Fashionable women are finding direct sales companies such as Carlisle, Doncaster and Worth to be the new/old resource for finding a personal stylist to work with their needs and time constraints. These companies are bringing back the appeal of personal shopping and combining it with the convenience of a home environment.
The concept of home clothing sales initially targeted women who spent a lot of time at home during the 1950s through the '70s. They were mostly society women who enjoyed the exclusivity of the collections and the comfort of having tea while shopping. Today, the business is more focused on working women -- who may be time-deprived, size-challenged, frequent travelers or want tailored clothing styles made from fine fabrics.
"It was originally a very ladylike thing for women who lunched all the time," says Carrington North, national recruiting manager for the Worth Collection. "Now it's a really dynamic business. It's changed to cater to people who don't have any time."
The consultant, who is trained to be a fashion stylist, sets up a trunk show in her home for about a week for her clients to preview. She might also take an edited version to a client's home or host a collection viewing for the client's friends. The collection rotates among the consultants during a season.
The consultant keeps a record of everything a customer buys so that she can update previous purchases with new separates or accessories. For anyone who struggles to integrate their wardrobe from season to season, this is a novel idea.
"Our sales associates act as wardrobe consultants," says Kathleen McGhee, a director at the Worth Collection. "We keep track of what you bought so this spring we have tops for the bottom you bought last year."
Etcetera spokesman Jeff Salzgeber says his company's clientele ranges from stay-at-home moms to professional women.
"Our customers appreciate that they are able to shop at their convenience, by appointment, day or evening," he says. "We keep files on each client, including fabric swatches of what they bought from previous seasons. Must-haves from the past will go with a new detail from the spring. The yellow skirt you bought two years ago will match the yellow you bought this season."
Many companies have two types of lines, one contemporary and one classic. This is partly because home trunk shows have broadened their clientele and have modernized their offerings to reflect current trends. For instance, The Connaught Group owns the classic collection of Carlisle, the casual Per Se line and the more contemporary Etcetera line, which is sold independently. Doncaster has developed the other way, with a Gold Collection that is more exclusive and less frequently offered than its seasonal line.
The newly launched W line is more versatile and modern than the classic pieces from Worth, says Ms. McGhee. "Our designers are inspired by what they see on the runway, whether it's the military look or the short motorcycle jacket. W is more contemporary, fashion forward and on trend."
Prices for all the lines vary depending on the collections. Usually pieces from the contemporary collections average $150-$200, with some pieces as much as $500. The more classic, exclusive lines average $350 to $900.
Direct sales companies compare their quality to the upper echelons of fashion and also claim that clients get couture for a little less because they do not have a store to maintain. The companies say they use the same fabric mills as European brands such as Prada and Chanel. But unlike couture, pieces are not made to order, and even trying on clothing can be a challenge. Consultants receive a sample set with various styles and sizes.
"Carlisle will send a sample set from zero to 18, not every size in every style," says Linda Fisher, a Carlisle consultant. "If you're a size 16 and you wanted a jacket that I only have in ... a size 4, there would be a jacket you could try on, and we could advise you on the fit in your size. We would order it, and if you didn't like it, we would find one that you did."
Return policies vary within companies, but generally items may be exchanged, or returned for refund or credit. "I want my clients to return anything they are not happy with," says Ms. Fisher, who notes that Carlisle will require a deposit until the shipment comes in. "I want them to exchange it for something they love."
All the lines feature unique colors and patterns. Worth is very pink and neutral this summer. There are pockets on the belts, and skirt length varies from above the knee to floor length. At Doncaster, colors are lime green with architectural details such as asymmetrical neck lines. Consultants prefer to begin by selling an essential set of clothes that might be seven pieces and then build off those pieces each season.
Doncaster, which is the oldest of the direct sales companies, was founded in the 1930s, and developed into home styling in the '50s. Recently, the company introduced a new lead designer, Patricia Clyne, who is from Oscar de la Renta.
Expanding beyond the home-shopping model, Doncaster has opened a permanent showroom at Piatt Place Downtown. Because of Doncaster on Fifth, the Pittsburgh region had the highest sales increase in the country, according to Renee Piatt, who opened the store. She says the experience of feeling the clothing's fine fabric is part of the appeal.
"It's all about customer service," says Ms. Piatt. "We assess your lifestyle, body type, and show you what works best for you. We do something called capsule dressing, which is a couple different suits with knits in the same color family with executive and casual pieces. Everything works in conjunction."
The exclusivity of the lines attracts clients who want something special to define their style. Part of the appeal of buying from a trunk show is that many of the consultants will work with a tailor so that items can be adjusted for a perfect fit. Because the clothes are not offered for sale online or in stores, there is a sense of having a unique piece of clothing. However, the Internet has both challenged and benefited the business model. Direct sales companies were built on the idea of selling clothes to friends in social circles. Social media has made those circles wider but also has aided in building other competitors.
"As the market got so crowded with so many online sources, instead of dying out to become a snail in the marketplace, they have grown," says Ms. North.
Mr. Salzgeber says, "Many of our clients have come to view Etcetera as a 'secret fashion resource,' where they can be sure that only other Etcetera clients will have access to the same clothing versus shopping at a traditional, brick-and-mortar retail outlet, where any number of women in the same circle could buy the same outfit."
Direct sales companies have also been credited with the increase to 40 percent of women-owned businesses. CBS's "The Early Show" chose to highlight Etcetera as a business that is taking off for entrepreneurs, in part because it does not require a storefront or inventory. Worth is experiencing a 32 percent increase in sales for the 2011 summer collection.
All of the companies are actively seeking new representatives and clients. For many, like Ms. Fisher, who bought the line many years before deciding to sell it, her community of clients has become her friends.
"I just thought I would enjoy giving this to others. That is my reward, seeing my clients with their confident smile of happiness with their selections," says Ms. Fisher. "My girls, when they have a big day or they want to feel confident, will pull out their Carlisle."
Trunk shows are taking place for the summer season now until May or June. In some cases, such as Worth, the garments are sent via overnight delivery as soon as they are ordered. Others, including Doncaster, can take a few weeks.
Sarah Lolley is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org .