DMs, DHL and Dolce & Gabbana: Inside the world of personal shoppers
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DMs, DHL and Dolce & Gabbana: Inside the world of personal shoppers

“Sorry,” Gabriel Waller says, with an apologetic grimace. Her phone has been lighting up like a Christmas tree, flashing and winking with notifications several times in the 10 minutes since we started talking at her studio in Sydney's Double Bay.

Gabriel Waller counts Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as one of her clients.

Gabriel Waller counts Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as one of her clients. Credit:James Brickwood

On each occasion, Waller – an online personal shopper whose client list includes models Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Hailey Bieber – reaches over and switches it off. The phone isn’t taking it lightly. Now, it’s ringing in earnest, a reminder that Waller is in high demand, with customers in corners of the world as far flung as Texas and Dubai.

She sends a message saying that now isn’t a good time and places the phone back on her marble table, face down. It’s a case of out of sight but never quite out of mind, though. Waller knows that when our interview is over and I’m out the door, she’ll open the phone to a buffet of WhatsApp messages and Instagram DMs, all with the same desperate tenor: "Help! This item is sold out everywhere, all around the world. Can you find it for me?"

This is the plaintive plea she has built her reputation answering. Luxury goods are a US$285 billion business (AU $397 billion), with more than half of the market share belonging to women. Yes, there are big brand name boutiques and online stores in which you can browse. But what if they don’t have that perfect designer product from a few seasons ago that you’re looking for, or that in-demand trend piece – a Prada scrunchie, a pair of Chanel dad sandals – that eludes your trawling? Who are you going to call? Waller, a former administrative assistant used to turning requests into reality, is the woman for the job.

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Buying designer goods is a necessarily exclusive enterprise. The entire industry is built around it, and personal shoppers have been around for decades. But with social media ramping up the hype around certain pieces straight off the runway, or the back of an influencer, tracking down those in-demand items as a regular, garden variety in-store customer has never been more difficult. Then there are the brands with products that are never released in Australia, or do not sell online, or don’t even have a retail presence locally, like the ultra-luxurious Goyard. But it doesn’t really matter if you’re after a $100 T-shirt or a $3,000 handbag: a personal shopper is here to do the leg work for you. This is no longer the preserve of the VVVIPs of the world. Even if you’re purchasing a single luxury item as a one-off, a personal shopper can hunt it down for you all over the world and deliver it to your doorstep.

“The market opportunity in online personal shopper services is huge,” says Jana Bowden, associate professor of marketing and consumer engagement at Macquarie University. “It’s about making a connection with the customer, tailoring their experience, and delivering outstanding service. They can react much more quickly than the brand, and they can deliver the experience in a personal, connected way.”

Waller launched her business in mid 2018. Born in Rockhampton, she first worked in admin for the state government in Brisbane before moving to Sydney, where she crossed over into the fashion world, taking on styling jobs and interning at magazines. She studied fashion buying and working as a stylist in Los Angeles, where personal shopping isn’t so much a lifestyle as it is a religion. There was nothing like it in Australia, and certainly nothing operating exclusively through social media. When Waller returned to Sydney, she cultivated 10 clients for whom she would find rare luxury goods and opened her virtual doors. She had only been in business for six months when she got the opportunity to source a Céline coat from the sought-after Phoebe Philo era for Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Waller found it in a Denmark boutique and the coat was hanging in the model’s wardrobe in less than a week.

Help! This item is sold out everywhere, all around the world. Can you find it for me?

“I don’t want to say overnight success because I did work so hard leading up to that, but it was definitely overnight… explosion,” Waller recalls, laughing. That’s when the WhatsApp messages and Instagram DMs really took on a life of their own. Waller was used to 15 messages a day – her business model is based around social media, her email inbox is almost immaculate by comparison – but hundreds? From thousands of clients? Waller lost sleep answering them all, spending 2019 in a fug of hustle and exertion. She used to have “heart palpitations'' going out to dinner thinking about all the unread messages that would be waiting for her after dessert. Now, she has a full time assistant in London who handles the DM deluge overnight. All 200-300 of them. “My business is my baby. I’ve sacrificed a lot in my personal life to be able to commit everything to my clients,” Waller says. Still, she admits her “work life balance is so much better now.”

And while COVID-19 might have dented the luxury sector globally, it hasn’t impacted Waller’s business, largely because it has always been online.

“I did have a moment back in March when there was a lot of uncertainty, and I did see a slight shift,” she recalls. But then the requests for Sporty & Rich sweatshirts (pricetag: $249) and furry slippers from The Row started coming in. (Waller bought some for herself, too.) “It’s very much business as usual,” she says. Or actually, business better than usual: she’s hired two new staff members, bringing her team to seven, including three sourcing sorcerers whose sole job is to track down items hidden in forgotten stockrooms all around the world.

Waller's client, Erica Wright wears her Phoebe Philo Céline shearling-lined sandals.

Waller's client, Erica Wright wears her Phoebe Philo Céline shearling-lined sandals.

The shopping process is simple. You DM Waller’s Instagram account a picture of what you’re looking for – it’s usually a social media screenshot, Waller admits, hinting at the circuitous nature of her business, which draws from Instagram trends to drive desire and fuel the shopping cycle over and over again – says, with your sizes. Waller trains her team to respond swiftly and she has filters to ensure that no message is missed. Logistically, she charges a flat fee on top of the item’s price and shipping costs. And then the hunt begins.

Clients rave about Waller’s speed and efficiency. All 10 of the women she launched with still shop with her today, and her biggest market remains Australia, followed by the US and the Middle East, then Europe. Melissa Stratton from Sydney was one of Waller’s original customers, and Céline is her poison of choice: Waller has found her a blanket coat, a pair of chunky mule sandals and an incredibly hard-to-locatea crystal choker from the 2013 campaign – “I am still in shock that she was able to source this,” Stratton says.

A newer client is London-based Erica Wright, who used to work in PR for Net-A-Porter. Though she occasionally buys designer goods she “assumed personal shoppers would be an invite-only, minimum spend type of service”. Nevertheless, Wright reached out to see if Waller could find her wardrobe holy grail: shearling-lined sandals from a coveted Phoebe Philo Céline collection. “It took less than 48 hours for her to tell me she’d located them and I received them two days after that,” Wright says.

Waller never discloses exactly how she tracks things down. What she will say is that the hardest pieces to find aren’t vintage – “We have some really great contacts,” she reveals – but items from the previous season. “Like finding that little needle in a haystack,” Waller says. She still gets a thrill out of a sourcing challenge. “When someone tells me no, I’m that personality type that says OK, watch me make it happen,” she says. “If it’s sold out in Australia, I can almost guarantee that it’s hiding in Italy, France, Denmark. I have that mentality that it has to be out there... I love the hunt.”

“If it’s sold out in Australia, I can almost guarantee that it’s hiding in Italy, France, Denmark. I have that mentality that it has to be out there... I love the hunt.”

GABRIEL WALLER

Waller isn’t the only personal shopper cornering the luxury market. Jaime Ridge, a New Zealand stylist based in Los Angeles, is one half of the sourcing platform SAUSSE, alongside artist Sarah Jayne Kavali, who splits her time between Auckland and Dubai. SAUSSE operates as a members-only platform with a flat fee per item sourced, allowing the pair to work closely with clients, either finding specific products or crafting a personal style through a suite of considered purchases.

“We don’t buy things for the season, we both buy things that we’re going to have forever,” says Ridge, and they want their clients to approach shopping in the same way. Ridge and Kavali’s process is hands on: they’ll make moodboards, conduct video calls and stay in constant conversation throughout.

“We really want to understand who our client is,” explains Kavali. “Once we know what they want, we can tailor our service accordingly.”

“Our service specialises and focuses on working with clients to create a lifestyle,” says Ridge. “Most of our clients are more long term, and we have really deep relationships with them.”

They’re quick to emphasise that there’s no average customer, and that the needs of their members vary greatly. But Kavali estimates that the pair are sourcing an item a week for more established clients, and the most requested brands include Chanel and the buzzy revamp of Bottega Veneta, overseen by creative director Daniel Lee. One of SAUSSE’s customers recently renovated their house, and Ridge and Kavali had a lot of fun building out her dream home over a six month process. Another, Tokyo-based Jesse Robinson, uses SAUSSE to procure items for herself, her husband and their children. “The deeply personal customer service is a cut above,” she enthuses.

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It’s this in-depth relationship building that Yianni Giovanoglou, trend specialist at WGSN believes is the true value of personal shopping. “Time is the greatest luxury for the fast-paced consumer,” he says. “Being able to build a relationship with a customer and get to know their likes and dislikes, means you can be more effective in giving them what they want, when they want it, and actually anticipating their requirements,” he says.

What both Waller and SAUSSE’s Ridge and Kavali stress is that despite online appearances, the job isn’t glamorous. None of them are working in studios filled with Chanel shoes or racks of cardigans from cult favourite French brand Jacquemus, and they’re not spending all day shopping either. The reality is a bit more mundane, and mostly involves a lot of phone calls to suppliers and courier companies and conversations about shipping logistics. “It is not glamorous, let me tell you,” says Kavali. “That side is extremely time consuming and frustrating,” Ridge adds, laughing.

Still, the work comes with moments of immense satisfaction. Like when Kavali is able to oversee the delivery of a purchase personally. “We want that person to feel really cared for,” she says. “We want to leave our mark.” For Waller, it was a recent pinch-me moment. “The other day I had this moment of gratitude driving to work feeling so excited to get into the office,” she recalls. “I like to make people happy.”

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