Call me a liar. But deception was the only way to evaluate the personalized shopping services touted by New York's Four Seasons and Tribeca Grand hotels. They are just two of the many high-end hotels that have started offering personal shopping services to their time-constrained and retail-obsessed guests. I sent emissaries from both on a wild-goose chase for hard-to-obtain items, just to see if they could come up with the goods. Here's my shopping list: a studded Marni handbag that practically sold out before exiting the runway in Milan; an out-of-print edition of photographer Slim Aarons's Wonderful Time: An Intimate Portrait of the Good Life; a bottle of 1998 Pinot Noir from WillaKenzie Estate Coleman Vineyard (available in New York exclusively at Restaurant Daniel); and gift suggestions for a hostess who has everything. I also told some whoppers about an urgent makeover for a black-tie charity event and the opening of a velvet-rope after-hours club to test how each consultant would handle her specialty: one high fashion, the other designer clubwear.
Why would anyone, especially a veteran haggler like me, employ a personal shopper?The reasons are as basic as a little black dress: insider access and time management. Department stores keep personal shoppers on commission to flog their stock and field special requests from big spenders. I can poke through the racks at Saks or Bergdorf Goodman without someone cooing over my shoulder, thank you very much. But what if I covet an outfit or objet that isn't available in every retail chain and don't have time to hunt it down?That's where Marina Crispo comes in. A former general manager at the Barneys, Gucci, and Hermès stores in Manhattan, she now guides Four Seasons guests on shopping expeditions around town for $125 an hour. The hotel's concierge desk books Crispo; a charge for her time appears on your bill at checkout.
Dressed head-to-toe in Hermès, Crispo met me in the hotel lobby and we went hunting for a cocktail dress. On the phone the week before, I'd told her I had a black-tie fund-raiser coming up in Washington, D.C. (true), hosted by a power political couple (false), and that I needed a killer outfit pronto (true again). She'd booked an appointment with designer John Anthony, whose private clients include Kate Spade and Julia Roberts. At his town-house atelier on East 61st Street, I fell for a pink satin ensemble with a sable collar (price tag, $30,000) that he claimed Julia had considered for the Oscars; Anthony committed to customizing the ensemble within the allotted 10 days. Next we headed to Mish New York, an exclusive Upper East Side town-house boutique, popular with the likes of Susan Sarandon and Demi Moore, to select jewerly to match. On the way uptown we had stopped by Barneys New York, where Crispo introduced me to the accessories manager, who promised to locate the Marni handbag if I would bring in a picture. (Penalty points: wasted time.) Prior to our appointment, Crispo had paid a visit to Restaurant Daniel's chief sommelier, Jean-Luc Le Dû, to get the name of the WillaKenzie distributor (which she then passed on to me). Gold star. Overall, despite Crispo's very uptown disregard for price tags, I was impressed with her resources and eager to see what her downtown counterpart would offer.
FOR MY HIPSTER MAKEOVER AT THE TRIBECA GRAND, I first talked with Lani Rosenstock of Visual Therapy, a wardrobe consulting firm that works with the hotel, as well as the SoHo Grand and the St. Regis, and bills clients directly. Visual Therapy delivers clothes and accessories for in-room review at hotels or can accompany you to the shops themselves. And when the firm can't get an item, like the belt du jour from Michael Kors's current collection, it can commission a piece "inspired" by the original.
Since Rosenstock was out of town during my stay at the Grand, her associate Ann Trimbach took the heat. Trimbach was forthright about rates ($250 per hour; $2,000 per day) and told me she'd already spent more than an hour tracking down the items on my list, giving me the option to shorten our SoHo boutique prowl to stay within our pre-determined budget of $750. I met her at Bagutta on West Broadway, a dozen blocks north of the Tribeca Grand, to see the outfits she'd scouted in advance—Marni polka-dot bell-bottoms, leather blouses from Olivier Theyskens, filmy Colette Dinnigan skirts. None would pass inspection by the fashion police after one season, but would a real club scenester care?The sales rep, Kai Schneider, knew the Marni bag and put me on the waiting list. We also hit Hedra Prue on Mott Street and Kirna Zabête on Greene Street to look at belts and strappy Alain Tondowski heels, then took a breather at Mercer Kitchen to review some jewelry Trimbach had brought along for approval. A $7,000 chalcedony necklace by Julie Baker looked tempting, but luckily I was distracted when Chris Rock and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Anthony Kiedis sat down at the next table.
In the end, Crispo and Trimbach fared extremely well. Amazingly, they both suggested the same clever hostess gift idea: computer lessons. Both found Aarons's book using the same Web-based rare-book dealer; Trimbach suggested the $300 copy (no dust jacket), whereas Crispo went for the $1,500 autographed edition. Trimbach not only called the sommelier at Daniel but contacted the vineyard as well. While neither produced the bottle, they both provided me with the phone number for the distributor.
One caveat about using a hotel-affiliated shopping service: Be specific. An extended hunt can be pricey. For my weekend soiree in D.C., I eventually found a slinky silver Versace ready-to-wear suit (only $1,200) on my own. I later called John Anthony to apologize for the subterfuge but swore I'd order that gorgeous gown for the next gala I attended. Bill and Hillary, the invitation is in the mail, right?
Four Seasons Hotel New York, 57 E. 57th St.; 800/332-3442, fax 212/758-5711; doubles from $645. Tribeca Grand Hotel, 2 Ave. of the Americas; 877/519-6600, fax 212/519-6700; doubles from $359.
MY LIST OF MUST-HAVES:
1. An ensemble for an exclusive event
2. The latest handbag from Milan
3. An out-of-print cult photography book
4. A Pinot Noir from a certain boutique vineyard
5. A gift for the hostess who has everything
Would I use a shopper on my own dime?I would if I were traveling and didn't know the city. Here are the best custom shopping services around the globe:
The Regent, Hong Kong
18 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon; 852/2721-1211, fax 852/2739-4546; no fee. Concierge Louis Baleros oversees the Regent's "Best Buys" program: he can steer you to a good tailor or a Chinese antiques dealer who specializes in Han-period statues.
26 Jalan Brawijaya Raya, Jaipur, India; 800/562-3764, fax 91-141/680-202; no fee. Choose in-room showings of carpets, gems, cashmere, blue pottery, and linens, or an escorted bazaar excursion.
United Arab Emirates; 800/241-3333, fax 971-4/399-4001; no fee. Concierge Charlie Magna will take you to the souk to bargain for traditional garments, gold, and spices. Looking for a cut-rate Rolex or Piaget?Magna knows shops that resell Saudi sheikhs' watches.
228 Rue de Rivoli, Paris; 800/223-6800, fax 33-1/44-58-10-19; $500—$1,500 for two, including lunch. Prowl Paris's Vanves flea market with Suzy Gershman, the author of the Born to Shop series. She'll also arrange consultations with florist Hervé Gambs and makeup artist Terry de Gunzburg.
Central Java, Indonesia; 800/447-7462, fax 62-29/378-8355; no fee. Olivia Richli finds treasures for Amanjiwo's boutique and will share her sources during shopping expeditions for handwoven silks and traditional Javanese crafts such as gamelan instruments and shadow puppets.
Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park London
66 Knightsbridge; 800/526-6566, fax 44-207/235-4552; no fee. Looking for dollhouse furniture or private collection viewings at MacQueen or Saint Laurent?Give Concetto Marletta your shopping list, and he'll locate everything by the time you check in.