One home shopping network that's really at home

Luxury lines, personal attention come under one friendly roof

Email|Print| Text size + By Erin Skrypek
Globe Correspondent / November 22, 2007

WELLESLEY - Lots of women sneak out of the office to go shopping on their lunch break. But how many speed off to someone's home in Wellesley to buy a $798 sweater or an $1,800 cashmere wrap?

More than you think.

No, some suburbanite hasn't gone all "Desperate Housewives" and started selling bootleg designer goods out of her basement. On a recent afternoon, well-heeled professionals and affluent moms were visiting Jennifer Sleeper, a sales associate for The Worth Collection, one of several clothing companies eschewing department stores and boutiques and focusing instead on direct sales. Think of the gatherings as Tupperware parties where consultants sell upscale clothing, rather than candy-colored kitchenware.

Amber Dahl, a stay-at-home mom, came all the way to Wellesley from Cohasset for the Worth event. She bought about 10 pieces of clothing, three of which she'll wear for black-tie events.

"[W]hat I love about the eventwear is that they are pieces you can go back to. I could put this jacket with jeans and wear it for day," Dahl said of a midnight blue jacket with a hint of sparkle.

If the idea of shopping for a single brand of clothing in someone's home seems antithetical to the buy-anything-anytime ethos of the Internet era, it is - and that's part of the allure. Company executives compare direct fashion sales to the traditions of couture society, when women shopped by going to a designer's atelier and placing orders for an entire season.

The New York-based Worth, started in 1991, isn't the only one selling direct. Carlisle and Doncaster have been selling their clothing through private appointments with their sales associates for years. Just last year, Bill Blass licensed Bill Blass New York, the first designer-label direct sales collection. Company president Katie Schuller-Bleakie paired up with Blass after realizing direct sales was the only sector of the retail fashion market that didn't have a true designer brand.

Schuller-Bleakie, who splits her time between her home in Wellesley and her office in Manhattan, says business is taking off.

"In two years, we have over 150 consultants in 30 states," she says. "Women want service - they need attention, someone who is willing to see you at 10 in the morning or 7 o'clock at night."

That blend of flexibility and customer service is what's pushing direct fashion sales, also known as trunk show retail, analysts say.

"In fashion, almost all women 35 and under have made purchases on the Internet, but they want to see a product before they buy it, which is why [trunk show] retail is growing," said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at the NPD Group, a market research firm. "It has had a 100 percent increase in the last two years. Fashion is one of the fastest-growing direct sales sectors."

So, how does it all work? Sales associates bring collections (in the case of Worth, that consists of hundreds of pieces of clothing) into their homes four times a year and invite their friends/clients to come over and go shopping. Sales associates drive their own business, have their own client lists, and get a commission on what they sell. Advertising is quite targeted. Worth advertises nationally in society glossy Town & Country (as does Bill Blass New York) and in Veranda, a home magazine. In addition, Sleeper placed an ad about a shopping event in a town newspaper, and also invites everyone in her social circle.

Shopping direct can be pricey. Pieces from the Worth Collection range from about $198 to $1,800, and a new line of handbags max out at $1,500, on par with big name designers. The lower-priced WorthWear line runs from $48 to around $400. Bill Blass New York starts at $175 and peaks at $1,500 for a reversible, suede-trimmed wool coat, while Doncaster, which made its first foray into Internet shopping this year, runs from about $200 to $1,100.

Those prices might seem high for a little-known brand, and the idea of going to someone's home for a one-on-one shopping experience, a bit curious. But some customers swear by it. Not only can they easily check the fit and quality of each piece they buy, but they can count on personal attention.

Back Bay resident Stephanie Warburgwho has become a devoted Bill Blass New York client, says she depends on her consultant for an honest assessment of all the pieces she buys.

"Elizabeth Leatherman is very sweet, but she's very honest," Warburg says of her Boston-based consultant. "She'll say, 'That looks nice, but why don't you try something else.' It's nice to have a second opinion - like shopping with a friend. I call it one-stop shopping."

For women with high-powered jobs, especially those who regularly attend black-tie functions, shopping for clothing at a private home can also be a time saver. There's no worrying about parking, or finding time to comb through racks of new merchandise at their favorite department store.

Antoinette Russell, a wealth management specialist who works in Boston and lives in Brookline, has been a Worth client for about 15 years. "I hit Worth and/or Carlisle three to four times a year for an hour and that is it - other than an occasional impulse buy on the fly."

Still, the appointments aren't all business. At Sleeper's home, the conversation is punctuated with chatty asides and exclamations like, "Oh! Now that is your color!" and "Wow . . . WOW!" One woman asks: "Do these look like total 'mom' pants?" and "Do you think if I don't have a tan it will still look good?"

Meanwhile, Sleeper and Heather Steele, a WorthWear sales associate in Wellesley, made suggestions and consulted their detailed client lists to make sure so-and-so didn't already have the "Chloe" pant in charcoal stretch wool - even if this season's "Chloe" is slightly different from the one they might already own.

The personalized fashion assistance these women offer can even go as far as making a trip to a special client's home to inspect her closet - helping her reorganize, edit, and make a list of what she's missing.

"I obviously don't do it for every client," says Sleeper, who considers herself a personal shopper - and willing to go the extra mile.

Just as her clients go a few extra miles to see her.

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