He's Got Their Numbers

When Marc Jacobs' celebrity devotees pop in, Robert Rich counsels them on what to wear

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FOR EIGHT YEARS, ROBERT RICH HAS WORKED from the basement of the Marc Jacobs store in New York City. His tiny office is plastered with photographs and magazine clippings of famous clients—Sofia Coppola, Hilary Swank, Winona Ryder. Amid the beautiful clutter, the only discernible piece of furniture is a white leather sofa that looks a lot like a couch you would find in a shrink's office—which is fitting, since Rich is a therapist of sorts. His official title at Marc Jacobs is director of public relations for stores—he decides what to buy for the label's six U.S. shops—but the most important part of his job is counseling the designer's celebrity devotees on what to wear.

"They have great style already, so I just suggest things," says Rich, a boyish-looking 39. "When I watch the shows, I can kind of see who's going to wear what."

Personal shoppers have been around for a long time. Department stores first introduced them in the 1980s, and today most upscale outlets employ a small cadre of image consultants. Macy's even offers them in the children's section. Alternatively called style advisers or wardrobe consultants, personal shoppers go to a client's home and offer advice on what to keep and what to toss. They gently direct buyers toward the most hip-slimming trousers. What makes Rich's job unique—besides the fact that a disproportionate number of his subjects are thin and gorgeous—is that the looks his clients choose often end up splashed on the pages of magazines.

Rich is unfailingly discreet when it comes to which outfits he has curated for his clients. He takes credit for the white sundress Swank wore in 2001 when she rode her bicycle to the Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica, Calif. ("I sent it to her because she needed something beachy," he explains.)

So what's it like to be a preferred customer at Marc Jacobs? Compared with the feeling at other luxury labels, the Jacobs vibe, like the brand, is low-key. "It's not by appointment or anything," says Rich. "Usually it's a pop-in kind of thing." Rich makes house calls—he has delivered clothes to model Stephanie Seymour in Connecticut and to Julia Roberts when she is in town—but he has never boarded a plane for a client, and his digs are nothing like the vault-like VIP suites at Louis Vuitton. He doesn't shut down the store for celebrities. "Never, never," he says. "I bring them to the basement."

Marc Jacobs' VIPs happily descend the narrow staircase at the back of the SoHo store and weave through the racks of cashmere and lace, past the shoe-lined shelves, until they get to Rich's lair. "It's the most cool, laid-back place in New York," says Lisa Airan, a Manhattan dermatologist who is a regular on the city's society pages. "You can run down and sit in the office and have an Evian."

Clients often spend the entire day with Rich, scrutinizing the latest collection and hanging out on the white couch. (Swank, however, prefers to plop down on the floor and eat pizza.)

"They don't mind being upstairs, but the paparazzi have gotten pretty crazy," says Rich.

He has only one complaint about his basement headquarters: "There's no back way out. We need a tunnel."