Walk-in? More like live-in

Special to The Times

PAIGE ADAMS-GELLER already had a generous walk-in closet when she and her husband bought their Brentwood home five years ago. The 20-by-6-foot space was more than sufficient to house a normal wardrobe.

But Adams-Geller owns a not-so-normal 250 pairs of blue jeans. So the former model, who designs her own line of high-end denim and has what she calls an “archive” of jeans from dozens of designers, put off her kitchen remodel. Instead, she knocked out the closet wall and took over a bedroom to house the denim -- along with her handbags, shoes, evening dresses, sweaters and tank tops. She and husband Michael eventually spent $145,000 to create an expanded closet with inlaid wood, floor-to-ceiling shelves, shoe carousels, two pull-out ironing boards, dual mirrors, framed artwork and places to lounge. Friends refer to it as “Paige’s boutique.”

What happened to the humble closet? The space, like strollers and Slurpees and seemingly everything else, has been super-sized. The standard 50-square-foot walk-in, once a symbol of luxury living, has become as ordinary as a double sink or electric garage door. Architects such as Richard Robertson have found themselves doling out more and more square footage for wardrobes until they are, as Robertson says, “as big as tennis courts.”

For a moment it seems Robertson can’t be serious, but then you meet Lisa Adams, co-owner of Troy Adams Design. She and husband Troy have been designing high-end custom kitchens and bathrooms in Los Angeles and Hawaii for 17 years. Six years ago they entered the closet business.

“Kitchens morphed from just a place to cook and clean into multifunctional living space with beautiful finishes. The same is true for closets now,” says Adams, whose clients have included Brad Pitt, Jewel and noted clotheshorse Sarah Jessica Parker.


Adams’ company regularly installs mini fridges, sinks, sound systems, hanging dryers, three-way mirrors, climate-controlled fur rooms and shoe “chambers,” which are closets within closets devoted to footwear. Almost all clients request safes, which are hidden behind false drawers, tucked near the baseboard or toe kick, or perched near the ceiling.

As for the particle-board construction of decades past? Forget about it. Adams uses mahogany and maple, glass, leather pulls and a special mechanization so drawers close with a whisper, not a bang.

Clients are spending more per square foot on closets than kitchens, Adams says, dropping $80,000 to $125,000 to trick out wardrobes averaging about 500 square feet. She says one press-shy celebrity client has an 850-square-foot closet with twin flat-screen TVs, a pedicure station and an Asianinspired fountain with water trickling down a copper panel.

Of course, not everyone is amused. The hunger for larger closets feeds an even bigger compulsion to buy, says Gary Cross, author of “An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America.”

“When you have this much space, people use more of their income to fill those nests. It’s more of a compulsion to shop and possess than to actually wear lots of clothes,” he says, adding that a better closet can’t ensure quality of life. “Europeans have smaller houses and less stuff, but they have more vacation than we do.”

Venice-based architect David Hertz’s Santa Monica clients specifically request less storage space as they downsize from homes around 15,000 square feet to houses one-tenth that size.

“To make that kind of move there has to be a purging of belongings,” which, Hertz says, is healthy. “The sign of the large walk-in closet goes along with the large car, the large house. All of it embodies an American ideal, but that’s now being turned into a negative, where people see it as a representation of American excess.”

It’s not just the mega wealthy who are storing their shopping spoils in high style. The trend is trickling down to the merely rich, the somewhat well off, and even those who mix their Jimmy Choos with their finds from Ross.

“Middle class people want what the rich people have. They just order it in different materials,” says Lisa Lennard, a senior design consultant for California Closets. She says islands with jewelry drawers, seating areas and valet poles -- once the domain of the Ivana Trumps of the world -- now constitute “bread and butter” revenue for her company, which has doubled sales in the past five years.

The average California Closets customer pays $2,900 for materials and labor, Lennard says. But the industry as a whole, says Closets magazine editor in chief Helen Kuhl, is a $2-billion-a-year venture.

“The mentality about closets is changing,” Adams says. “People want to watch TV, listen to music and make coffee in them too.”

Santa Monica designer Kathryn Ireland adds working out and toasting marshmallows to the list. She recently installed a yoga area in one client’s closet and designed a fireplace for another. L.A. designer Michael Berman outfitted a client’s closet with an area devoted to gift wrapping. Decorator Sue Firestone regularly installs circular pouf seats and flat-screen TVs.

“Home theaters and bathrooms were the rooms that got super deluxe a few years ago,” Firestone says. “Closets are the latest rooms people want to show off.”

KB Home has begun outfitting its model closets with treadmills and ottomans, says Tom DiPrima, KB’s Los Angeles-Ventura division president. He says closets account for 10% of KB homes’ square footage, a significant increase from 20 years ago. “Our surveys show that people would rather swap out higher square footage in the master bedroom and put that in the closet,” he says. “It’s the same with a third-car garage. They’re forgoing that in favor of more storage space.”

These trends may not signify a wave of the future, but rather a return to the past.

“It’s more a throwback to the old days when women had elegant dressing rooms,” says Cameron Silver, who owns the vintage Melrose Avenue clothing boutique Decades and occasionally helps clients edit clothes and organize closets.

“They’ve become like sitting rooms,” he says. “I’ve seen closet parties where girls come over and they’ll have a bottle of Cristal in the closet.”

If the notion of the French boudoir is coming back, however, the inspiration is less Marie Antoinette and more Club Monaco, with a focus on retail environment-style organization, not chintz whimsy.

“I try to make closets work for people the way a boutique is merchandised,” Silver says. “We organize clothes by category, go from light to dark, use uniform hangers. We photograph the shoes and attach them to the outside of the boxes. When clients have serious collections, I encourage them to photograph everything.”

Liv Ballard has her collection of Prada, Lanvin, Louis Vuitton and Andrew Gn in a closet on the second story of her Beverly Hills home. To keep it current she calls upon Gail Larkin, a former Fred Segal and Barneys New York saleswoman, now founder of VIP Closet Consultants and a self-described “merchandiser” of closets with more than 40 clients.

“A lot of the closets I deal with are as big as small houses,” says Larkin, standing in Ballard’s more modestly proportioned wardrobe, about 150 square feet. Each month Larkin meets Ballard, wife of music producer Glen Ballard, to organize, edit, purge and review purchases.

Part stylist, part professional organizer, Larkin is a last line of defense for people who, despite closets that have ballooned in size, still can’t find room for new purchases -- or simply can’t find that pair of Manolos. “I know where everything is in every one of my clients’ closets,” says Larkin, whose duties include helping clients shop, pack for trips and haul last season’s castoffs to charity -- about 50 shopping bags’ worth of couture, in one case.

Mostly, Larkin tries to slow the influx of new purchases. “I try to help clients buy less and buy better,” she says.

September is one of Larkin’s busiest months. She rotates summer and fall wardrobes, emptying closets of jeweled slingbacks and cotton tunics in favor of stocking cashmere sweaters and wool coats for traveling. Wardrobe-rotation season means that the clothes move on to other closets, often in other homes. Larkin, who describes her rate as “under $250 an hour,” says that she meets some clients as often as once a week.

As for which came first, the abundance of clothes or the oversized closet, cultural observers like Cross say the phenomena feed off each other. “Thirty or 40 years ago, it was common to only have five or 10 changes of clothes,” he says. “But the price of clothing has gone down dramatically relative to income, and the square footage of homes has increased dramatically too.”

For Adams-Geller, the issue of closet space is not so much a sociological question as it is logistical hurdle: Her 450-square-foot wardrobe is beginning to feel a little cramped.

“I have so much space, but it’s already completely maxed out,” she says. “I’ve started to take jeans to the office to make room for new stuff.”

Alexandria Abramian-Mott can be reached at