To people who love to shop, Mary Dell Barkouras has the perfect job. As wardrobe consultant to several celebrities and many Orange County women, Barkouras spends her days scouring the racks, matching accessories and checking designer labels.
"It's like playing with paper dolls," she said, sipping a Perrier in Gianni's at the Crystal Court of South Coast Plaza. "All of the clothes I could ever imagine buying for myself, I can buy for others."
Dressed in peach from reptile shoes to tiny turban, Barkouras rattles off the names of some of her clients: Mary Hart, co-host of "Entertainment Tonight"; Deidre Hall, formerly of "Days of Our Lives" and now appearing in "Our House" (which is between seasons), and Meredith MacRae and Jennifer O'Neill, both TV and film actresses. Although the performers' professional wardrobes are selected by the studios and film companies, their personal clothes are chosen by this middle-aged brunette with the perfect peach nails.
Barkouras, who lives in Lake Forest, says all of her clients come to her in Orange County for the consultations, which can take the form of shopping trips, conversations, or hasty requests for "something to wear for a big event." She also does closet conferences in which existing wardrobes are critiqued.
"The stores in Orange County are so superb," she said. "It's the best shopping anywhere. I used to look forward to shopping in L.A., New York and even Europe, but I feel now that everything is right here."
Barkouras charges a commission (usually about 10% of the day's purchases) from the stores she works with. Her clients are charged no fee if the clothes are selected at those stores from which she receives her commission. If shopping trips are held at other stores, she charges $100 an hour. However, no fee is charged if she happens to spot an item that would work for a client and advises that client to purchase it.
Among the stores Barkouras works with are: My Girl in Corona del Mar; Mi Place in Laguna Niguel; Amen Wardy and Ellesse at Newport Center Fashion Island; Stuards and Beaujon Paris at South Coast Plaza; and Alfred Sung at the Crystal Court.
She says she hasn't approached the large department stores because she prefers working in small spaces with inventories small enough to know thoroughly. And because she doesn't charge her clients, she must be very selective in whom she advises. Although she has helped about 50 customers, most of her 20 regular clients are friends.
"This is really a hobby gone business," she said. "I used to just advise friends on what to wear, and it just grew out of that."
Barkouras, who has degrees in English and history, began her career in clothes by selling handmade cocktail dresses that she designed to Neiman-Marcus and I. Magnin when she lived in Texas.
"I was constantly buying things and then changing them slightly," she said. "A friend said, 'Why don't you do your own,' and that's when I began designing my own clothes."
Several years later she and her husband, a psychotherapist who has several celebrity clients, moved to the West Coast, where she continued a habit developed in Texas: advising her friends on what to wear. She has been friends with Meredith MacRae, Mary Hart and Deidre Hall for years, and her recent working association with Jennifer O'Neill stemmed from those relationships. Barkouras generally does not work on television or film wardrobes, but as a favor to MacRae she selected all the clothes the actress wears on "Born Famous," a syndicated TV series that was shown last year and is scheduled to appear again in the fall. That wardrobe was chosen from Mi Place in Laguna Niguel and Barkouras' name appears in the show's credits.
The extent of her services varies from customer to customer, Barkouras says.
"Some don't have time to shop, some don't care, some just can't put a look together. Some of the celebrities want to change their look from time to time. And some want to look much different from their characters."
She and Hart this week selected an assortment of outfits at Alfred Sung, the Crystal Court shop featuring clothes by the Canadian designer. Hart wore one of those ensembles on Tuesday for her talk on what it is like to be Mary Hart. Her appearance was part of the "Women of Accomplishment" series sponsored by Alfred Sung.
Barkouras says Mary Hart's personal wardrobe is similar to the one seen on "Entertainment Tonight."
"Mary has a very broad wardrobe. She likes wonderful flippy little things. . . . Some designers that are good for her are Joseph Ho, Valentino and Ungaro."
From Barkouras' description, Hart's wardrobe is more than "broad." It is enormous. The consultant says Hart recently had all her closets renovated to accommodate her burgeoning collection. And like Hart, Barkouras recently had a bedroom converted into a large closet to hold and display her clothes.
Although celebrities may be able to afford to fill a gigantic closet, Barkouras insists that it doesn't take a fortune to improve a person's image.
"I work with people who can spend $50 and some that can spend $5,000 (on one garment)," she said. "I recently helped someone get five new outfits out of her closet. I told her to go to the Broadway, where they were having a sale, and buy eight silk blouses that I found for $24 each. She extended her wardrobe a whole year that way."
For those on a budget, Barkouras shares some tips on stretching a wardrobe: stick to neutrals, with a few colorful pieces. Don't be pressured into buying only at sales because you will make mistakes. And build the collection around a few quality things that are right for your color and shape. Add the frills as the budget allows.
Every woman's appearance can be improved with the right clothes, she says.
"You know that saying that clothes don't make the man?
"Well, they do. They really do."