Must Have but can't find

Anxious to find a hip yet practical gift for her godchild, Monique Roffey hires a personal shopper - the latest American import
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The Independent Online
Lesley Clarke, 30, strawberry blonde in an ecru linen suit, gold accessories and clutching a Louis Vuitton handbag, could pass for a smartly dressed friend. In fact, she is a stranger - and my very own personal shopper.

"It's a concept Americans are familiar with, but not many people here are used to," says Lesley, who moved to the capital from Birmingham two years ago. So unusual is the concept in this country that Lesley herself came into the profession by means of self-appointment. After being made redundant from a florist, she thought to herself, "What else do I enjoy doing? And it was shopping."

That was six months ago. Since then, for pounds 20 an hour, she has taken more than 50 women shopping. They are mainly middle-aged Americans in town with money to spend. "They're always very pleasant," Lesley reports. "In fact, they often tip."

Lesley specialises in ladies clothes. A shopaholic myself, I quiz her on where she would take me had I been on a couture quest, rather than wanting unusual but useful gifts for my goddaughter. My favourite designers are Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano. Chief covetables are purple satin slide-on loafers, MAC make-up and black velvet drainpipe pedalpushers.

We meet for coffee in Knightsbridge,where we discuss ports of call. Details have been meticulously noted in Lesley's Filofax. It bulges with shop names, addresses and phone numbers. Before pointing out that I am her first young, hip, London-based client, Lesley reels off a list of designer and club shops in Covent Garden: Sign of the Times, Jones, John Richmond. She hasn't heard of Shop, the swinging new cult- designer boutique in Brewer Street, but she does know where to go for John Galliano clothes, MAC cosmetics and the loafers.

But I'm taken aback that she's uncertain of the whereabouts of the Westwood flagship shop. This, for me, scores a fat zero in the street cred department. I am not alone in my disappointment. Nell Nelson, who also met up with Lesley to discuss shopping, was hoping to be told about the hippest spots after two years living abroad. "She met me at the Park Lane Hotel. I was hoping to go to Nicole Farhi's new cafe," says Nell. "She just didn't seem to be up on the shopping scene."

Nell may have been pleasantly surprised had she actually gone shopping with Lesley, who has managed to please some very demanding customers. "One man asked me to take him shopping for antique Chinese silver. I spent a whole day tramping around London chasing up leads until I eventually found some in Holborn."

Meanwhile, the design quest out of the way, Lesley takes me shopping for baby presents. She explains that she won't be taking me to Harrods or Mothercare, but that if I were a bona fide client, these would be the first stops, along with Tiffany's, for silverware. We take a cab to Walton Street - I pick up the cab fare, as clients do - which, promises Lesley, has four specialist children's shops.

The first, the Nursery Window, is mainly fabric and accessories. Though Lesley makes an effort to point things out, there's no girlie shopping banter, no offered opinion on prices or quality. We move on to Patrizia Wigan, a smart children's clothes shop selling equally bland, traditional goods. Both shops are really for the conservative Knightsbridge mum.

Our third stop, Dragon's of Walton Street, was more like it. I could have browsed for ages, checking out the tooth-collecting boxes, the toys, the kiddie furniture. But Lesley still seemed distracted.When a client faces a quandary, this is surely when the personal shopper should step in. Lesley offered little help. The toss-up was between a teddy and a big dragon. I thought the dragon won hands down, but would have welcomed some back-up. When I did choose the dragon, Lesley merely said: "The teddy is nothing special."

Our fourth and final stop specialised in linen. We had a quick look round, Lesley pointing out a pale blue checked nappy stacker before we left. I hailed a cab but when I offered to drop Lesley off at the nearest Tube, she declined. "Thanks, but I'll walk," she said. "I'm going shopping."

Had I been older, richer and from out of town, Leslie would have been ideal - a well-dressed, unobtrusive shopping companion who knew the ritzier parts of town. The ultimate accessory for those who like to accessorise.