Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Making of a Closet Stylist

It was not until mid-morning on my first day working with the closet designer to the stars that I actually understood that there was a niche for closet stylists and that I, in fact, could fulfill that niche.

When I put my shingle out as a professional organizer, 17 years ago,  there were basically two markets, residential and business. Business organizers offered their clients systems that would increase efficiency and productivity, while residential organizers had clients who were, either, situationally overwhelmed or chronically overwhelmed. (There were enough chronically overwhelmed clients to create not only a niche, but a field unto itself spawning research into brain styles and a chart to categorize levels of clutter.)

Situationally overwhelmed clients included deaths in the family (stuff to be cleared out), marriages (two of everything), births (lots of new stuff), old age (downsizing of stuff), and moves (getting stuff from here to there). These niches were claimed by estate organizers, senior move managers and regular move coordinators. A sub category of moves included homes being remodeled (stuff moved out and back in again, but needing to be stored and accounted for in the interim). It is here that the niche of closet design fits in. But unlike those closet companies with glossy ads in freebie newspapers, who offer five designs and shoehorn your pick into your existing space in a day or two, Linda London LTD is a full service, high-end, company who will create architectural drawings, design spaces for every item you own, engage cabinet makers, stock up on your favorite sundries and then arrange everything in the new space in such a way that your aesthetic socks will be knocked off every time you open a drawer, a cupboard door or closet.

Being handy with power tools, I have offered my clients such custom closet installation services myself (minus the sundries shopping), but the comparison hardly bears mentioning. My clients have tiny closets in 1930's houses. Linda has reinvented the term closet. As one colleague described it, her closets have closets. Many of her clients' closets are the size of studio apartments.

Team Organizers

Those organizers who take on the responsibility of big jobs have my complete admiration. They also tend to be single with mortgages to pay. They fully admit to stress related health issues and are in danger of having no life. They also hire their fellow organizers. Thus it was that my colleague Kim asked me to join Linda London's crew on a job not far from my own house.

Kim, like me, specialized in chronic disorganization which essentially means we work with people most would call difficult, but we find to be interesting. She was referred, by a trusted masseuse and an old friend of Kim's, to a Big House client for a move job. This Big House client led to another where she met Linda who was doing the closet remodel. Linda's West Coast clients regularly flew her in from New York to follow the progress of the remodel.

She had a broad New York accent, a wonderful laugh and a tendency towards appreciative hyperbole that made working with her feel like a party. She also looked so much like Fran Lebowitz, the witty New York essayist, that I felt compelled to ask her, at lunch my first day, if people mentioned the resemblance.

"Only when I was younger," she said, nevertheless pleased at the reference.

Our job was to follow her around as she delegated tasks to each of us. The tasks were so simple I thought they were being delegated to the maid. "Turn these hangers over," she directed. And that's what we did for every single item of clothing that had been moved in on their old hangers. Custom hangers were part of Linda's package.

My colleague Priya, a calm and reassuring veteran organizer of big houses, helped me with the hangers in the Mrs' closet. I had not had a chance to get to know Priya, but by the end of the hangers I knew how she came to the US, what languages she spoke and her opinion of the film Slumdog Millionaire, particularly its depiction of India, her homeland. Her area of expertise was the kitchen and she was to win over the family's chef with her suggestions and organization.

We carefully spaced the hangers just so, being sure to keep the clothes in the exact same order as requested. Linda did ask the maid to arrange the ties in the Mister's closet, but she wasn't happy with the result and asked me to do it. I already knew what she was after and so I rearranged the ties in a pleasing chromatic order making sure the tips were hanging even. Four racks of ties—blue, red, green and miscellaneous. She was so pleased she gave me a hug.

"I did not go to art school for nothing," I said happy to please her so soon. Linda herself was completely self taught, guided by her passion for all things having to do with cabinetry and making things beautiful in them. With each job she took on more challenging assignments often learning the hard way how materials worked together or didn't. After years of challenging herself in this way she appeared to have no equal. Her meticulousness and her products were top of the line. On her jobs I learned, not only the family tree of hangers, but the hierarchy of drawer liners. The humble shelf paper raised to a pinnacle of luxury I never knew existed.

My clients ask for Contact Paper in those kitchy patterns that date a kitchen long before they wear out, but no such thing ever graced a Linda London job. The clear plastic liners with ridges favored by most organizers were allowed in the pool house or guest house and some kitchen cupboards. These I could cut for her (less a sixteenth of an inch for ease of fit), but shelves frequently used by the staff were lined with thick sheets of plexiglass, while those that would be touched by the owners themselves were glass half of an inch thick it looked like, their polished green edges a visible element of the design. Both plexi and glass were custom cut by a specialist and installed by him on the site, preferably before the shelves were filled and the client had moved in. Linda had also lined shelves with Corian stone and stainless steel she told us.

It was, however, the drawer liners that took my breath away. I'd never seen a custom fit box liner before. The tolerances between the drawer and the liner boxes were so intense that getting them into the drawer against the air pressure was a feat in itself. Linda took the measurements of each drawer, herself, once the cabinetry had been built. She had also counted and taken the measurement of every item the client put in their drawers in order to make the liners with divisions so each item (or group of items) had its own cubby, each piece of silverware its own slot. A specialist in another state then crafted these liners, covered them with ultrasuade or felt of specified color. (Fewer choices offered now with the recession, but you can still get deep purple). For the spa Linda preferred plexiglass liners, an even more unforgiving material. On this job one of the larger ultrasuade drawer liners didn't fit; a measurement mistake by the liner maker. This happened Linda said and told me the workmen took the mistakes home and used them as pet beds. I took this one home and made it into a bookcase.

The Big House Perspective

When Linda came to know me better for my eco salvaging ways, I amused her by telling her I lined my drawers with cereal boxes, specifically Raisin Bran because they were so cheerful in an op art sort of way. This passed muster because at least it had a look. Priya and Kim had both wondered how I, as an environmentalist, would react to these Big House lifestyles—the excessive carbon footprint of it.

"Ah well, I check my values at the door," I said, but I did admit to being sent over the edge by the floor to ceiling cupboard devoted to the storage of incandescent light bulbs. But then the next day I discovered that the house electrical supply was supported by a field of solar panels and that there was a green dumpster on site for all the cardboard boxes we unpacked. There was also a kitchen garden complete with deer proof fence, architecturally designed to match the house. I was happy to admire these considerable efforts. That I would otherwise judge struck me as hypocritical.

The Big House lifestyle was already a part of my own history, bringing up all the complications of extended family and house staff, private schools, great expectations, money and responsibility. If I reached back far enough I had my own Big House reference. It was the house of my great grandfather in Bangkok. I visited it throughout my childhood, but it was so big I was never able to form a complete floor plan in my head and in memory it is a series of disjointed rooms, a parlor, a huge rambling kitchen, adjoining staff quarters, a series of linked gardens full of hanging baskets of orchids and a terrifically large front lawn that later filled up with small houses built for grown children.

The grand front entrance of marble steps was the most prominent feature of the house; the first floor also paved in white marble paired with dark wood paneling. Stiff chairs of dark wood inlaid with mother of pearl graced the rooms. The second floor had a bedroom for each of the wives (nine accounted for on the family tree).

On the third floor was the shrine to the ancestors. The ashes of the ancestors kept in little drawers inside a very large Chinese armoire. The inside of the thick heavy doors carved with scenes depicting the activities of travelers as they proceeded down a road back and fourth across the door. I was so impressed with this armoire, when I was shown it at the age of fifteen, that my uncle asked me if I would like to take it home, just the door that is. This would not be the only time that I would be offered such exaggerated gifts and I came to see it as an affectionate test. The first part of the test I had passed by identifying the most expensive item in the room. The second part of the test I usually failed by looking horrified. There was too much attached to owning such an item. By refusing to take on such things I retained my freedom to be unencumbered not only by the lifestyle of such possessions, but by the family obligations that came with owning them. As a teen I embraced the song "I Got Plenty of Nothing" as an anthem (as sung by Barbra Streisand—irony of ironies).

One move-organizer told me that handling envy was one of the problems of finding organizers to work on their teams for Big House jobs. This startled me. Sure, everyone wants a little more wealth, but wealth on this scale had its own burdens. On a practical scale these houses were cumbersome to manage and required a full time staff. This took up way too much time, especially for the wives. Plus there was all that walking just to get from here to there. I was happy to enjoy the museum grade art and furnishings and still be able to walk away at the end of the day.

"The scale of these houses does something to people's minds," Kim said. This  prompted me to wonder what skill set one needed to work a Big House job. Perhaps it was like standing on the floor of Yosemite Valley. You first feel insignificant. Then you try to remember who you are. Many feel a need to prove themselves and give their full attention, ready with an opinion, but that can be exactly the wrong thing to do when what's required is to take up as little mental space as possible while doing simple things extremely well. Otherwise you risk becoming clutter yourself. Some wanted to prove themselves by working fast, but haste makes the house staff nervous because it increases the potential for damage and breakage. Unpacking and putting away the Bacarat glasses (priced at $350 a piece) is best done as a zen exercise. What was needed, I concluded, was a Big House perspective to find one's place in the scheme of things. What I needed, it soon became clear, was a new wardrobe.

Sartorial Answers

For jobs requiring opening boxes and cutting sheet material I liked to wear painter's pants because the pocket down the leg is perfect for a utility knife. But on these jobs there were often so many workers on the site that each trade had it's own uniform. Painters wore painter's pants, carpenters wore carpenter's pants, movers wore polo shirts with their company logo on them, gardeners wore white t-shirts, blue jeans and sometimes high visibility vests to avoid being run over by incoming traffic. Designers often wore black and anyone who went into the house had to wear booties over their shoes or change into white Crocs (those orthopedic, big hole foam clogs originally made for spas). Priya and I carried ours from house to house in blue nylon bags we happened to have on hand. In a Crocs house it was the job of the house manager to find you a pair.

In order to lose the painter's pants I had to find work pants that would actually cover my ass. The trend in women's pants had waistlines so low, they appeared to be designed to show off your thong underwear. And men's pants had dropped their smallest sizes with the advent of the hyper baggie look. So I turned to boy's sizes in school uniform pants. Dickies had them with a pocket down the pant leg just where I liked it. The wrinkle resistance and stain resistance didn't hurt either, plus the high polyester content slides well on floors. In black, charcoal and silver grey they would do nicely. The Dickies logo gave me a brand name that imbued me with a sense of pride and irony at being a member of the working class working with my hands, a category that had left my relatives horrified.

But what to do about shirts? The navy blue of my Thai farmer's shirts worked for awhile with all the pockets, then seemed too ethnic. Button down oxford shirts were fine, but in the world of designers they just seemed too square. The rest of my closet was filled with oversized men's shirts I had bought at Goodwill in the colors and designs that men found too effeminate, so had thrown them out early before they were much worn. I had been experimenting with different ways to resew them to fit. Shirt hacking I called it. I got bolder with the process and decided to get rid of the buttons. Buttoning up shirts took too long. I took off the too big collar and cuffs. I borrowed techniques from renaissance costuming and added ruffled cuffs. I was pleased with the results—a pirate shirt in corporate pinstripes! All in durable, easily pressed, recognizable fabrics. For five dollars and five hours a piece I could make a new shirt every week.

I was spurred on when Kim told me she had a job for me working with a client who had his own stylist—an assistant who picked out his clothes, shopped for them and laid them out so things would go together. She was said to be the confident of the client so very high up in the ranks. I was intimidated, but as I sewed I imagined becoming this stylist's most valuable player on the job, and looked forward to spending a great deal of time with men's shirts. I still felt that my true calling was to work with clients one-on-one, motivating and training them out of overwhelm, but I was grateful to have this work. The few times a year that such jobs came my way they were good money. (Everyone at these houses was so well paid that a culture of graciousness and uber politeness pervades.)

The room size closet this stylist and I would work in had a cove ceiling painted in an art deco style with bold geometric stripes in metallic colors; hidden lighting around the perimeter illuminated the design. When Kim brought me into the room, the stylist was telling the contractor where she wanted the belt racks. Like all the young women at this house, she wore skin tight fashion jeans, but with a V neck sweater that gave her a collegiate look. We waited until she was done, then Kim introduced me. She shook my hand warmly, then looked intently into my face and said she knew me from somewhere. I searched hers, but did not recognize it.

"I have no idea where from," I said for I was far from home, having come all the way to Los Angeles for the job. I wondered what it was about me that looked familiar. Was it my stylin' pill box hat (made in Nepal of fair trade hemp)? This was an outcome I hadn't expected, but any resemblance to a known person appeared to be a good thing in these parts. Meanwhile Kim was extolling my virtues as the most precise organizer of men's clothing. Who knew? I was in, I had a niche. I would go home a little richer despite myself.

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