Smallbiz/28"/Sarkisian/mike1st/mark2nd

By NOLA L. SARKISIAN

Staff Reporter

Melody Barnett's costumes have been featured in thousands of television shows and movies, and studio costume designers rave about her store's huge selection and excellent customer service. On a recent afternoon, the phone at her Palace Costume & Prop Co. was ringing off the hook as a steady stream of costume designers and stylists came into the store.

"It's very accessible. I can't think of any other place in L.A. that's like Palace Costume where you can just walk in once you're on account and not have to make an appointment or give them your first child," said costume designer Mark Bridges, who has worked in the industry for 15 years.

One of Bridges' more memorable finds was the perfect pair of 1977 brown leather embossed platform shoes for Mark Wahlberg's porn star character, Dirk Diggler, in the 1997 movie "Boogie Nights."

There's just one problem with this picture: Barnett's revenues have remained virtually flat, at $1.3 million. "It's frustrating. I haven't raised my prices for 15 years and we're still constantly asked to discount here and there," she said.

Barnett charges about $100 to $200 for complete costumes and $300 for period ensembles. Charge any more, she fears, and Palace might not get the job.

So instead of charging more, Barnett is trying to offer more. She is working on a $1.5 million renovation of the 36,000-square-foot property and the installation of a $1 million computer tracking system. Every item of clothing and accessory is being bar coded, and a database is being created to describe the items, their locations and their renters.

Next year, Barnett hopes to have a Web site assembled.

Even before the renovation is completed, the inventory inside Barnett's quadrangle of buildings and its central courtyard on Fairfax Avenue appears well organized. The offerings include more than half a million pieces of distinctive clothing racks and racks of men's jackets and shirts, women's fur coats and exotic costumes and jewelry from Africa, China and India.

In fact, Barnett's collections have adorned the bodies of the beautiful and famous in thousands of television shows and movies, including "Austin Powers," "Chinatown," "Forrest Gump" and "What's Love Got To Do With It."

Customer service has been an important ingredient for the store's success. Barnett has sent out accessories to Mexico for "Titanic" and gathered '20s lingerie for Madonna's filming of "Evita" in Argentina.

"It's so crazy hectic that it's important for a company to make it easy for us to get the clothes," costume designer Bridges said. "Sometimes, I only have three days to find the costume, alter it and have it on the actor. I don't have time to not do it right."

Barnett's original shop sold and rented costumes on Melrose Avenue, but she soon decided to go exclusively into the rental business. She started off with a 2,000-square-foot space on Fairfax Avenue in 1970 to house about 50,000 fashion finds. Her love of textures, fabrics and colors made her a shopping addict and local estate sales became a good way to accumulate inventory.

"It's hard to find good stuff now. Everything has been taken," she said.

But Barnett has assembled a considerable treasure trove, nonetheless. Palace Costume is filled with floor-to-ceiling shelves of plastic containers stuffed with accessories hats, scarves, costume jewelry and purses. Hundreds of big plastic barrels in the courtyard store more than 12,000 shoes.

Barnett's inventory covers all the bases, from a plain T-shirt and Bermuda shorts outfit to a pink satin flapper dresser and Bedouin shawl adorned with hammered-silver adornments.

"Every film with a period piece in it probably utilizes Palace Costume," said Tom Bronson, director of the costume department at Burbank-based Walt Disney Studios. "Her clothes are in great shape. Some people think she's overprotective of her clothes. If shoots run longer than expected, she will charge more and she should. It's her livelihood and it's extremely difficult to replace or even find an authentic piece of vintage clothing."

Years of amassing everything from Victorian dresses to '80s power suits have required Barnett to keep expanding her space, adding about 1,000 square feet to the shop every year.

As for the renovation, it's part facelift and part security boost. Rather than put unsightly iron gates across the building's exterior, Barnett had a wooden/stucco fa & #231;ade constructed that features hand-painted characters in period costumes.

Exploring the expanses of clothing is like visiting a combination antique mall and museum. She has decorated Palace Costume's 53 rooms to correspond with the fashion themes. Green damask settees and Oriental screens grace the "Period" room of historical gowns, peasant clothing and royal court coats. Palm trees and coconuts are accents in the tourist room of Hawaiian shirts and pareaus.

"We try to make the atmosphere fun for our customers and ourselves," she said.

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