There’s a lot that sucks about shopping for clothes online — you can’t judge fit, you can’t feel the material, and there’s no way of telling whether or not a few items from different stores will actually coalesce into an outfit that looks good. But, if you’re wrapped up in juggling a family and a job, or shooting from one freelance gig to another (to another, to another, to another), going on a proper shopping expedition to find outfits that are more than just passable can seem impossible.
It’s a shame, because putting together the perfect outfit can be like figuring out a puzzle, and it’s so satisfying when you get it right. It can also be functional, especially for anyone trying to break into an industry or career (the fairness of needing to do that can be debated!). It’s led some companies, perhaps most famously Stitch Fix, to offer curated boxes of items tailored to their customers.
Allume, a startup that launched last October, is taking a different approach by calling back to a much older concept — the personal shopper. It starts like a lot of other services, with you taking a quick style quiz that Allume uses to pair you up with one of their stylists. From there, things get more personal — you’ll actually get to schedule an appointment with that stylist, a 15-minute window where you can discuss over text messages exactly what you’re hoping to get and for what occasion, plus any other information that can help the stylist get a sense of how clothes usually fit you.
Stylists then get to shopping, which is a really open process — Allume doesn’t stock any clothes themselves, so you’re not limited to what they have on-hand. Instead, stylists can shop at most any store online, putting together several items in a lookbook that will include about three outfits. They’ll send you the lookbook back, then you can give feedback and either choose to buy some of the items or send the stylist shopping again.
If you do buy something, there’s always a chance that the fit isn’t going to be right. One of the less convenient bits about Allume is that the customer is responsible tor returns, but the company doesn’t leave you adrift. They offer assistance if returns are necessary, and they only work with retailers that have pretty loose return policies.
This all sounds great until you remember that historically, personal shoppers have been very expensive. Allume wants to change that, and they’ve got a compelling plan — you pay a $20 styling fee for your appointment with the stylist, a fee that gets refunded if you end up spending more than $20 on what they stylist finds for you. In other words, the only way your wallet is going to get hit hard is if the stylist actually does a great job (perhaps too good of a job) and finds you a bunch of amazing outfits that you really want.
So, what’s the deal with these stylists, anyway? I talked to Allume founder Mauria Finley about the way the process works, and it turns out Allume has decided to be just as picky about their stylists as any of us would be about our outfits. Finley told me that the recruitment process finds people with backgrounds in design and fashion, all of whom have to look at sample cases and submit lookbooks that they’re graded on. They’re not looking for fast expansion — Finley told me they launched in October with eight stylists, and since then have only grown to 30.
Interest is growing fast, though, which is creating a good kind of problem for Allume. Finley likened the company’s best stylists to hairdressers — everyone wants to book an appointment with them, and that booking list starts to get really long (Allume makes booking an appointment with a previous stylist pretty easy). But, that’s sort of what the company wants — a service where customers make and maintain real connections with their stylists. Using messages exclusively seems to be the sweet spot for building those relationships — it makes the experience personal, but doesn’t get too personal like video chat or calls would. Text messages are quicker and easier — ideal for the super busy people Allume is angling for.
It’s a cool concept, but it’s still subject to the same challenges any kind of online shopping faces — how can you tell if the fit will be right or if you’ll like the material? It’s all the more pressing considering we all come in different shapes and sizes, and there’s only 30 stylists working with Allume.
I asked Finley about how Allume can accommodate the countless different body types, styles, and backgrounds that might want to use a personal shopping service. Her answer? She trusts those carefully selected stylists. They all have backgrounds in fashion and design, meaning most of them have a lot of insight into what works well with different body types and skin tones. Part of the exchange between customer and stylist involves you sending over your measurements, which the stylist can use to get the right size.
It’s still an inexact science. Even with those measurements, fit can vary so dramatically by brand that it’s impossible for any stylist to get it right all the time — that’s why they only work with stores that have good return policies! Finley hopes that at the very least, Allume will see fewer returns than the curated box services, where there’s less dialogue with customers and more guesswork. So far, she’s been pleased with how few returns there have been, so it seems like Allume might be on the right track!