PRESENTS PERFECT Shopper: Maybe you don't have time to spare, or you want someone to say the colors you've picked do, indeed, match. For these, and other reasons, you may come to rely on a store's personal shoppers.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Attorney Debbie Peyton calls from her car phone on the way in from Annapolis. She'll be about 15 minutes late. That's fine with personal shopper Mary Ellen Theresa Stout Feeley, known to all as "Mets." She continues her flight through the Towson Nordstrom, yanking possible holiday party clothes off the racks for Peyton.

Her Ferragamo pumps click-clicking on the floor, Mets zooms from petites to formal wear, searching for silky, satiny, slinky sheaths, gowns and palazzo pants, looks consistent with the profile she has compiled of Peyton.

All the while, the Nordstrom pianist plays tinkly Christmas music. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. Swarms of well-heeled and well-groomed young mothers pushing designer strollers forage in thickets of Polar Fleece, faux fur and cruise wear. An occasional toddler's shriek pierces the material civility.

"There was one other really sexy number," Mets says mostly to herself as she hunts. "It was long -- and it is gone." No matter.

She sets aside five or six beauties in the store's Personal Touch dressing room to await Peyton's arrival.

Some people want to serve the world. Mets wants to serve you. Her mission is to make the public look marvelous. With 25 years of retail experience, Mets' laser eye for clothes that sing has earned her the position of top personal shopper at Nordstrom, and the distinction of being one of the most frequently paged human beings on earth.

Come the holiday season, Mets' skills are put to the supreme test. Left eyebrow arched, she mentally flips through Fendi, Dior, Paloma Picasso, Escada, Versace, Donna Karan, Nicole Miller, Faconnable with the surety of a genius hacker let loose in the Pentagon's cyber-files.

Through clothing and accouterments as buttery and cushy as a new BMW's interior she goes. Through diamonds, fantastic scarves and two-toned Hush Puppies to die for. Through acres of animal-print threads inspired by "101 Dalmatians." Through sporty, micro-fiber quilted coats with pockets designed to hold cellular phones.

Mets -- and a handful of others who work in Nordstrom's free shopping service -- not only aids the fashion forward, like Peyton, but scores of clueless men who arrive with shopping lists, blank stares and money to burn. "They want me to complete a whole package. Select it, wrap it, make it effortless -- and they love it," Mets says.

The husband of a friend of hers asked Mets to select a few holiday baubles for his wife. Mets, I have $2,000, he told her. It's Christmas. Now make it happen.

Mets, 40, knows well that fairy-tale, Christmasy, sky's-the-limit sensation. "Christmas at the downtown Hutzler's was magical," she says of the defunct department store where she first worked as a salesperson.

Mets bought her first prom dress at Hutzler's. "A lady took me into this room where I was surrounded by mirrors. I felt like a queen."

She applies the same philosophy to her clients. After a preliminary interview, she assembles a customer profile that will guide her through their purchases. She coaches those nervous about the formal events they must attend in their new attire. Inevitably, the results are positive. "I wish you could hear the calls," she says.

"Mets, the dress was perfect," is a typical response. "My boyfriend said everybody was staring at me."

If she plans a day off, but a customer calls and says, "Mets, can you be there?" she says, of course. "I don't want to disappoint them."

The toughest client? "The one who has gained a little weight," Mets says. "They are so bummed and they have the event to attend."

'Live, Live!'

Occasionally, Mets must nudge the customer who balks at a $250 blazer, even though she needs it. That's only $25 a year, she will say. "Live, live! Have fun with it and just go with it."

Peyton finally arrives at the Personal Touch department. She has several holiday events at her law firm to attend, a Christmas Eve party she and her husband are tossing and a New Year's bash. She declines coffee. She wants to get to work.

First, Peyton tries on a black sheath with a mandarin collar and sheer, short sleeves that show off her well-toned arms. Then a perky, two-piece pants outfit. Mets is at her side, smoothing fabric, unzipping, debriefing Peyton on her social schedule. So far, so snazzy.

"When I leave her, I feel I'm totally pulled together," Peyton says. "She knows my size, my style."

It was Mets who convinced Peyton to buy a white, Spandex, killer dress for her school reunion. When Peyton hesitated, Mets insisted: "You're crazy. I'm your personal shopper. It's a go!"

The third item Peyton tries on today is a stunning purple velvet evening gown. It appears to have been custom made for her svelte frame. It is a once-in-a-lifetime dress, and everyone here knows it.

Peyton's husband, who has come to observe, lets out an admiring expletive. Shoppers stop and stare. Men sneak a second look. Even Peyton is overwhelmed by the dress' perfection. She can barely stand to take it off.

"Ooooh, I love this!" she gushes. Mets stands by proudly. It's "definitely a 'va-va-va-voom!' dress," she says. She lives for moments like these.

For one last minute, before a full-length mirror, Mets stands behind Peyton in her new gown. Gently, she places her hands on Peyton's shoulders, and they gaze together in the mirror at the vision in dusky purple. It is an intimate, transformative, Cinderella kind of moment shared only by the two women. That's why Mets is there.

Something for Nana

Amanda Miller knows the young girls inventory at Nordstrom by heart. But today, the 8-year-old third grader needs some help finding a Christmas gift for her Nana.

Her personal shopper, Susan Drago-Sternberg, a k a Miss Susan, is ready to steer Amanda through Nordstrom's maze of perfumes, bath items, cosmetics and jewelry for the perfect present.

Drago-Sternberg's eyes widen as she speaks about her passion for Nordstrom. She has two children and a full-time job, but she does this as well, for the sheer love of it. Some people may choose to spend their discretionary time in a library, or a park, or at home. Drago-Sternberg would rather be at Nordstrom.

Pam Miller waits in Personal Touch while Miss Susan escorts her daughter around the store. She asks Amanda questions about her grandmother's favorite colors, fragrances, things. But the little, redheaded girl shrugs. She'll know what she wants when she sees it.

Scented creams

They approach a display of scented skin cream. Miss Susan opens each one and allows Amanda to sniff it. There is grapefruit, peach and a variety called "New Jersey," which smells of the cranberries native to the state's Pine Barrens.

No go. The two push on, through soaps, potpourri. "OK, nothing's hitting your eye," Miss Susan says tactfully.

On to costume jewelry. The earrings, bracelets and pins don't excite Amanda. Nor does the 1960s-style bracelet charm that spells "Love." But then she spies a little, white poodle charm. Nana had a poodle, she says.

Miss Susan reviews the list of items they have considered: soaps, soft scarves with gloves to match, jewelry, lotions, perfume. What did you like best? she asks her young client.

"I think the best thing I liked was the little poodle," Amanda says.

But before they are finished, Miss Susan takes Amanda to the fine jewelry department, to look at a gold guardian angel charm that costs much, much, much more than the poodle. Amanda silently regards the angel.

Her decision has gotten a little harder, but Amanda sticks with the poodle. When she and Miss Susan return to Personal Touch, her mother is happy to hear it.

Pub Date: 12/23/96

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