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April 10, 2006

"What we're finding is that as we get more and more integrated into our clients' lives, we find ourselves offering more and more services," says Chantal Boxer of Fini Concierge, a personal service company in Boston.

Amelia Hughes, 34, and her husband, Jonathan, 36, have been Fini clients for a year and already have signed up for the monthly package ($250 for eight hours).

"It started out with them doing our Saturday errands and evolved into them spending a lot of time on travel details for a trip to Thailand," says Amelia Hughes, a wine consultant. "We were using frequent-flier miles and they got us into first class. ... And once, when we both got sick on a plane, they even dropped off stuff at the house for us to eat and drink. They're an integral part of our life now."

Kim France, editor in chief of Lucky magazine, the shopper's bible, calls Adler and Wexler's operation "the ultimate shopping experience."

"This kind of styling, personal shopping, has existed for years. It's nothing new for women or men," she says. "But what's interesting is the marriage angle, the fact they'll help you with your wardrobe and your home to get you a wife."

Wexler, 36 and single herself, heads up the Chicago operation, with other personal stylists based in Atlanta, Dallas, New York and San Francisco. The stylists' services are not included in the $10,000 find-a-wife fee. They're extra: $150 an hour, with a minimum of 10 hours.

Kardos came to Substance Meets Style because he trusted Adler, an old friend and neighbor. So far he hasn't met Ms. Right, but he did meet Wexler, which at this point he thinks is just as good. Maybe better.

Mom, travel agent, stylist, secretary: Claire Wexler of Substance Meets Styloe helps client Brian Kardos choose clothing at Syd Jerome, a men's clothing store in Chicago. She points out details to the tailor

Especially when he got a promotion at his accounting firm and realized his wardrobe and life "needed to go to the next level."

The dating thing, he says, "was more a 'Why not? What's the worst that could happen?' There's no downside and the upside is ridiculous."

The problem is Kardos' promotion has left little time to date, a problem Wexler and Adler see all the time. "We try to convince men that life is short, especially when they tell us they can't start dating for three years or so."

Another problem is high-powered clients who are reluctant to give up control, even though they're paying for the help.

"It's hard for them," Wexler says. "I had one client who had never worn jeans, even in casual settings. I had to tell him he dressed like his dad. That kind of sobered him up."

"It's not about changing someone," Adler says. "It's about making someone into the best person they can be."

In addition to pushing brown brogans, Wexler even throws in some good old-fashioned mothering/mentoring/coaching if she thinks it'll help the match along. One client, burned by too many bad experiences with women, thought he was getting blown off by a date the firm had set up.

Wexler, who did a follow-up interview with the date, knew that wasn't true and worked the phones on her behalf. "Sometimes you have to have a little 'Come to Jesus' talk with them. Tell them (he's) about to screw this up!"

"Our goal is to lose a client and have him happy in love," Adler says.

Katherine Gehl, 39, is a single parent in Lincoln Park but used to be one of Adler's "affiliates." She also used Wexler's personal stylist services and still calls on her to help coordinate her closet and wardrobe.

Wexler spent an hour with her last week, picking out clothes for an August vacation in Wisconsin, which will include everything from strolls around the lake with Alexandra, 7 months, to evenings at the country club.

As for a husband, Gehl has a different view now.

"I still might like to be married at some point," though she's less driven about it these days. "I'd go back to them to go on dates."

Better than anyone, she knows that Wexler, who has brought efficiency and order to her huge walk-in closet, might bring in Mr. Right, too. "But right now, if they baby-sat, I'd be happy to employ them."

Wexler says that could be arranged.

By Craig Wilson, USA TODAY

Brian Kardos has one shoulder higher than the other. It's an old football injury from his days as an offensive lineman at Northwestern.

It's something Claire Wexler points out to the tailor here at Syd Jerome, a men's shop in the Loop. That and the need for vents on the $695 black Joseph Abboud suit for which he's being fitted.

Wexler knows a lot about Kardos, that he's a casual kind of guy who likes flat-front trousers, shirts without ties and after-work beers with his buddies.

"My friends have their wives, and I have Claire," he says.

But in addition to knowing the length of Kardos' inseam (34 inches), Wexler also knows he's at the age, 32, where he could use a wife. She's helping Kardos shop for one of those, too. It just takes a bit more time than pulling a suit off the rack.

Wexler is Kardos' lifestyle consultant. She's also style director at Substance Meets Style, a 6-month-old division of Selective Search, an established high-end dating service here.

Wexler's concierge service helps the wife-seeking man deal with, well, just about everything he needs in his search, from what flowers to send ("Not roses, they're trite") to what shoes to wear ("Brown goes with almost everything"). And if he has less romantic desires like finding a good doctor or choosing new appliances, she can handle that, too.

"Our concept is to build a one-stop shop of resources," says Barbie Adler, founder of 6-year-old Selective Search, where 100 well-heeled men - CEOs, professional athletes and the like - pay an annual fee of $10,000 for 15 "introductions" to some of the 30,000 "bright and talented" women she has in her database.

"They're not just arm candy, although we have that, too," she says. The women, called "affiliates," pay nothing to get in the game. Over the years, Wexler has found them mostly through word of mouth.

"We're the surrogate females in (clients' lives) until we can get them a female of their own," Adler says. "Our client is busy. They believe in outsourcing."

"We're the wing women," Wexler adds.

The 15 women who work with Adler and Wexler, in addition to finding wives, redecorate the bachelor pad, secure theater tickets, even clean out the guy's closet.

"Everything" also includes bringing up touchy subjects like nose hair, stained teeth and, heaven forbid, gold chains. (In short, get rid of all three.)

Lifestyle consulting is a growing industry in America, professionals who help clients who don't have the time to help themselves. But Adler and Wexler have taken the profession to the next level, helping with a man's marital status along with everything else. Now and then they even act as coach.

Many say lifestyle consultants are providing the "That doesn't look right on you" feedback formerly offered by family and friends. And now you can hire Adler to say, "She's not right for you."

"It's important to get an outside perspective," says Michael Biondo of Michael Biondo Lifestyle Design, a lifestyle consultant in Manhattan who charges $1,500 a day.

"I give an unbiased opinion. I can say what's working for you and what isn't. ... Everybody needs a little rah-rah at times. Someone in their corner. Someone to say 'You're looking great!' "

Biondo says no one knew what a personal stylist was a few years ago. "Now they're looking for someone to help with all areas of their life. ... It's easier to have one person do everything for them."

And do it well: Adler's success rate for hook-ups is 85%, mainly because everyone is vetted, right down to making sure photos are not only real, but recent.

"We're not just a dating service where we slap bodies together. Or the Internet, where people lie. We do all the lab work first."

And Adler, like Biondo, prides herself in honesty: All her men aren't George Clooney.

"We often say, 'Listen, you wouldn't find him on a billboard,' " Adler says. "But not all women want the same thing." As she likes to say, "there's a lid for every pot."

"You find out a lot about a guy from his closet," Wexler says. "A closet can house a lot of neuroses."

Most of her clients don't like to shop, so she shops for them, bringing clothes by the house after work or to the office. Just last Friday, Wexler drove across town to drop off a pair of brown shoes for a client who made a fortune in real estate. "He needed brown shoes badly," she says.

As for flowers, Wexler always recommends a mixed bouquet. A client who owns islands in Fiji agreed, and he sent a $350 extravaganza to a prospective wife just last week.

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