“Hi, how you doing? Can I help you with anything today? Just looking? Ok well let me know if you need help with anything.”
Sound familiar? And so goes the opening lines of the majority of retail experiences. If you are lucky. Don’t get me started on department stores, in which case you stand a good chance of drying of dehydration waiting for someone to notice that you’re standing there… And then the one person who does come to help you claims to not know anything about the brand… like some sort of customer service mirage.
So this is where I am starting from – someone who believes shopping is akin to being in a bad nightclub, shouting over the top of horrendous dance music and trying to get the attention of someone really young in a really short skirt to serve me. By which time, forget the clothes, just make it a martini. Or, the dreaded, vast loneliness of the department store, where you can be surrounded by product and people, yet feel so isolated at the same time. I err on the side of the dramatic but I’m setting the scene for god’s sake.
I was invited in to go and try on some clothes at The Little Black Dress Shop in Paddington to experience a different, old-fashioned kind of shopping experience. Sure, I said. Sounds like fun. What I really didn’t expect was to want to take home everything I tried on that day..
A week before heading into the store, owner Karen Wilson requested that I send in a full length photo. While I admit to thinking it was a bit much, I’m glad I did. Based on the photo alone, she had five outfits ready for me to try. Upon me walking into the store however, she swiftly removed one (thankfully).
Little Black Dress Shop is set on the leafy end of Latrobe Terrace. To enter, you must ring a doorbell, which forces you to pause and wait. This is the first of many small touches that add to the bigger retail experience. Karen is a petite woman, smartly dressed and quick-witted. Black is the colour of her uniform, because she adds, “it’s important that my customers don’t feel they are competing with my outfit. It’s about them.”
Karen has left the rooms in this old Queenslander shop and each section (lingerie and more generous sizes, for example) is found in a different room. I’m whisked downstairs to the ‘younger’ section, where plush carpet and silvery, silk curtains set the scene. My outfits are found hanging on the elegant mirrored change area, and I’m excited to get started.
I try on the outfits in succession – a bright orange shift dress by Hugo Boss, an elegant black cocktail dress by Tibi, a black peplum dress by Catherine Malandrino (which I’d never in a million years have tried, but admit to really liking), a bright blue tank top with a midi-length skirt by M Missoni (again, would never have tried this), and finally a black and gold M Missoni cocktail dress. They are all beautiful. I’m trying to glance at the price tags and make a running total or what I could be up for if I do decided to take them all, but lose count after $2000. The pieces are not cheap, but I can safely say I’d be wearing them for years.
The most amazing thing though is Karen’s eye. Not only has she picked out outfits that fit me perfectly, she has nailed the colour and style. It’s quite astonishing. She points out after the first outfit that I should only wear bright colours, nothing pale or washed out. This has taken me a good 20 years of dressing myself to work out, and confirms my firm dislike of all pastels. She also confirms that I can wear that long/midi length of skirt, which is an exciting revelation, and tells me (with authority) that I can wear peplums. Well, I probably still won’t, but it’s nice to know I’m avoiding them by choice.
Karen has an incredible relationship with her clients. She helps them build a wardrobe, not just spend money on one-off pieces that’ll remain hanging in the cupboard. She knows these women well and knows who to call when a new piece arrives. Not surprisingly, 90% of people who walk through the doors become clients. There is something to be said for customer service.
Words and images by Alice Lindley