MY bedroom closet — the walk-in variety — was out of Edgar Allan Poe. Every time I tried to enter, the walls seemed to close in on me. Sweaters were piled six deep, purses toppled off dusty hat boxes, and costume jewelry was tangled up with Halloween costumes. Looking for my favorite fleece dog-walking outfit, I was often buried beneath a heap of feather boas.
I knew I had hit bottom when I started to pilfer from my son’s drawers rather than face the demons in my own closet. A friend, an interior designer, threatened an intervention. I knew it was time to ask for help. MY bedroom closet — the walk-in variety — was out of Edgar Allan Poe. Every time I tried to enter, the walls seemed to close in on me. Sweaters were piled six deep, purses toppled off dusty hat boxes, and costume jewelry was tangled up with Halloween costumes. Looking for my favorite fleece dog-walking outfit, I was often buried beneath a heap of feather boas.
I knew I had hit bottom when I started to pilfer from my son’s drawers rather than face the demons in my own closet. A friend, an interior designer, threatened an intervention. I knew it was time to ask for help.
“By the time someone calls me, they’re really ready,” said Doreen Tuman, a k a the Closet Lady, who custom-designscloset interiors for acquisitive but space-deprived New Yorkers.
“If your closets are organized, then your life is organized,” she said. “I have so many people call me from their cell phone in the closet. They say, “I’m in my closet right now. I love it so much.”
Past clients confirm that Ms. Tuman is the Corbusier of confined space. Jean Pierre Trebot, director of the Friars Club, who hired Ms. Tuman last winter to create his-and-her closets, said: “It used to aggravate me because I couldn’t find my things. I feel more organized, more secure, more confident. It’s better than a therapist.”
For the comedian David Brenner, who owns an assortment of colorful cowboy boots, Ms. Tuman measured each pair and designed compartments to fit their tall uppers and pointy toes. For the television band leader Paul Shaffer, she created drawers divided into a dozen individual compartments for his signature funky eyeglasses.
And when the actress Sandy Duncan moved to Manhattan from Los Angeles a few years ago, she called Ms. Tuman after panicking over small closets. “In California, you have a dressing room; here, the closets are like janitor’s rooms,” she said. “I hoard clothes. It’s security. The Closet Lady turned a bedroom on a floor of my brownstone into a closet. Enough of my life is cluttered, so if I can find my socks, it’s a gift.”
Ms. Tuman charges $50 for a consultation, plus $50 an hour to draw up plans. Materials and installation, which she farms out to a specialty company, cost from several hundred to several thousand dollars.
Because it was early March when I called the Closet Lady, and a couple of days of warm weather had triggered the spring-cleaning urge in many New Yorkers, it took more than a week to get an appointment. She appeared at my front door, tape measure in hand, a spry woman with bouncy auburn hair, dressed in khakis and Keds. She went straight for the bedroom.
Waving off warnings, she swung open my closet. “It’s chaos!” she exclaimed. “I am going to get you to purge stuff you haven’t worn in years. Now, let’s start counting.”
By counting she meant taking inventory of my entire wardrobe, a humiliating procedure. Even though friends and family know I’m a clotheshorse, I was embarrassed to come clean with a stranger. I winced as she tallied 22 jackets, 50 sweaters, 40 pairs of shoes. But Ms. Tuman reassured me, “You’re normal. Most people have a lot of shoes and handbags because they don’t gain and lose weight in their feet,” she added.
“Forty pairs of shoes are standard, even if you’re not a shoe person. Some people actually have 10 to 15 pairs. I don’t know how they do it. “Burrowing under a pile of shawls, she continued talking, her voice muffled by cashmere and wool.” “I mean, you talk about inventory?” she said, measuring my closet’s dimensions. “I have a client in Borough Park, an Orthodox Jew. The house was so big, I thought it was a school. It took a year to do 31 closets. There were 10 kids, a closet for every kid. You’re talking 30 to 40 people for Shabbos dinner. That’s a lot of coats in the closet. They spent $30,000!”
Fortunately, my estimate came to a fraction of that. With white laminated shelves and brass cross bars, the least expensive design, the total was $1,045. Cherry, walnut and maple surfaces, along with accessories like hampers, run higher.
Somehow, by hanging shorter garments like blouses and skirts one above the other, putting in shelves from floor to ceiling and installing 40 shoe cubbies, Ms. Tuman promised to nearly double my 70 inches of hanging space. “Get ready to max out the wasted space,” she said cheerfully. “You’ve got a lot of stuff. You’ll be able to see it and assess it. You go into the closet at the beginning of your day. It should be a positive experience. You don’t want to start by fighting with your clothes.” As I imagined myself being attacked by leopard-print scarves and python pants, Ms. Tuman waved goodbye and slipped out the door.
By her own account, the Closet Lady displayed a flair for details and organizational skills at an early age. As a girl, she labeled and cataloged her seashell collections and movie tickets. Her mother, who covered hat boxes in wallpaper so they would match in the closet, is her idol.
Ms. Tuman got her professional start in 1986 with a company in Hewlett, on Long Island, that she described as being “at the forefront of the closet movement.” Seven years later, after a divorce, she found a job in Manhattan at a linen store, Curtains and Home, where she ran a division that offered custom closets. In 1993, she started her own business in Manhattan, the Closet Lady, and has since worked with more than 100 decorators and contractors, as well as private clients.
After sending me no fewer than three floor plans and instructing me to rent a rack to temporarily hang my clothes — and hire a painter to freshen up the interior — Ms. Tuman sent over an installer. It took only one day for him to reconfigure the space, dividing it into shelves, poles, compartments and hooks. It was so commodious, I not only had a free rod to fill up with spring purchases, I could also actually dress in my closet. The experience was so novel, so exhilarating, I started changing outfits several times a day just for fun.
“ Did you ever think in your whole life you’d have an empty space in your closet?” Mr. Tuman said when she came to inspect the work. “You have a tendency to add, add, add. You have to break an old habit. If you don’t wear it, you can’t have it.” “But what about my archives?” I asked sheepishly.
“Archives? What archives? Out of respect for a designer, I like to keep certain things that I don’t wear,” I explained, holding up a cowl-neck top by Isaac Mizrahi from the early 90’s.
“I have one client on Park Avenue who had 13 closets of respect,” Ms. Thuman replied. “Eventually, she lost respect. You have to focus your mind on living in the now. Unencumber yourself. You’re going to box Mizrahi. Label it and keep an inventory list. It keeps you honest.”
Wanting museum-quality storage for my personal costume institute, I bought acid-free boxes and tissue paper from an archival materials catalog.
Once my collection was properly preserved, freeing up yet another rack in my closet, there was only one thing left to do. I went inside and got on my cell phone.
“I’m in my closet right now,” I said, after dialing the ClosetLady. “I love it!”