A little quiet sleuthing takes a lot of the mystery out of shopping for women Giving Him Fits

December 20, 1993|By Mark Smith | Mark Smith,Los Angeles Times Syndicate zTCLos Angeles Times Syndicate

A few girlfriends ago, Howard Issel finally caught on: All his lovers had been faking it, offering whispers of thanks and grateful smiles when they really felt like glaring.

"It became clear to me -- I don't have a clue what women want," the 36-year-old real estate agent in Studio City, Calif., confesses. "Now, I don't even try."

No, Mr. Issel hasn't sworn off women. But since the day one of his girlfriends politely but firmly rejected his gift of a silk paisley blouse, the latest in a series of questionable purchases, he's vowed never again to buy them clothes.

"I check out their kitchens for old appliances that need replacing," Mr. Issel says, a touch defiantly. "[This Christmas] I'll buy toasters and blenders. Maybe a juicer."

Mr. Issel, of course, is violating the most important finding of a very unscientific survey: Women don't want Dustbusters!

To succeed in the delicate business of gift-giving, experts say, a man needs to get personal and, if the going gets rough, ask for help.

Not all men, of course, get lost in Junior Sportswear or the Better Dresses department. And women have been known to misread men's taste. But retailers point out that women generally have more experience -- and success -- buying for men. (In fact, they purchase 65 percent of men's clothes, notes Tom Julian of the Fashion Association in New York.)

Before setting out to select clothes or jewelry, the experts suggest, a man should follow a few simple rules.

* Find out where the woman in your life usually shops for herself. (Ann Taylor, for tame career wear? A boutique, for rubber mini-dresses?)

* Study which styles she prefers and ask yourself if she's receptive to such seasonal standards as pearl earrings or a refill of last year's perfume. Or is she an underwear-as-outerwear type?

* Find out what size she wears. Snooping through drawers and closets is allowed -- even encouraged.

Leave home without this information and you may hear, as Mr. Issel did, the next worse thing to "let's just be friends": You don't mind if I take this back, do you? A beautiful thought, but it's just not me.

"The return rate for things that men buy women is from 65 percent to 90 percent," says Viktoria Kaye, director of special services for I. Magnin, Beverly Hills. "It's usually because men don't know the sizes or the tastes" of their wives or girlfriends.

They often make the mistake of using the so-high-so-wide method of measurement.

"Our [salespeople] say that men come in and put out their hands and aim them at their bodies, saying, 'She's about this size,' " says Joanna Felder, marketing director for the Victoria's Secret lingerie chain.

That approach might work when selecting a bathrobe, but what about thong bikini undies?

"Snoop into her panty drawer and come armed with her real sizes," Ms. Felder says. "Timidity is the biggest obstacle. . . . Be brave and you can do wonderful things for your relationship."

While you're on that sleuthing mission, take note of colors and fabrics.

Are we talking beige and gray or hot pink and lime green? Mostly silk or nothing but cotton?

If you're still unsure, quiz one of her friends to determine if she goes for skirts over dresses, hats above scarves.

And consider following a trend, like this season's oversize jeans, boots of all descriptions and updated versions of vintage watches.

Or "try a man-tailored shirt with French cuffs," suggests Corbin Seitz, wardrobe lifestyle consultant for Target stores.

Once armed with information and ideas, the next step is $H adopting the right attitude. If you treat the hunt like an adventure, the results can be gratifying -- as Caroline Chou can attest.

"I may not always agree with what my husband buys. I mean I've had to return things like everybody else," the Manhattan Beach teacher says.

"But he tends to get excited [over the shopping]. He comes home with the present and I can tell he enjoyed getting it for me. That makes me appreciate it more."

Over the years, her favorite gifts have included classy dresses, scarves, sunglasses and even a dog. "He's had more successes [than failures] because he tends to know me so well.

" Even the dog [a small terrier from the pound] was my style."

Bill Linden, a Los Angeles cable TV installer, says he also enjoys shopping for women's clothes, quickly adding that he's an avid Raiders and Kings fan, lest "my buddies think I'm a nut." Mr. Linden explains that there's something "charming and relaxing" about matching colors, fabrics and styles for his wife, Anne.

"You just have to put a little time into the search," he explains. "I've been able to put together entire outfits [from the shoes to the suits] by being patient with it. One year I got the outfit, [the next] I bought some jewelry to go with it."

But try as he might to get it right, Hank Everett of Santa Monica never did. After a string of wrong sizes, wrong styles and wrong stores, his wife, April, decided she'd had enough.

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