FOR most of us, the festive season heralds incessant trips to the mall and a frenzied flurry of shopping. For Marilize de Clercq, it’s business as usual. Moreover, instead of spending her money at the shops, she’s generating an income as an entrepreneur. De Clercq is a professional/personal shopper: the mall her workplace and her clients are a well-heeled lot, set on becoming even more stylishly heeled with an expert at their side.
Businessmen and women, professionals, housewives, the occasional celebrity and even farming folk from as far afield as Kakamas, on the banks of the Orange River, engage De Clercq’s services in Cape Town. Farmers and their families travel to the city for two-day shopping sprees in her company. Her youngest clients are in their early teens and the oldest in their 70s. Johannesburg-based clientele fly her to Gauteng to access her styling and shopping expertise and services — either because they’re unable to achieve the same results on their own or they’re too busy to shop themselves, or both.
In fact, busy businessmen and shopping-averse executives played a crucial role in De Clercq’s initial foray into the world of personal shopping as part of luxury men’s clothing brand Fabiani.
"I’ve always been interested in fashion," she says when we meet at Canal Walk between shopping expeditions/clients. "As a visual communications student at advertising school, I had my own jewellery label, and worked in-store for YDE (Young Designers Emporium) and later Hip-Hop. During that time, I befriended a customer who came into the shop every Saturday. After five years — by then we were friends — she admitted that she stopped by each weekend to see what I was wearing and, after her visit, bought the exact outfit. I didn’t realise it at the time but I guess that was my first experience as an image and shopping consultant."
She had just completed studying when items from De Clercq’s Zeca jewellery range were included in a bridal magazine. She asked the magazine’s editor if she could assist with the edition and was delighted with the opportunity of working alongside well-known fashion and decor stylist Isabella Niehaus. The job required sourcing men’s fashion from Fabiani. And, after a week of toing and froing between the retailer’s flagship store at the V&A Waterfront and the studio, Fabiani offered De Clercq a job as a personal shopper.
"It was the ideal thing for me. Although I’d studied graphic design, I couldn’t imagine myself behind a desk. Everything I’d done to that point outside of my studies involved fashion and interacting extensively with people, and, although the visual and branding training I received at advertising school came in handy and continues to be useful to me, I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a graphic designer."
So followed two years as part of Fabiani’s "personal fashion consultancy service" team, which involved interviewing "men of means" to determine their clothing needs, selecting garments and delivering proposed outfits to clients’ homes, hotel rooms and offices for private fittings.
Remuneration included a basic salary and a cut of sales. It was useful training for De Clercq, who is these days also the design director of the plus-size women’s clothing brand, Captive8.
"I enjoyed working with men and learning how their ‘needs’ differ from women’s ‘wants’. They’re all about practical requirements and provide lists that say things like, ‘Need six shirts, three pants, socks and shoes’. Men are less insecure about body shape and image than women."
In many cases, she says, men lack the time and patience necessary to pull a look together when they need to appear more polished and professional. While at Fabiani, she learnt how to encourage men to get more adventurous about their purchases and change their style if necessary.
De Clercq’s reputation, as a personal shopper who knows how to manage budgets, improve image and, perhaps most important in her profession, make people feel good about themselves, spread. And, as opportunities to style celebrities such as Joanne Strauss for Top Billing arose and more and more women approached her to "please shop for me this weekend", De Clercq decided, after two years, to take the leap, leave Fabiani and establish her own business as a personal shopper and image consultant.
She hasn’t looked back. Recessions have come and gone but business has remained steady. Personal shopping is a luxury service and, in De Clercq’s experience, demand exceeds supply. But, she cautions, it’s not a profession to be taken lightly.
"I often meet people who, when they hear what I do, say, ‘Oh, I love shopping. I’d love to be a personal shopper.’ It’s not as simple as that. I’ve worked hard to get it right, build up a good client base and fine-tune my skills. It’s a business that involves a great deal more than dashing from mall to mall and boutique to boutique. You need to be organised and disciplined, and like any other small business, take care of the basics, like invoicing, scheduling and marketing, if you are going to be successful."
Like many other ventures, De Clercq counts on return business to generate a significant portion of her income. Some contract her to shop with or for them as often as once a month. Others do it every second month or four times a year to coincide with the seasons. Some book her time — four hours or full-day sessions — to prepare for important events. And while most accompany her on shopping sessions, some hand over their credit cards and set her free in the mall.
The business, she says, is all about trust, which is won only when clients know that the end result will always be one that leaves them feeling good about themselves and how their money is spent. It’s a combination of art and science.
"I am creative and, I think, quite perceptive when it comes to understanding people, their needs and desires. But I’ve also studied and researched extensively to ensure that I get things like colour, body line and style analyses right. The consultation phase of my interaction with every client is crucial, as is planning. I do my homework when it comes to fashion and retailing. My reputation is at stake and it’s important to deal with quality brands and retailers."
It goes without saying that shopping requires plenty of legwork. But, says De Clercq, when it’s your business, you get to know where to go for what, even those hard-to-find items.
"Whether it’s an outfit for a matric dance, end-of-the-year party or wedding, or a whole new wardrobe for a new job, my objective is to put it together for my clients with the best results possible. And, certainly, the service of a personal shopper is a luxury but what many people find is that my fee is less than the cost of buying a wardrobe of clothing that is rarely worn and, in many cases, unsuited to them and their needs."