretty much all the outfits. Overall, the selection sat at two opposites of the style spectrum; they were either risqué or fashionably frumpy.
A completely sheer bodysuit offered an unusual option for a family wedding
My stylist didn’t return to my fitting room - outside giggles suggested that the styling team were a little too preoccupied to offer the 'premium' service boasted on the website - so I changed and headed back to the reception desk. After explaining to my stylist that I wasn’t sure about the looks, though I liked the prom dress, I said I was going to think about it. She asked me if I’d like to put anything on hold, but I declined and then left.
Topshop’s fashion may be high, but the service standard certainly isn’t. The lack of interaction created a barely-there personal shopper service that was as flimsy as the wafer thin garms that were entirely wedding inappropriate. The overall effect was not a ‘personal’ shopping experience tailored to my tastes, but a bit of a snark at my wardrobe. This is what’s in, according to Topshop. Don’t like it? Then go elsewhere.
Visit the Topshop personal shopping suite if you a) want to take the ultimate fitting room selfie – the lighting and mirror combo in Topshop is AMAZING, or b) want to convince yourself that you don’t know the first thing about fashion. Otherwise, I’d recommend c) take your mate with you on your shopping spree. At least they’ll be honest when you look like a walking haberdashery.