LOS ANGELES — “You’re looking at the pioneer of what everyone is now doing; I started this in 1990,” Irene Albright says dryly as she walks the Trousdale Estates home she and her team have set up as a fashion closet for stylists, socialites and editors to sift through the 10,000 pieces of eveningwear and other garments, shoes and accessories.
It’s the West Coast outpost of the New York Albright Fashion Library — the original being about four times the size — which opened earlier this year. It’s nestled within the tony Beverly Hills neighborhood where the entirety of the home serves as a closet packed with gowns, shoes, jewelry and bags available to rent utilized by Hailey Baldwin, Kate Hudson, Cardi B, Jane Fonda and Sofia Richie, among others.
“Anything you’ve ever wanted, it’s here,” Albright said.
Albright first set roots down in the L.A. area about three years ago, but she’s ramping her energies here with this new space to ensure the business takes off. She’s trying to absorb L.A. culture, and in perhaps the most concrete proof of that, mentions she just bought four pair of jeans.
Albright, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design master’s program in painting, fell into fashion when she began painting on costumes while she was working as a set designer at Juilliard School. That transitioned into styling for fashion agency KCD, and by 1986, she had five full-time employees and persuaded her husband to quit his job as curator of the Brooklyn Museum to help with the business.
“The thing that was funny about the mid-Eighties is that it was very excessive and there was a lot of money, which is different than today,” Albright said. “Advertising budgets would be like, ‘Here’s $20,000. Do you think you can dress her?’ It was so much money, but having said that, there was so much abuse. You would buy all these clothes. The client would keep it — obviously, they paid for it — but then they’d throw it in a closet.”
That’s when Albright began offering to pay for pieces and many were more than happy to reduce their budgets by selling to her. Initially, Albright built the closet for herself, but when stylist friends consistently asked to borrow pieces — some even offering to pay — she knew she was on to something.
“I said, ‘You know what? This makes sense.’ People can rent. People don’t need to own anything,” she said. “Most people don’t wear anything twice in New York, ever.”
A good case in point was in 1986 when Albright was returning back to her home. There was a woman in a cab behind her, who followed her into the building, dragging a couture Vera Wang chiffon gown with a train of ruffles.
“I said ‘That’s a shame you’re doing that. Can’t you just pick it up?’ She goes, ‘I’ll never wear it again,’” Albright said. “I said ‘Well, if you’re never going to wear it again, just give it to me.’ The next morning, the dress was in front of my door.…I still have the dress, too, because it was amazing.”
While times have changed, Albright continues to maintain a steady hand on the business. She owns it wholly and has never brought in outside investors, although she’s had offers over the years. Her daughter joined Albright Fashion Library and now assists with the buying. Her competitive advantage she says, even with the rise of rental businesses such as Rent the Runway, is her curation. She’s buying couture gowns and she’s also not dressing the masses for their parties.
Because she owns the business, she’s not beholden to investors or a board to justify her buys, giving her an edge over other buyers she claims may have to play it safe.
“Now, they’re so conservative. It’s not easy being a buyer,” she said. “Most stores have a board meeting with at least 20 people sitting around making the final decision. My business model is different. I don’t keep algorithms. I have a GPS system, but it’s all in our head. We know what’s gone out. We don’t have to sit in front of a computer and go ‘Oh, that’s really worked.’ We know.”
She said only relatively recently — and reluctantly — she joined social media, although it’s still not grown on her. She’s also on the fence of its worth to the business saying she relies largely on word of mouth for its continued growth and for driving awareness.
“I can’t wait for reality to come back,” she said of social media. “I want a reality check. Now, it’s all about the people who know how to play the Instagram game and ‘Oh, [post] at 4 in the afternoon because that’s when people are looking at their phones. Really? Is this what you do? I don’t understand that.”
For now, Albright’s concerning herself with solidifying her presence in Los Angeles, with an event she’s planning to host at the new Beverly Hills space that will mix both art and fashion. She also said she continually gets asked to open a gallery space in downtown, an idea she’s mulling.
“For me, it’s still art and fashion,” she said. “Fashion doesn’t exist without art.”