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Fashion Sensei

Personal shopping guru Lisa Popplewell turns a fashion flunky into a well-dressed man

By Andrew Mah


Illustrator: Jef Miller

I’m standing in front of a three-way mirror wearing a new Paul Smith from London shirt. It’s nice—the fabric is perfect, soft yet crisp, and it fits like a million bucks ($295, actually). But on top of the classic blue and white vertical stripes is a generous multi-hued flower print overlay. I sense it’s quite fashionable, but I feel a bit awkward. I look like a field of daisies.

“It’s nice,” says my friend Laura. She repeats the opinion as I respond with a vague shoulder shrug and eyebrow frown. “No, really. It looks good on you.”

I’m not complaining mind you; it’s exactly what I’ve asked for. You see, we’re here in the Personal Shopping Suites at Holt Renfrew, and our personal shopper for the day is helping us both with a bit of a wardrobe refresh. I’ve asked Lisa Popplewell for, among other things, a bit more colour and flair. I’ve been told by lady friends that I have a tendency towards conservative (read: drab) fashions—lots of solid colours, a cool palette of blues, blacks and greys.

Apparently, I could use a bit of pop.

I’m no Andy Warhol though, and Lisa has already sized me up with Jedi-like fashion intuition. She and her demure assistant Kelsey Schiavon introduce me to a rack of clothes they’ve carefully selected based upon my desire to get some smart-looking new office and evening function-wear.

Besides the shirt and a bright purple tie, the rest of the rack is classic in appeal. She informs me that she avoided going too avant-garde to avoid overwhelming me. “To introduce colour, I usually start with something smaller—a pair of socks or a tie. That way, you’ve got it, but you’re not committed to it.”

Given my discomfort with a simple flower print shirt, it’s a canny observation, which isn’t too surprising. Lisa’s been in the fashion retail biz for 13 years, and the last five as a personal shopper for Holt Renfrew in Calgary. Not only does she have a love for fashion, but she enjoys the personalized service she can offer—the opportunity to “relate to people.”

“I love developing relationships,” Lisa says with an infectious smile and a barely contained energy that finds expression in expansive hand gestures. “Every day you learn more and more about people.”


Illustrator: Jef Miller

She gets to meet all sorts; her clientele ranges from high-powered execs to stay-at-home moms who show up in sweats; raging fashionistas who send her off to find that Prada dress on page 124 of Vogue, to fashion flunkies looking to be saved from paisley and polyester. She’s had a few celebs, from rugged sports stars to fashionable actors, but most of her clientele are ordinary people.

That’s fine by Lisa, who points out that the service they provide is about a lot more than knowing fashion—it’s the ability to listen to what people want and make them look good in the process. “Ultimately, you have to be inspired by the person,” she says.

She’s done well with me: as Laura and Lisa have a friendly confab over the curious resurgence of ‘80s-style bold shoulders, I try on a Gucci suit that I immediately fall in love with. Narrow lapels, slim design and it already generates a nice, crisp silhouette off the rack. I feel like it takes ten years off. Next, I try on a smart-looking sporty Prada marino wool zipper top cut in such a way as to hide my middle-aged gut bulge. Ingenious.

It’s Laura’s turn and she has presented Lisa with a challenge. Laura is a little over five foot, about ninety-something pounds and though she is in her mid-to-late twenties, she has either the misfortune or good grace of still being carded at bars. As a high-powered magazine editor, she’s constantly having to overcome first impressions that she’s younger than she is. So she tells Lisa that she’s looking for fashions that will assert a sense of mature professionalism without sacrificing her twenty-something feminine grace.

For her, Lisa has selected a black Theory suit jacket with a crisp white shirt (“I don’t think anyone can live without a great white shirt”). Laura confesses she’s not a “suit” girl, but as she looks herself over in the mirror, the initial patina of scepticism fades.

The winning factor seems to be the matching pair of skinny black pants—designed, Lisa points out, to give the outfit both the requested professionalism and a contemporary, youthful edge. “It’s something I wouldn’t have thought to do,” Laura says with an air of admiration.


Illustrator: Jef Miller

As Laura tries on a few more outfits, I realize with mild incredulity that I’m having fun. This is very different than those tortuous hours tagging along behind my (now ex-) girlfriend at the mall on the quest for the perfect pair of jeans—invariably involving cramped fitting rooms and the need to respond carefully to the question “Do these look good on me?”

The difference has something to do with the bright and spacious fitting rooms here at the Personal Shopping Suites, and the fact that the clothes are brought to you. There’s also the priceless benefit of being able to rely on an expert’s fashion advice. Even better—the service is free; though of course the temptation to buy in this kind of context is overpowering.

I turn back to the Paul Smith flower print shirt and now all three ladies are cooing their approval. I don’t know if it’s peer pressure or me coming to my fashion senses, but I think I’m beginning to like it.

Holt Renfrew moves a block west from its old location, into new digs this October. Taking up the space that used to be Sears along 8 Ave and 4 St, the new Holts offers three floors and about 150,000 square feet of space, sporting a chic design by New York architects Janson Goldstein and a bunch of new brands.

The Personal Shopping suites expand into a 3,000-square foot space that features a waiting area with a big-screen TV, private washroom, complimentary beverage area and truly spacious fitting rooms. To book an appointment with a personal shopper, call Holt Renfrew at 403-269-7341 and ask for Personal Shopping.

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