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Northeast Ohio entrepreneurs feed passion for fashion as personal stylists

The power of presentation drives Sylvie Hart’s personal stylist career, where she updates wardrobes of busy executives while providing advice on what to wear and when.
Jessica Fortenberry
The personal styling marketplace grew by 6.2% between 2016 and 2021. Most personal stylists, like Sylvie Hart, operate as independent contractors, updating wardrobes of busy executives while providing advice on what to wear and when.

Sylvie Hart knows that style is more than just fashion. Hart worked diligently on her appearance during her corporate career, understanding that first impressions count more than polite society is willing to admit.

The power of presentation is what drives Hart’s new job as a personal stylist, where she updates wardrobes of busy executives while providing advice on what to wear and when. Twenty years in high-powered boardrooms and office settings prepared Hart for this moment, she said.

“I leaned into my background knowing how important it was to communicate who I am,” said Hart, a former executive at GE and Cardinal Health. “Now I’m helping other professionals do the same.”

Hart mostly works with women, assisting clients on wardrobe organization with a dash of personal image consulting. Her process is meticulous and data-driven, beginning with a “style analysis” and closet review – Hart even has charges keep a journal of what they’ve been wearing.

Establishing a fashion baseline makes it much easier to create a core wardrobe for her Northeast Ohio-based customers , a responsibility the Cleveland Heights resident takes on via trips to high-end regional boutiques along with department store chains such as TJ Maxx and Target.

“I create a list of what are the gaps – that way it’s very systematic in what we’re purchasing,” Hart said. “You’re not going out buying another pair of black pants if you don’t need them. Let’s fill those gaps to maximize what you already have.”

Taking out the stress

A demanding corporate landscape supports a personal styling marketplace that grew domestically by 6.2% from 2016 to 2021, according to industry research organization IBISWorld. Per data from the Association of Image Consultant Professionals, most personal stylists operate as independent contractors, allowing for greater flexibility around scheduling and workload.

Hart works on an independent basis with women, in recent years adding their husbands to her portfolio. She works on commission for the luxury menswear brand J.Hilburn, integrating sportscoats, formal wear and other custom-made clothing into an entrepreneurial effort that began when a friend needed advice on how to dress for a TED talk.

Hart shopped for shoes – a particular pain point for her friend - then pulled together complimentary clothing that boosted her unofficial first client’s confidence during the presentation.

“After the talk, she said you need to do this for other women, because this totally took the stress out for her and she felt amazing on stage,” said Hart.

Today, Hart builds her business largely through referrals, also presenting to professional associations to attract new clientele. In February, she shared her passion for fashion with a group of Cleveland Clinic employees.

“People want this help - they understand the value of feeling good in their clothes,” Hart said. “So, when I can get in front of professional groups, that’s a great way for me to market what I do.”

Melissa Rosenberg Bilsky, a personal stylist for the last decade, had a more traditional journey into fashion entrepreneurism. Clothing merchandising brought Rosenberg Bilsky to New York, while motherhood and a search for improved work/life balance boomeranged her back to Northeast Ohio.

Personal stylist Melissa Rosenberg Bilsky displays clothing options she utilizes in her daily business.
J. Nungesser
Ideastream Public Media
Personal stylist Melissa Rosenberg Bilsky displays clothing options she utilizes in her daily business.

Rosenberg Bilsky is now an independent styling consultant with J.Hilburn, partnering with male clientele in the Cleveland area who are too busy to shop, or simply cannot find clothes that fit them properly. She builds her portfolio through referrals, initially bringing in family and friends before branching into new connections.

“I always ask happy clients for referrals, and that is a big part of my growth,” Rosenberg Bilsky said. “Over the years, I’ve done gift shows, raffle giveaways and other events. And I’m always sharing with others what I do.”

Above and beyond

Outreach for Rosenberg Bilsky might include handing her business card to a well-dressed man at a Cleveland coffee shop. LinkedIn connections with Northeast Ohio executives are another means of marketing herself, a tactic that further includes scanning business newsletters for the newest c-suite promotions.

Yet, relationship-building goes beyond patented sales methods, Rosenberg Bilsky said.

“You’re not just selling a shirt,” said Rosenberg Bilsky. “I have clients texting me about which shirt goes better with what suit. That’s the part I like best. It’s fun to know someone feels good in what they’re wearing – that you helped them achieve the confidence they’re looking for.”

Personal styling is a “hot profession” that does not require a move to Los Angeles, New York or Miami, aid Hillary Stone, a professor at the Kent State University School of Fashion. Locally, stylists are contracted by department stores and boutiques, or develop a business around serving clients individually.

Digital influencer culture has given a boost to the industry, said Stone. Although celebrities with built-in fan bases have succeeded as clothing pitch people, the stylists dressing these personalities have gained enormous online followings themselves. Stone’s students are building online portfolios on TikTok and Snapchat, giving them access to an unlimited range of potential customers, she added.

“It’s about hair, makeup, clothes and the people behind the scenes,” said Stone. “It’s interesting how this world is evolving.”

People seeking trends online further jump started the industry during the pandemic, with Instagram and TikTok serving as homebound boutiques for the fashion-conscious, noted Stone. Stores like Dillard’s have in-house assistance, but a personal stylist will literally “purge” a client’s closet, then bring new clothes into their home or join them on a shopping excursion.

“The process is like interviewing – you sit with someone, do an intake, and ask what they like about themselves,” Stone said. “How do you see yourself? Is there something you want to change? They’ll tell you what they want to build on.”

“People want this help - they understand the value of feeling good in their clothes."
Sylvie Hart

Such luxury service does not come cheap – the median hourly rate for image consultants and personal stylists is $100 per hour, according to data and software firm PayScale. Stylist Hart charges between $1,750 and $7,500 depending on the level of service - $3,500 gets customers a 12-week consultation that encompasses a wardrobe buildout and any outfits they need for the season.

Hart has a 90% client retention rate, which she ascribes to a burgeoning population of professionals eager to embrace their unique flair. She may collaborate with 15-20 clients a month during seasonal changes bringing in the newest looks from Paris and elsewhere.

“I love every minute of it,” Hart said. “It’s like being a problem-solver for clients wanting to look and feel their best. I’m making their lives a little easier, knowing this is something they’ve stressed about. They don’t have to do that anymore.”

Douglas J. Guth is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland Heights. His focus is on business, with bylines in publications including Crain's Cleveland Business and Middle Market Growth.