She’d gone in, so there was no way she wasn’t coming out again. The only things in there were a rug and a mirror. But the customer had already been in the changing room for three hours.
What was she doing in there? Trying on our clothes, of course. Non-stop, since mid-afternoon. Whenever I asked her, ‘How are you doing in there, madam?’ she’d immediately reply, ‘I’m just getting changed.’ When a customer says this, you really have to wait a while before asking again – because if they then said ‘I’m just getting changed’ again, that would feel really awkward, and sound like you’d been trying to rush them; plus, they’d probably be trying to insinuate that they were doing things at their own pace, and wanted you to leave them alone.
In terms of reasons that a customer might not come out of the changing room, one possibility is that they’ve actually finished changing, but the clothes are hopelessly unsuitable. It’s happened to me, too: there are some clothes in the world that, the moment you put them on, make you feel so miserable you just want to smash the mirror in front of you as your reflection looks on in surprise. The kind of clothes that make you think You’ve got to be kidding and wonder if perhaps you’ve always looked like a clown, while your knees quiver as you find out that your entire life up until that point has been an embarrassing mistake.
At first I thought that must be it. The shop where I work mainly sells slightly quirky pieces from high-fashion labels that the owner purchases overseas, so it’s not uncommon for a customer to try something on, but then feel hesitant about coming out of the booth to look at themselves in the large mirror. Our clothes are by no means inexpensive, either, so when that happens, we tend to leave the customer be, and give them plenty of time to make up their mind inside. So I was ringing things through the till, and checking the stock room, and generally trying to fill some time before checking up on the customer again. But she really was taking a very long time.
When I couldn’t take it any more, I called through the curtain, ‘Is there anything I can help you with at all?’
‘There’s nothing, I’m fine,’ said the customer, sounding a little annoyed. ‘But haven’t you got a dress that’s more casual than this one? This is too party-ish, I couldn’t just wear it anywhere.’
In that case, I said, and brought her a light silk dress with a subtle, almost translucent print. This one’s from a Paris label, they do a lot of printed styles – lovely sophisticated colours. The customer reached a hand out from behind the curtain and grabbed the clothes hanger, pulling the dress into the changing room. There was lengthy rustling as she got changed. I wondered whether I should go and do something else, but decided to wait. Store policy is that the same member of staff stays with a customer for the duration of their visit. Many of our clothes can be somewhat challenging to work into a look, so we pride ourselves on working personally with each customer to find the style that works best for them.
To do this, you really have to start by finding out what your customer is like. What sort of age are they? How tall? What about their personality? As it was, this customer had come in just as I was serving one of our regulars a cup of English tea, so all I’d seen was the customer’s hand as she pulled the curtain closed, saying, ‘I’m trying this on.’
‘What sort of size would you normally take in a dress, madam?’
‘I forget. Hard to keep track.’
Perhaps she was extremely shy, and it had taken her all her courage to come in to our boutique after seeing us featured in some magazine. And then maybe she still couldn’t bear for us to see her, because of her insecurities about her height or her weight, and had missed her opportunity to safely leave the booth.
‘Do you tend to choose a trouser look, madam, or would you more often wear a skirt?’
‘Sometimes I more often wear a skirt, and sometimes I tend to trouser.’
Another possibility was that she’d recently had plastic surgery, and her face had collapsed while she was getting changed. She might be desperately adjusting silicone at this very moment. When I was younger, I heard about a woman who’d disappeared from a changing room while holidaying overseas. There was a trapdoor in the floor of the booth, and she’d been sold straight to people smugglers. Maybe I could scare my customer into leaving the changing room by telling her that story. That might actually be pretty good customer service – less likely to cause offence than saying, ‘Please do feel free to step out and look in this larger mirror here!’
‘Are you on your way home from work today?’
‘Is that anything to do with picking out clothes?’
Or, what if it was a woman who’d once been humiliated in a changing room, trying to take revenge on retail staff by haunting us? I nearly freeze whenever I’m walking down a street at night and hear the sound of high heels behind me. It must be the guilt from constantly telling customers ‘Lovely!’ or ‘Oh, that looks really good on you,’ regardless of what they try on.
She was still in there at 8 p.m. – closing time. I checked in with her several times, but to no avail. I could hardly draw the curtains myself, so I had no choice but to say, ‘Take your time, madam’, and settle in. The customer kept making rustling sounds inside the booth, and once in a while I’d hear her murmur, ‘Oh, my!’ or ‘Hrm-mm.’ She requested each piece in every size and colour, one after the other. Barrelling around our store room finding all the items she asked for, I wondered what her story was, what important occasion she might be shopping for with such thoroughness. I asked my manager for the keys to the store. I’d made up my mind to stay after everyone else went home, to help my customer find what she was looking for. Our regulars could count on their favourite member of staff to be at their service at any time with just a phone call, so we often stayed open after hours for just a single customer.
By the time the clock rounded midnight, my customer had finished trying on every piece of clothing in the shop. Which would she choose? I made a cup of tea and set it by the sofas for when she finally emerged. But it wasn’t to be – she didn’t come out of the changing room, dressed in the clothes she’d arrived in. Instead, she called out that she wanted to go back to the very first thing she’d tried on. Then, she wanted to do the same with every single piece in the shop. My stamina finally gave out around 3 a.m.
In the morning, when I woke up on the shop sofa, the customer was still in the changing room. She’d been trying to find something to wear all night! Poor, awkward lamb! I was starting to have a soft spot for her. I had the idea to run out to a local bakery which was open from 6 a.m., and placed the bagel and the café au lait I’d bought beneath the curtain, saying, ‘Please, help yourself.’ She didn’t respond, but the bag was gone when I next looked, so I assumed she had them in there.
I touched up my make-up, and changed into some spare clothes I had in my locker before the other staff arrived. ‘It’s not your customer from yesterday, is it?’ they said, surprised, but thankfully, when I said, ‘I know! She asked me to open up first thing,’ they didn’t probe any further. By mid-afternoon, she’d completed her second try-on of all the clothes I’d brought out from stock, but apparently she still wasn’t satisfied. I drove to the nearest fast fashion outlet, and purchased dozens of pieces for her. Some other customers came to our boutique, but I left them to my colleagues to serve, and since there were two other changing rooms, no one seemed to notice my peculiar customer.
But she didn’t like any of the clothes I’d bought for her, either, so I finally decided to take her to another clothes shop, changing room and all. I’d just remembered that our owner liked to change the decor of the boutique every once in a while, so our changing rooms were movable, on wheels.
Captions, L to R:
– (my peculiar customer)
– attach rope here . . .
– . . . and pull!!
‘Tell everyone I’ll be out for a bit,’ I said to one of the other girls, and hooked the rope around my shoulders. It was heavy, but not impossible to pull forward. I headed out into town, towing the changing room. Pulling a thing like this in broad daylight, I’d been prepared for people to stare, but no one seemed to give it a second glance. I guess they thought we were setting up for some event, or doing a photoshoot. My customer inside the booth, who’d been so hard to please, seemed to be having misgivings, saying ‘You don’t need to go to so much trouble for me . . .’
‘Please don’t be silly. We’ve come so far – we’re going to find the perfect thing for you, I promise’, I said, trying to get her spirits up. ‘I want you to come out of that changing room with a smile on your face!’
I was set on finding my customer something really special. I thought I’d take her to my favourite boutique. That meant navigating a serious hill through steep residential streets. I called on passers-by for help. ‘What’s behind the curtain?’ they all wanted to know. When I said, ‘A valued customer,’ they said, ‘That’s a funny way of getting publicity,’ but several of them offered to help push to the top of the hill anyway.
All together, we transported the changing room. The steeper the incline got, the more the curtains swayed and draped, and gradually I was able to make out the shape of my customer inside. None of the others seemed to be looking, but I could see she wasn’t fat at all. She was smallish, but not especially tiny. More to the point, she didn’t really seem human. Draped in the curtains, she was an unusual shape that I’d never seen before. From time to time I could hear a sticky, slurping, roiling kind of sound, and then the curtain would bulge and cave in different places. I had no idea what she was at all, to be honest. But it was really no wonder she couldn’t find an outfit that suited her when her body type was so unique!
We were just catching our breath, having towed the changing room to the top of the hill, and all that remained was to descend the hill on the other side when the rope slipped from my hands and the changing room started rolling down the steep street, casters rattling. I’d used up all my strength, and didn’t even have the energy to run after it. The changing room hurtled down toward the bottom of the hill at an incredible speed, growing smaller and smaller.
‘Madam!’ I cried, as loud as I could. ‘You’re welcome to take that curtain, if you’d like.’
A hand stuck out from between the curtains and waved slowly at me for a long time, like someone was saying goodbye from a departing car window. At one point, it threw something into the road. When I ran to pick it up, huffing and puffing, it was a banknote in a currency I didn’t recognize.
Since then, I’ve taken to imagining all sorts of things about the things I see as I walk down the street. Anything at all could be beyond my wildest dreams. And you know, my customer’s physique was kind of runny and grotesque, but depending on how you looked at it, you could also call it elegant. Picture a picnic blanket laid on a meadow – I bet that would look pretty good on her, like a floral print dress.
Photograph by Edward Badley
Illustration courtesy of Yukiko Motoya