Inside the world of personal shopping for the UAE’s VIPs

Whether choosing Eid presents or finding a one-off designer dress for a wedding, a personal shopper can source the impossible for the most hard-to-buy-for clients. 

If money were no object, what would be the perfect gift for someone you love this Eid?

A meal prepared by a Michelin-star chef in your own kitchen? A private tour of Coco Chanel’s home? Or an Hermès Birkin bag in tri-colour?

Personal shopping agency By Appointment specialises in providing unique products and experiences for those who have everything.

“There isn’t anything we can’t do for our clients, as long as it’s legal,” says Sara Khan, who founded the company in 2014.

“Our clients have unimaginable wealth and are totally immune to economic cycles. Our clients typically spend over US$1 million on clothes in a season – it’s normal to wear a €150,000 [Dh620,600] couture dress only once.”

Khan has a window into a world of wealth that most of us can barely imagine. She first got to know many of her VIP clients 20 years ago, when she was selling bespoke luggage for Louis Vuitton in London. She moved to Abu Dhabi in 2000, initially to set up Christian Dior’s Marina Mall boutique.

“I knew that the clients I’d met in London would never come to see me in the boutique. As much as they might want to, they just couldn’t. So instead, I started setting up private appointments in their homes and taking the products to their palaces.”

Khan decided to set up By Appointment so rather than being tied to one brand, she could access a range of products and services from a variety of brands for her clients.

Jewellery and clothing brands approach Khan when they are launching new collections and she then arranges mini trunk shows, pop-up boutiques and fashion shows in her clients’ villas or private locations.

Although many international designer brands have established a presence in the UAE in recent years, Khan’s clients are always on the lookout for more exclusive pieces.

“They don’t want to wear what everyone else is wearing,” she explains. “Especially for weddings, we have to make sure that no two clients are wearing the same dress, and that’s very challenging. We work with a lot of designers to know how many pieces have been brought into Abu Dhabi. If another VIP has purchased the same dress, we can’t have it.”

Designer outfits can also be tweaked for each client.

“The client can change the colour of the lace of a dress, or change the backing – they’re in control of it,” Khan explains.

She finds that the most popular brands with her clients are Hermès, Chanel, Van Cleef & Arpels, Goyard and Delvaux. “We have a relationship with Hermès across the globe, and we will find the colour and leather that the client is looking for,” she says.

“Our clients are looking for the limited-edition crocodile, alligator or ostrich pieces,” Khan says.

And sometimes one piece just isn't enough. One client ordered eight different-coloured Hermès Kelly and Birkin crocodile handbags for a birthday celebration, which had to be delivered in 48 hours. “The prices ranged from Dh170,000 to Dh320,000 for the rare Himalayan Birkin,” Khan recalls.

Not all clients are looking for designer goods, however. Past requests have ranged from the obscure, such as an August 1974 issue of Vogue magazine, featuring photos of Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski on vacation in Abu Dhabi, to the extravagant, such as specially engraved rifles for the hunting season.

Ramadan is an extremely busy time for Khan and this year she collaborated with several brands to put together an iPad “look book” of special pieces not readily available in Abu Dhabi. These treasures included fine jewellery, bespoke Hermès bags decorated with diamonds, limited-edition Chanel pieces and a Ramadan collection of kaftans by Moda Operandi. She has also put together Eid gift hampers full of goodies such as Hannah & Safoorah chocolates, Newby Tea and oud candles by Feu de Beaumont from London, with prices starting at US$10,000 (Dh36,700).

Over the years, Khan has developed a close bond with some of her clients, receiving invitations to their wedding parties and afternoon teas, and attending international fashion shows on their behalf to take photographs and purchase collections.

“My clients are the loveliest clients you could wish for,” she says. “They’re humble, down to earth and very appreciative.”

But she admits, “it’s a gilded world of boundless demands that requires solid contacts and creative thinking. You do get blown away, but you have to remain extremely professional”.

Exclusive experiences

People are opting more and more for one-of-a-kind experiences and, unrestrained by budgets, the only limit is your imagination. Eddie Perez runs By Appointment Entertainment, the event services arm of personal shopping agency By Appointment. He arranges niche experiences, elaborately themed parties and meet-and-greets with celebrities, usually within a very limited time frame.

If a VIP has flown in from another GCC country, he might call Perez and say: “I feel like a private dinner tonight with a celebrity guest or a private concert.” Perez and his team will find out what genre is preferred, and which celebrities are in town.

Among the more unusual requests he has met was for two passes to attend Whitney Houston’s funeral and another for six tickets to see a sold-out Lakers basketball game in Los Angeles.

Some of the more sought-after experiences are romantic grand gestures. One client wanted to fly his wife to a store in Paris that makes bespoke lingerie, and another, to propose to his girlfriend on stage during a Stevie Wonder concert.

Perez has arranged backstage meet-and-greets with One Direction, Rihanna, Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake and sometimes, long-lasting friendships are formed between local families and celebrity visitors. Regular visitors Akon and Swizz Beatz, Alicia Key’s husband, are two such examples.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend is always especially hectic. “Clients have a lot of requests for celebrities to come onto their private yachts – like Janet Jackson and Drake,” he says.

When it comes to putting on private iftars, no two are the same. “The presentation is more bespoke and intimate than the normal Ramadan tents,” Perez explains. “We use beautiful chandeliers, themed lighting arrangements, flower arrangements and cut out Arabian-style motifs.”

Personal shopping trips

Sometimes the best part about having a personal shopper isn’t that they source or buy things for their clients, but rather that they teach the clients how to shop for themselves.

There are many personal shoppers happy to spend an hour or more steering clients around the UAE’s shopping malls for the right price.

By Appointment offers a personal shopping service for Dh500 and can arrange private shopping trips in the VIP sections of Marina Mall, the Galleria or Etihad Towers.

Or for Dh750 an hour, Dubai-based Kelly Lundberg, founder of StyleMeDivine, can help clients, male or female, find the right outfits for all occasions. So far this year, 70 per cent of Lundberg’s clients have been male Emiratis. “They’re so used to wearing the kandoura here, they don’t necessarily know what to wear when it comes to travelling in Europe,” she explains.

Lundberg typically meets clients in the Dubai Mall. “We had Leicester Football Club out last month, which was exciting, but we kept getting stopped everywhere. The one thing they wanted was shoes, so we took them to Level Shoe District, then Bloomingdale’s and Chanel.”

Lundberg says the three elements of styling are personality, body shape and colour, but personality is key. “I find out who they are and what their lifestyle is, and try to pick items according to that.”

To Lundberg, personal shopping is about pushing clients outside of their comfort zones. “We don’t want clients going home with items they would’ve picked themselves. The classic mistake people make is playing it safe. They buy what they’ve always bought, because they don’t know what else to buy. Our role as stylists is to help them think outside that safe zone, whether it’s with accessories, pulling together different colours, or introducing them to new brands. Our goal is to hear them say: ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have put that with that, but it looks great’.”