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My new best friend...for $150/hour
If your pals are all too busy to advise, lifestyle consultants can help.
September 26, 2005: 4:46 PM EDT
By Jessica Seid, CNN/Money staff writer
Michael Biondo ( integrates personal styling, home decor and event planning.
Michael Biondo ( integrates personal styling, home decor and event planning.
Joe Lupo co-founded Visual Therapy with Jesse Garza in 1995.
Joe Lupo co-founded Visual Therapy with Jesse Garza in 1995.

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - For those of you, like me, who have not only let your closet go, but some other areas of your life as well, I know some people who can help.

They're called lifestyle consultants, the latest offshoot of the booming market of upscale personal services, and they promise to overhaul your wardrobe, arrange for sessions with hair and make-up professionals, give advice on what type of car to buy, what music to listen to, even what plastic surgeon to use.

If you need a new start, new look or even just a new pair of shoes, then a lifestyle consultant may be for you.

Personally, all I wanted was a little help in the clothing department -- but, hey, you never know where that could lead.

Michael Biondo, of Michael Biondo Lifestyle Design, agreed to meet me at my apartment for a demonstration -- for the real deal, Biondo charges $150 an hour. His clients include a publicist in New York, a former model in St. Thomas and an opera singer who often travels abroad.

"I want to help everyday people live more brilliantly," Biondo, a former boutique owner from New Hope, Penn., told me.

Less than five minutes after meeting face to face, he was knee-deep in my overcrowded closet while I was trying on a grey wool suit for his inspection. Biondo took one look and said "it wasn't doing anything" for me. Meanwhile, he encouraged me to rediscover a forgotten blazer and paired an old cable knit sweater with a pencil skirt.

A little more than two hours later, there was a pile of unloved items on the floor, my clothing was neatly organized and I felt liberated.

After spending the morning together, not only did I have a renewed sense of calm when I looked at my closet, but I felt like I had a new best friend.

Of course Michael could never replace my real best friends, Maggie and Kyra, but we've all gotten so busy lately, I can't remember the last time we sat on the floor of my bedroom and talked for a couple of hours.

Now that Michael was my friend/stylist, it's easy to see how he could seamlessly transition into my party planner, my interior decorator, my lifestyle consultant.

"People are more receptive of the idea of having one person in their life they can trust." Biondo said.

At $150 an hour, or a $1,000 a day, Biondo says his rates are reasonable. But costs can quickly escalate, "I have spent 20 hours coordinating one outfit," he admits.

Image is everything

Lifestyle consultants are filling the void left by the dissolution of close familial relationships and neighborhoods, explained Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. The "things that were supplied by communities has been commodified," he said.

Increasingly, people are hiring stylists, decorators, personal assistants and party planners to keep up with the latest trends, according to Thompson.

"Our business has grown more than 10 percent every year" mostly by word-of-mouth, said Joe Lupo, co-founder of Visual Therapy, another luxury lifestyle-consulting firm based in New York.

Visual Therapy now has nearly 150 clients, 30 percent of which are men.

Whereas Biondo's firm, launched in 2001, helps customers be their "very best" self, Lupo's company, founded 10 years ago, promises to help create "a whole new you" with style and wardrobe assistance. And there are dozens of firms making similar claims cropping up all over New York, L.A., Miami and San Francisco.

"Image is everything. It helps build confidence and provides the first and most enduring impression," Lupo and co-founder Jesse Garza proclaim.

But a whole new you comes at a hefty price. Visual Therapy's initial "wardrobe clarification" is $3,600 and the stylist fee is $450 per hour or 20 percent of the retail price of the clothing purchases, whichever is greater.

"Consumers are more educated than ever because of television, because of magazines, because of the whole celebrity element," Lupo said.

Visual Therapy also published a book on how you can do it yourself, "to make the process more accessible to the mainstream," Lupo said.

While Thompson doubts that everybody will have a lifestyle consultant in 10 years, he acknowledged that expert guidance and advice is more accessible than ever before, and "being able to purchase that kind of thing, is going to become more common," he said.

Just wait till I tell Michael.


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