Image Consultants Get a Makeover

The Great Recession scorched many a lucrative, bubble-era vocation: Realtor, yacht broker, starchitect. Add to that list the image consultant. Tiffany (TIF) and Coach (COH) are selling bling again, yet wealthy folks are more inclined to pick it out themselves than pay Samantha von Sperling $300 an hour to help them dress for excess.

Two years ago von Sperling, a New York image consultant whose previous careers include makeup artist and actress, was teaching the nouveau riche the art of conversation, and leading executives and their spouses on six-figure shopping trips through Manhattan boutiques and department stores. Today, revenue at von Sperling's Polished Social Image Consultants has fallen by about half; clients call less often or ask for deals.

Image consulting, of which personal shopping is an integral part, has been around since the '80s, when it became fashionable to have one's colors analyzed. In the mid-2000s, rising home and stock values made dropping thousands on makeovers seem almost appropriate for even the merely affluent. Reality shows like What Not to Wear and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy also encouraged regular folks, including men, to look for styling help. In 2008, "we were on the crest of a wave with all the TV programs," says Lynne Marks, founder of the London Image Institute, a school for would-be consultants in Atlanta. "Everybody knew what an image consultant was because we were everywhere."

Most image consultants charge an hourly fee from $50 to $300 or more for services ranging from how to work a room to matching ties with dress shirts. They often hail from the retail or beauty industries, and some pay upwards of $10,000 for training at schools that have opened in recent years.

During the boom, von Sperling's clients took personal shopping to new extremes. She recalls a female banker flying in from Boston for shopping weekends. Once a jeweler visited the client with baubles worth a couple of million dollars and a gun for protection. On another trip, the banker booked a private session with designer Peggy Jennings, who has made clothes for Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton. She spent several hundred thousand dollars, give or take, over a year and a half, says von Sperling. "Back then, that was typical," she says, characterizing her situation at the time as "living like a rock star."

Today, von Sperling's shopping trips are far less splashy. In November, she hosted a family from Las Vegas. While her clients indulged, they focused on practical things. Two teenage daughters bought $400 Lanvin sneakers; the wife, a cashmere coat. "It was luxury shopping," von Sperling says. "But nobody was buying anything they didn't need. You don't need a sapphire necklace, but you might need a warm coat."

Many clients have embraced a do-it-yourself ethos, paying von Sperling's hourly fee for a consultation and then heading to New York's tony Bergdorf Goodman by themselves. They've also taken to shopping their closets, hiring her to find new looks for old clothes by dyeing a dress or cutting off sleeves instead of buying a new wardrobe.

As the U.S. economy recovers, consultants are betting job-seekers will want to update their appearance, as they have after previous slumps. "Even people who have good careers need to differentiate themselves," says Marks, a 25-year industry veteran. Already, she says, image consultants are targeting job fairs, both as paid gigs offering lessons on etiquette such as handshaking and as fertile ground for finding new clients.

Even as image consultants regroup in the U.S., interest in such services overseas is growing. Michelle Sterling, a former analyst for Banc of America Securities, says her New York-based Sterling Style Academy has attracted aspiring image consultants from more than 20 countries and that she added a class in Dubai last year. "This business does follow the economic trends," she says. "Women love to shop everywhere."

The bottom line: Image consultants who help style affluent clients prospered during the boom. The fragile recovery has pinched their business model.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.