For more than 30 years, Susan Lieberman has sold turn-of-the-century women’s wear to costume designers for blockbusters such as “Titanic,” to brides-to-be for their special days, to museum curators for their exhibits and to any passerby on Santa Monica’s Main Street curious enough to walk into her period store, Paris 1900. But for all her customers, no matter what they bought or for what reason they came, the journey began at one place — the storefront.
A curving, hand-crafted, Art Nouveau wooden structure wraps around the windows of Paris 1900’s façade, asserting itself among the small shops of Main Street. Just inside, three rare 1930s mannequins stare outward, dressed in elegant 1920s silk chiffon dresses and broad-brimmed summer hats. In 2012, the city of Santa Monica designated as a city landmark the historic Biedler-Heuer Building where Paris 1900 is located and named the window a Main Street “familiar visual feature,” protecting it for a long time to come.
But the same is not true for the inside. The classic shop is in the process of liquidating its items for closure, as Lieberman prepares to retire. The store’s rare collections could be gone by summer’s end.
“Twenty years ago I remember passing by the window and being a bit intimidated because everything was so beautiful and perfect,” said Kevin Jones, curator at the museum of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, who’s a frequent customer.
In coming years, he predicted, vintage shops like Paris 1900 will become rarer as inventories increasingly go online.
“It’s sad because it’s one less physical place to walk through and feel types of objects that went together 100 years ago,” he says.
Paris 1900 opened in 1981, an offshoot of Santa Monica prop shop Jadis, which Lieberman opened in 1976 with her late partner, Parke Meek, who died in 2010. A collector who had worked with architects Charles and Ray Eames, Meek spent eight months crafting the wooden storefront.
“It was really a labor of a love and a gift to me,” said Lieberman. “He said, ‘I’m going to build the most beautiful store in the world for you.’ And he did.”
The two traveled all over Europe and the United States for purchases, attending auctions, exploring antique shops and following private leads. Soon, Lieberman amassed a large collection of Victorian, Edwardian and 1920s-'40s dresses, hats, gloves, hosiery, purses, jewelry and even wedding cake toppers.
Since opening, she estimates that she has sold more than 10,000 pieces. Now, as the store prepares to close, Lieberman is dusting off especially rare 18th and 19th century items from the back room and displaying them for sale.
“This store creates wonder, and that’s what it’s about really,” she said. “It’s nothing to do with commerce. It has to do with creating something special and magical.”
Early on, the silver screen took notice. Hollywood costume designers have selected period pieces from Lieberman’s collection to appear in movies such as “Titanic,” “The Artist” and “Legends of the Fall.”
“These were very special items that you really can’t find anywhere else,” said veteran costume designer Judianna Makovsky, who used Lieberman’s items in “Seabiscuit.”
“Sue is just so warm,” said Jenny White, a college student and Santa Monica native who has worked at the store for three years. “This place is an asset to the community. Closing it represents the end of an era.”
Leaving “is very odd,” Lieberman said. “I’ve been putting the same key in the same lock for decades.”
But as she prepares to move out, Lieberman said, it is comforting to know that the door — along with the rest of her landmark storefront — should remain on Main Street for years to come.
“It’s wonderful,” she said.
Where: 2703 Main St., Santa Monica
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Information: (310) 396-0405, www.paris1900.com