Seeking an Image, But First, a Dress

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — Most New Yorkers dream of having a little more closet space. If they are dreaming in Technicolor, they might envision the Albright Fashion Library, a 7,000-square-foot space in NoHo that houses some 1,500 gowns among more than 23,000 pieces and has supplied television series like “The Carrie Diaries,” “Sex and the City” and “Gossip Girl” and films such as “The Bling Ring” and “The Devil Wears Prada” with clothes, accessories and jewelry.

Through Monday, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology is commemorating the library’s 10-year anniversary with an exhibition hosted by Valerie Steele, the museum’s director, and MAC cosmetics.

“It’s a nice juxtaposition,” Steele said. “Our collection goes back to the 18th century, whereas Albright is concentrated on contemporary, and especially with wonderful ’80s pieces.”

The library was the brainchild of Irene Albright, 62, who envisioned a one-stop shop so that costume designers did not have to run around to various designer showrooms for items, which still is standard practice. Despite the name “library,” there is a fee for renting the clothes.

“My way of seeing this is that it just needs to be easy,” Albright said.

For the show, titled “Albright Goes to School,” the library’s creative director, Patricia Black, enlisted 10 stylists, including Kate Young, Lori Goldstein, Tom Broecker and Paul Cavaco, to each create a look using the company’s inventory.

Broecker, a costume designer who has used Albright for shows like “Saturday Night Live” and “House of Cards,” came up with an “Alice in Wonderland” meets “The Wizard of Oz” meets the “big city” theme for his museum outfit. It encapsulates how he uses the library in his profession, which is to tell a story or define a character, he said.

For “SNL” characters he needs a variety of looks, and Albright has “a collection that spans all different time periods and all different kinds of designers,” Broecker said. For a gala scene in “House of Cards,” Robin Wright wore a strapless gray wool and silver Victoria Beckham dress from the library.

“We had something very, very specific in mind,” Broecker said. “I called up Patricia, told her the idea and they pulled four dresses to choose from.”

It helps, he added, speaking of Albright’s eye for what items to acquire, that “Irene does an incredible buy.” Albright, who holds a master’s degree in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design, trained on the job. In the ’80s, she worked as a stylist for the public relations agency KCD, one of whose founders was Cavaco. She worked mostly on campaigns for corporate clients like Victoria’s Secret.

“It was crazy amounts of money back then,” Albright said. “You could arrive in Egypt and decide the clothes really needed to be in Russia and literally just book another plane and take everybody with you. Those days are gone.”

Along the way she amassed an extensive personal collection of items like YSL tuxedo suits and Geoffrey Beene dresses. At one point, she had to convert the nanny’s room into a closet. (She has a daughter, Marina, now 31, with her late husband, Ripley F.W. Albright.)

In 1990, wanting to spend more time with Marina, Albright thought to rent out her pieces on a weekly basis. Prices are flexible, she said, but typically 10 percent of the item’s worth.

The library was originally called Imelda’s Closet, after the notorious shoe devotee Imelda Marcos, and moved around before settling with its new name in 2004.

Black, 55, who joined the company right at the transition, took on client relations. She said the clientele today is approximately 70 percent editorial stylists; 20 percent costume, theater and music video designers; and 10 percent individuals, generally celebrities, socialites and Wall Street executives too busy to shop. Even though the company has eased slowly into celebrity dressing (“Let’s take the E! out of fashion,” Black said dryly), she admitted the practice can create and sustain a brand. (She also shared rather giddily that Meryl Streep, Kanye West and the Queen of Jordan had all come through over the years.)

To cater to an increasingly image-driven client, Albright said, she has shifted from buying conservative classics to more statement pieces. With Marina, who joined the company in 2006 after working at Glamour as a fashion assistant, she travels to Europe four times a year for buying trips. The two are “constantly observing what street people wear and what young people are thinking,” Albright said.

Imagination is also key, Marina said, while touring endless shoe racks filled with Manolo Blahniks and Christian Louboutins.

“When you’re buying you have to think about who is wearing this piece and what she is doing,” she added.

Black agreed.

“You have to place all these clothes in context,” she said. “Otherwise it’s just a room of lots of pretty dresses.”