I know I am out of my comfort zone when I light up a second cigarette just after finishing my first. It’s been seven minutes since I was supposed to meet Tim.
But instead of going inside the bar where we’re due to see each other, I’m lingering on the street, wondering if a handsome stranger might swoop me up in the next 60 seconds and spare me the humiliation of going on a blind date. This does not happen.
So, I stub the cigarette out, take my arms out of my blazer and perch it on top of my shoulders, as per the instructions from my stylist, and walk into the bar hoping to meet the man of my dreams.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, 22 per cent of British couples met in the pub but, according to a study by Imperial College London, this figure fell to 7 per cent by 2019.
Now, for 18-35 year olds, 23 per cent of relationships start online, compared to at work (20 per cent) or via a mutual friend (19 per cent).
Olivia Petter, 29, signed up to Bond, a matchmaking agency which markets itself as a contemporary antidote to the woes of modern dating culture
But none of the above have worked for me. On the eve of turning 30, I was supposed to be in a happy relationship and possibly planning a wedding in Provence.
Over the years, I’ve had one serious partner, and many, many unserious ones. There have been great dates and dreadful ones, ‘situationships’ and one-night stands. I’ve used dating apps, been set up by friends and even gone to the odd singles dinner party. All unsuccessful.
This is how I find myself seeking the services of a professional matchmaker — someone who can spare me another Sunday night of listlessly swiping left and right on Hinge, trying to spark some sort of interesting conversation with a stranger. An algorithm isn’t going to find me love but a real-life person might, I think.
Still, easier said than done. The connotations attached to a traditional matchmaking agency — stuffy, pretentious and steeped in archaic dating rituals — don’t exactly make them the most appealing option for single millennials like me.
I came across endless websites covered in stock images that could have been advertising funeral homes. None looked promising in terms of selling love to a 29-year-old.
Until I spotted Bond. Launched this year, Bond is a matchmaking agency with a difference: it markets itself as a contemporary antidote to the woes of modern dating culture.
‘We have modernised the traditional matchmaking service,’ claims co-founder Charlotte Ball, 35, who is married with one child.
‘Traditional matchmaking agencies are not always focused on client care, but on hitting targets. We support you along the way, showing photos prior to any introduction and meeting every potential member in person as we believe you need to meet to get a good sense about someone.’
Pictured with fashion stylist Sophie Long, Olivia was given access to a range of other support figures, including a dating and relationships coach, a mindset trainer, a hair stylist, a health and wellness coach, and even a landscape and garden designer
It’s also a bit posh. If you’re accepted onto Bond’s books — sometimes prospective members don’t make the cut — and have a spare £8,000 to fork out for the average 12-month membership, you’ll be invited into its glossy office space in the heart of London’s Chelsea for an interview.
You’ll be quizzed on everything from politics and exercise habits to celebrity crushes and dietary requirements.
You’ll also be probed about your family background, your life goals and, of course, your relationship history. Ball conducts the interviews herself alongside Bond’s COO, Sharin Shafer.
‘For every member, we create a list of potential introductions,’ says Ball. ‘We look at shared values, interests, the appropriate age group, as well as “place” in life. We also consider deal-breakers, such as “Does not want to date someone who has children” or “Must love off-piste skiing”.’
Most of this makes sense to me — a man with children is off the cards for me, as I’m not equipped for that — although I’m not sure how helpful it is to be so stringent. Is a mutual love of off-piste skiing really a recipe for romance? And don’t get me started on my ‘place’ in life; I can barely tell you my ‘place’ in this week.
The rules haven’t put people off, though. Since its launch, Bond has acquired more than 220 members. At present, all of them are straight, though the plan is to expand into offering LGBT+ matchmaking from 2024.
Matches are either pulled from Bond’s database or headhunted, usually at high-profile events such as gallery openings or private dinner parties in London.
So far, clients range in age from their mid-20s into their 70s and span all professions, from tech and finance to the arts and dentistry.
‘They come to us because they want to meet a quality partner,’ explains Ball. ‘Many have dating app fatigue, or would like their introductions to be properly vetted.’
Too posh to swipe? Then this is the dating service for you.
Olivia and Sophie agreed on a pair of straight-leg, high-waisted jeans from Agolde, a black camisole with lace inserts and a white blazer, both from Zadig & Voltaire, with black heels from Nodaleto
As well as its matchmaking service, clients are given access to a wide range of support figures, including a dating and relationships coach, a mindset trainer, a fashion stylist, a hair stylist, a health and wellness coach, and even a landscape and garden designer.
‘I wanted to create a matchmaking company that really focused on going the extra mile for whatever our clients need,’ says Ball. Plump for every option available and you’ll wind up with much more than a romantic partner: a full-blown millionaire’s makeover, with a new hairdo, mind, body . . . and possibly garden.
‘It’s important we support clients throughout their journey to find love,’ says Ball, explaining that the 360-degree service also includes receiving and offering feedback through a matchmaker after every single date.
‘We find that people often make the same mistakes on first dates which prevents them from going on a second one. Our feedback and coaching allows members to make small changes that lead to success.’
Yes, this means they interview the person you’ve gone on a date with. And they interview you, too. Yikes.
Evidently, it’s working. Since launching, Ball says several couples have been formed, with many in exclusive relationships — including some who are looking at moving in together.
‘The dating landscape is hard,’ she says. ‘We are in the confidence-building business and want to smooth the way to love. The only thing we cannot guarantee is chemistry.’
With all this in mind, I go into my Bond matchmaking experience full of beans. In a world packed with disappointing dates, ghosting and catfishing, here is something different.
Olivia’s outfit costs £1,400, including shoes — far more than she would normally spend — yet she feels like she’s investing in her future love life
The process starts with an online questionnaire in which I am asked questions such as, ‘What gets you out of bed in the morning?’ and ‘Tell us about your best first date’.
Then it is time for my in-person meeting with Ball and Shafer. After expanding on some of my responses to the questionnaire, they ask about my education (University of Bristol), what I like to do at the weekend (read, see friends, play with my cat), and my ideal type, which we quickly establish is ‘tall, dark and handsome’. I am a cliche.
Nonetheless, Ball and Shafer say they could think of several people on their books who would be perfect for me. Bond does abide by some traditions: the man has to contact me first, for example, and he is the one who will plan the date. Typically, he will also pay.
It takes about ten days until I receive a call from Bond, telling me they’ve found someone.
His name is Tim. He is 37, works in tech, has a degree from Roehampton and owns property in West London. I’m also told that he’s very family orientated, loves arts and culture and, like me, is from London.
Explaining why we were matched, Ball says: ‘He has a lovely group of friends, is well-travelled and likes to keep active. He’s also intelligent.
‘Physically, he is tall, at 6ft 1in; brunette; and handsome, which fit your preferences.’
So far, so good. They send me a photograph; I think he’s attractive, though probably not someone I would have swiped right for on a dating app. I’d probably be more inclined towards someone who dressed a little more alternatively. But the point is to try something new. So I agree to meet Tim.
The agents send me his number but instruct me to wait for him to contact me.
It takes Tim a few days to get in touch. We exchange a few messages before arranging to meet at a bar near my South London flat.
Olivia had never had a personal stylist before and since she’s worn the same Reformation dress on three first dates, she thought it was probably time to mix things up
After our initial messages, both of us refrain from speaking again as per Bond’s instructions (it advises you not to text too much before meeting up). I like this, given how much time I’ve wasted exchanging messages with matches on dating apps only for it to fizzle out before we’ve even met.
Meanwhile, it’s time to meet Sophie Long, Bond’s in-house stylist. Of all the additional services on offer, being styled for my date is the one that appealed to me most. I’ve never had a personal stylist before and, given I’ve worn the same Reformation dress on three first dates, it’s probably time to mix things up.
Before our meeting, Long asks for photo references for some of my favourite outfits (I find some recent Instagram posts); how I’d describe my personal style (‘Loud prints and vintage’); and if there are any specific areas of my body I struggle with (‘My legs’).
We meet in Harvey Nichols and the second I arrive, seeing a personal styling room filled with clothes, shoes and accessories chosen for me, I fear this will trump the date itself. Long would usually charge £160 per hour for a personal styling session if it wasn’t included in a Bond membership.
‘For first dates, I advise clients to wear something they feel confident in that isn’t too far out of their comfort zone,’ says Long. ‘It can be good to avoid wearing something too obviously sexy, like a short skirt or low-cut top.
‘Find a less obvious way to express sensuality, like an off-the-shoulder top, a low back or waist-cinching jeans.’
After playing dress-up for 45 minutes, we agree on a pair of straight-leg, high-waisted jeans from Agolde, a black camisole with lace inserts and a white blazer, both from Zadig & Voltaire, with black heels from Nodaleto.
‘You immediately looked relaxed and it became about you wearing the outfit rather than the outfit wearing you,’ Long tells me.
The outfit costs a lot: £1,400, including shoes — far more than I would normally spend — yet it feels like an investment in my future love life. So perhaps it’s worth it even if I can barely afford to pay my rent next month.
Onto the date itself, at The Little Orange Door by Clapham Common on a jam-packed Saturday night. After I finally make it inside, Tim is lovely, easy to chat to, and perfectly fine. I can see why they matched us up. Sadly, I know within minutes of arriving that I am not attracted to him.
Stylist Sophie Long would usually charge £160 per hour for a personal styling session if it wasn’t included in a Bond membership
I try everything — films, books, TV shows — but there is almost no shared interest we can speak about for longer than a few minutes. I pick at olives while attempting to maintain conversation. It isn’t awkward, but after two hours I decide to call it a night.
When the agency calls me a few days afterwards for a debrief, I’m told that Tim was ‘really nervous’ and I feel guilty I’d judged him so quickly. They add that he was attracted to me but could tell I didn’t seem into it, which feels a little confronting; it’s not often you receive a review after a date.
In hindsight, I might have gone into this experience with too much optimism. I’m not sure you can outsource your love life as easily as the matchmaking industry would like us to believe. Love is about chemistry, attraction and sparks, rather than an algorithm or a team of matchmakers.
So, for now, I suppose I will keep looking with the knowledge that no amount of on-paper compatibility guarantees how you’ll feel about one another in real life. But hey, at least I have my date outfit ready to go for next time…
- Bond memberships start from £8,000 (bondtheagency.com). Tim’s name has been changed.