Reading: Museum-Quality Storage for Your Clothes

The Find

Museum-Quality Storage for Your Clothes

Barbara Harman invented a way to care for your most precious items that would make Mr. Carson proud

By Katie Weisman

Photo of Barbara Harman of The Butler's Closet
Barbara Harman with her 100% percale garment covers. Photo by Maria Karas

Unlike many actors who borrow their gowns for red carpet events, Tiffany Haddish made the $4,000-plus investment in a stunning white Alexander McQueen dress for the international premieres of Girls Trip, the 2017 comedy in which she had a breakout role alongside industry veterans Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, and Regina Hall. Haddish wore the dress over and over again, even to this year’s Oscars. As someone who grew up in foster care and was at one point homeless, Haddish does not take her luxurious dress for granted. This white gown has been, in effect, an emblem of her success.

A gown that is so cherished, no matter what its cost, has to be properly cared for and stored. The problem is, very few people actually know how to do this correctly. Now is the perfect time to learn, as you replace your sundresses with sweaters, and The Butler’s Closet is here to help.

Founded by Barbara Harman, former president and CEO of Parfums Nina Ricci for the US and nonprofit development expert (among other career highlights), The Butler’s Closet is an online shop selling protective clothing-, furniture-, and accessory-covers in 100% cotton percale or flannel that is free of dyes, chemicals and bleach (the same cotton percale used by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its conservation work). The Butler’s Closet also sells other helpful accessories to care for your wardrobe.

We’re all guilty of shoving that long dress on a flimsy hanger into a desperately crowded closet. We’ve certainly left the plastic from the dry cleaner on clothes coming back from the store. And, alas, we’ve probably left our wedding dress in that sealed box for years. All of these are big no-no’s, Harman says. Crowding leads to wrinkles; pleats or folds in your boxed dress can become permanent and eventually cause breakage. Friction from everyday items like a wristwatch or zippers is also hazardous. Plastic covers from the dry cleaners not only trap humidity but also emit chemicals that can, over time, alter the color of the fabric.

Barbara Harman with a chair cover. Photo by Maria Karas

Then there’s the issue of dust. Did you know that a dust particle is sharp and pointy? Harman didn’t when she started to think about her business, but she now knows that over time, dust embeds itself in the fabric. If there is a little humidity, the fabric can form a crust and tear. Dust gets into closets even with the door closed. Light is another ambient problem that can bleach out colors. Harman’s cotton covers, which close with buttons or fabric ties, can prevent all these things from happening.

How did Harman go from couture fragrances to cotton covers? Easily. Like many entrepreneurs, she had a need herself for such products in the mid-2000s, but she could not find them.

“We had built a house in Columbia County, New York, and we have these tall windows without curtains that let in tons of sunlight,” Harman recalls. “We had just upholstered the furniture. I started looking for dust covers to cover the furniture on weekends but I couldn’t find anything.”

At the same time, she wanted to properly protect and store some of the wonderful pieces of Nina Ricci clothing she had acquired when she ran the couture house’s American fragrance business. She started her search, even online, and she came up empty.

Coinciding with this personal search was a professional desire to create an entrepreneurial company. At first, she was eyeing the upmarket cleaning product sector where recent entrants including Caldrea and Mrs. Meyers Clean Day were positioning themselves like cosmetics brands, Harman notes. She realized, however, that it would have been impractical to start a liquid chemicals business on the side while working full time.

Serendipity struck, however, when Harman and her husband’s cousin, Phyllis Dillon, a fashion historian, author and conservator, met with Patsy Orlofsky, Phyllis’s friend and colleague. Patsy, also a textile conservator, is the founder and Executive Director of the Textile Conservation Workshop. The three began discussing what Harman could do, and the ideas for The Butler’s Closet were hatched.

“I decided to develop this line of products and talked to textile conservators to get their guidance, found a designer to work with me to create the designs and the patterns, sourced the components (fabric, buttons, labels, etc.), and then searched to find the right manufacturer here in New York,” Harman explains. A self-proclaimed workaholic, she devoted all of her free time outside of work to the project starting in roughly 2009. The Butler’s Closet officially launched in 2011.

“One of the things I realized when I was doing my research was that butlers and their housekeepers invented many of the techniques [for conservation] that are used in museums today,” Harman explains. “Many big country homes in England ended up being turned into museums like Chatsworth House because the homes were too big for individual families to maintain. During winter after the visitors have gone, the conservators put the house to bed – that’s what they call it – and they shut the house down, dust and clean everything, and cover everything with dust sheets.”

Harman and her husband, architect Laurence Harman, learned more about this process through a BBC documentary on video, Petworth House: The Big Spring Clean, Putting the House to Bed, which they picked up in a gift shop while on a trip to England visiting similar stately homes a few years ago.

“They clean and dust absolutely everything – the books, the china, the artwork; they cover everything, using gloves; polish silver; vacuum the rugs; roll the rugs up – when it is time to reopen the house and let the tourists come in, they undo everything, take all the covers off and then have thousands of visitors throughout the spring, summer and fall. We were fascinated with this,” Harman recounts.

Harman notes that her idea and website are a combination of how traditional English estates are cared for and a desire to offer regular people museum-quality goods to protect their possessions. She’s achieved the latter by doing meticulous research and working closely with conservators for product development. The Butler’s Closet logo of a country mansion (designed by her husband) reflects Harman’s passion.

Items in The Butler’s Closet include museum-quality garment bags of various lengths, shoulder covers, wedding dress preservation covers, linen and tablecloth covers, and furniture dust covers in the unbleached, undyed cotton percale. There are also shoe bags in chemical and dye-free flannel. All the fabric pieces are made in Brooklyn, NY. Other goodies in the collection include natural horn clothes brushes, furniture polish, and luxury dryer balls in undyed 100% New Zealand wool. Prices range from $16 for the women’s shoe bag to $150 for the wedding dress preservation covers.

The Butler’s Closet enjoys a wide range of clients. There are those who want a few shoulder covers for their jackets but also estate curators who’ve inquired about the fabric’s “shield,” or how much sun the covers block. That would be 77.3% of UVA rays and 86.1% of UVB rays, in case you were wondering. She was recently surprised by a substantial order of 50 furniture dust covers from an individual who owns many large homes.

“Conservators have such terrific techniques that I’m trying to bring to the public,” says Harman, now a board member of the Textile Conservation Workshop. “At the end of the day, there are certain things you want to take care of and preserve.”

Barbara Harman and The Butler’s Closet are offering all CoveyClub members 20% off purchases through October 31, 2018. Please use the code “coveyclub” when you place your order at butlerscloset.com

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