A sapphire-blue peacock stares at you from the moment you walk in, from its perch atop a woman's bleach-blonde head. The woman reclines, in plumes of pearl and cream, as the dashing Roman soldier behind her glares daggers at his intruder. Tremble you may, but you can't help noticing his strapping fur-trimmed sandals, swathed in jewels, and the eggplant leather luxury of his garb. He reaches one sinewy arm toward a sinfully sultry apostle's wife, who gazes away in despair, perhaps, that her skirt isn't short enough for company.
No, we have not entered the twilight zone -- just the foyer of Valentino's Costumes in Van Nuys. Since 1997, Valentino's has outfitted countless stage productions, private parties, and Purims with high-quality, hand-crafted garments. It isn't hard to see how the shop has garnered its loyal clientele. This is a place where the costumes come to vibrant life still on their hangers; they are characters themselves. But the most wonderful character is no costume at all -- he is the store's proprietor and costume designer, Shon LeBlanc.
LeBlanc's twenty-year expertise in costume design is evident in the elegance and period-precise style of his shop's collection. The storeroom houses over 40,000 costumes and accessories from the 300 or so theatre, television, and film productions LeBlanc has designed in the L.A. area over the years. For his painstaking work and unwavering attention to detail, LeBlanc can claim nine Dramalogue Awards, three Garland Awards, and numerous other recognitions.
To walk into Valentino's storeroom is to pull back the doors to a walk-in closet full of heirloom treasures. And not just family heirlooms, unless your family hails from Victorian-era Britain, medieval Germany, ancient Rome, Egypt, and the tribes of the Middle East all at once, and unless your family has saved (in perfect condition) clothing from every major period in American history from the Civil War, to the flapper 20's, to the disco 70's, with WWII military get-ups to spare. This is an heirloom closet that could only belong to the theatre.
As a costume rental house, Valentino's builds entire wardrobes for play actors. They are worn through a production and then added to the store's collection to be re-mixed and re-matched for later use. Almost half the store's business comes from individual rental as well; customers come in searching for the perfect Halloween costume, masquerade party outfit, or even a custom-designed wedding. Imagine snaking down the aisle as Cleopatra, getting hitched at a highway chapel in a sand-blown dress, or holding your guests spellbound as you dream of Jeannie. Poof! LeBlanc already has it done.
Each item in the vast collection is unique -- many are authentic rescued vintage gems from past decades, and the majority are "couture" custom built masterpieces, designed and sewn in-house. Each outfit has all the time period trimmings: there are codpieces, weskits, and coattails, amulets and doublets, and plenty of fru-fru.
For the ladies, bustles billow over gaudy petticoats, while vampy vixens luxuriate in lacy black scandal. Feathered derbies hang next to platform go-go boots. The room is a warehouse of decadent color patterns, rich textiles, regal uniforms, and if you look hard, you might stumble across a stray box of yarmulkes half-hidden under a Southern belle's flouncy skirts. Naughty!
Valentino's costumes have been in productions of Titanic, Amadeus, The Women, Les Miserables, and much more, and the store has the essences of those plays on display. One of the most elaborate pieces on the racks is a breathtaking scarab-adorned Egyptian robe; hand-sewn, beaded, and leather-trimmed during ten years of continuous work. The robe is topped by a scarab-studded pectorial collar, golden and truly fit for a Pharaoh. No less resplendent is the costume's mate -- a sheer, drapey Cleopatra number that covers the basics but barely hides her asp.
LeBlanc loves and lives for his work. He believes that donning a costume naturally raises one's spirits, and that what is called a costume on the hanger becomes something entirely different when the curtain rises and the lights shift -- it becomes personality. Each article of clothing has its own story from conception to creation, and LeBlanc, like any proud parent, will readily tell you all of them.
Whomever you'd like to be for one enchanted evening, you'll find that alter-ego among the racks of Valentino's. Somewhere amidst the rhinestone-heavy tiaras, cases brimming with glitzy glam jewelry, and well-loved threads, you may find your own inner Roman soldier, peacock, or perhaps even apostle's wife.
13812 Saticoy St.
Van Nuys, CA 91402
email: [email protected]