One man’s attempt at a style makeover
Being outfitted by a personal stylist might sound like a dream come true. For me it’s akin to a bad blind date. I’d first signed up for Trunk Club in 2013 and then spent weeks dodging the perky voice that kept calling and emailing me. Moments after answering questions online about my body shape, personal style preferences, and fashion habits (I wondered if this was a consultation or a confessional), I received a call from a woman named Barby. I found the quick response off-putting, so I didn’t call back. But Barby called again. And again. She also emailed. I ignored all the messages.
The benefit of having a “virtual” stylist vanished as I realized that I would be forced to talk to an actual human being working on commission. I avoided Barby for the same reason I avoid personal trainers at the gym who roam the floor touting free training sessions: I don’t like the inevitable sales pitch under the guise of advice. Trunk Club, a pioneer in the now-saturated online style-club marketplace, had crossed the imaginary line that made e-commerce easy and comfortable—the one that allows you to opt out of human interaction and shoddy customer service.
Now, two years later and faced with an assignment from my editor, I had no choice but to finally come face to face with a Trunk Club stylist.
The style club’s New York City store is a six-story retail space that’s equal parts showroom and social venue. Located on Madison Avenue, it takes up an entire wing of a former mansion that also houses the four-star Lotte New York Palace Hotel. Brian Spaly launched the online company in Chicago in 2009 after having co-founded Bonobos, another men’s clothing startup that made a successful expansion from e-commerce to brick and mortar. Last year, Trunk Club was sold to Nordstrom (JWN) for $350 million in stock, and Spaly remains CEO.
Since the acquisition, COO Rob Chesney says, Trunk Club’s youthful, entrepreneurial culture has remained intact. It rolled out a trunk service for women earlier this year and continues to add new labels to its men’s offerings. “It would have taken much longer to build a Trunk Club for Women without the Nordstrom relationship, which gives us access to a huge portfolio of women’s fashion labels,” Chesney says.
Trunk Club operates clubhouses in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., along with its newest location in New York, which employees have dubbed the Mansion. Trunk Club customers can make an appointment to stop by for drinks after work and meet with stylists to peruse the latest additions to the stock, which is updated every Wednesday. At any given time, its many fitting rooms are brimming with successful young prepsters willing to pay full retail for the hottest new designers.
When I visit the Mansion in mid-September, the receptionist greets me from behind a Chromebook. She’s seated at a long plastic folding table—a makeshift front desk that will be replaced later in the week by a permanent fixture of wood and marble to match the decor. I notice blue trim tape lining some walls awaiting a fresh coat of paint. I ask for Dominique Dumais, whom I’m scheduled to meet for my style consultation. “I’ll send her a G-chat,” she says. A few seconds later she explains: “She’s on her way. All of our stylists have moved into new offices around the corner on Park Avenue.” Ten months after opening, Trunk Club has already outgrown its New York digs. A startup culture is still apparent.
Won’t I please take a seat at the bar? I’m led to a room with long chesterfield sofas, which reminds me of the University Club just a few blocks away. I am tempted by the bottle of Macallan 18 at the end of the bar, but I opt for a black coffee. I am working, after all.
Dumais soon appears and gives me a tour of the 25,000-square-foot space, which opened in November 2014 and has taken almost a year to complete. Each of the 12 fitting rooms have interiors by different fashion houses, including Gant, Rodd & Gunn, Theory, DL1961, J Brand, and Vince. The John Varvatos room is decked out with black chandeliers, a silver piano, electric guitars, and a panoply of black-and-white photos of rock stars. A text message is sent to someone downstairs, and the Sonos sound system magically begins playing light rock. I’m digging it.
Dumais asks about my preferences. “No pleats. Ever.” “Of course not,” she agrees. I inquire about custom-made suits. A stylist named Haley Clark then takes my measurements and presents dozens of fabric swatches from Loro Piana, Gladson, and Dormeuil. Non-label shirts, pants, and suits are all made offsite by a team of tailors. Prices for suits are $850 and up, depending on fabrics and cut, which is a low price point for a bespoke suit. However, she warns me, “sometimes they can reach $10,000 or more.” A bit too rich for this journalist.
When Dumais wheels in a rack of ready-to-wear clothes in my size, I am not instantly thrilled by the selections. But I reluctantly try on everything. A gorgeous blue linen blazer from Ralph Lauren Polo (RL) fits me perfectly but carries a hefty $900 price tag. An Eton shirt with a fun pattern of tiny whales is too baggy, so I pass. After trying on a pair of mustard khakis from Paige, Clark sees me grimace and says what I’m thinking: “They don’t do anything for your ass.” Having a flat backside, alas, is a family trait.
At the end of my two-hour visit, I have picked out a pair of Paige denim pants ($179), a Velvetmen long-sleeve henley ($98), and a green V-neck Jeremy Argyle sweater ($158). Total bill: $435, which is more than my budget, but at Trunk Club—as at its competitors—you’re paying for premium brands not carried by most department stores. There are no markups or markdowns. The Trunk Club curates items that it acquires through relationships with its vendors. If I choose not to buy anything, there’s no cost—shipping and returns are free.
Given the many options for online stylists, is Trunk Club worth the price? For me, there’s value in receiving honest opinions in person, something rare in retail—and a service that you can’t find online. (And Barby, if you’re reading this, it wasn’t you. It was me. Amazon (AMZN) ruined me.)
Having a personal stylist takes the pain out of the hunt for the perfect outfit. With Dumais in my contacts list, I may never need to go online shopping again.
A version of this article appears in the October 1, 2015 issue of Fortune magazine with the headline “Inside the Trunk Club mansion.”