TELL HER SHE IS ONE OF THE BEST DRY CLEANERS IN LOS ANGELES, AND SHE CRISPLY CORRECTS you. "I'm one of the best dry cleaners in the country," the owner of Brown's Cleaners asserts.
And she can't talk long, she's leaving for a ski vacation near Vail. Well, before you go, Mrs. Brown--
"There never was a Brown. Brown is just an easier name," she corrects again.
This is the estimable Lois von Morganroth, the Miss Porter's, the Leonardo da Vinci, the Martha Stewart of dry cleaning. And if everything about her--the cultivated Katharine Hepburn accent, the beaver-trimmed MaxMara suit, the classic haircut--give the impression that she is landed gentry slumming in the dry-cleaning business, then you just don't know how deeply she cares about clothes. "I do good work. The best," she says, lifting her chin with a gaze that proclaims, "I came, I saw, I conquered."
And she has.
People ship clothes to this cleaning institution on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica from London, Paris, Rome, Hong Kong. Movie sets send her bundles of clothes. Brown's was started by Von Morganroth's uncle, Bud Eubanks, at 26th Street and Montana in 1939, when Santa Monica was just a beach town. Von Morganroth's parents also had dry-cleaning plants around the Westside. When a marriage of 18 years ended, Von Morganroth decided to get into a business she knew, so, in 1981, she bought Brown's--by then it had moved west to 12th Street and Montana--from her uncle. She has since expanded the store and gone from two employees to a staff of 18.
To call it dry cleaning is almost prosaic. It's more like renovation. There are the film baronesses whose dresses must be taken apart--so that some pieces can be hand-washed and others dry cleaned--and reassembled. Pop princesses dispatch whispery gowns whose beads are removed before dry cleaning and then reattached. Studio gladiators submit their Armani armor, which can withstand only a 30-second immersion in cleaning fluids.
Von Morganroth sorts clothes by color and hue, using certain fluids for certain colors, and cleans and recycles her own solutions.
All this costs dearly. Von Morganroth points to an ivory dress with a strapless bustier, beads, gewgaws and more puffy tiers than a wedding cake. Dry cleaning this Marie Antoinette inspiration cost $650.
"We get these monstrosities," Von Morganroth sighs, shaking her head. "The bride saw it in a movie and had it copied. It's so overdone. It must weigh 75 pounds. Young ladies, how they envision themselves."
Other prices are more reasonable. A moss-green burnt-out silk velvet dress from the '30s set its owner back $125. A cream silk 1940s shawl with shell-pink flamenco embroidery came clean for $75. The plaid teddy bear of a TV writer's son was $50. Armani suits are $42.75. Rockers get their jeans cleaned for only $10.75. Oxford shirts go for $10.75 to $15.
"I am one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive, dry cleaners in the country," she says proudly.
Her customers appear to be people who don't have to ask--or care--how much the cleaning is going to be. From a discreet back entrance comes a woman bearing what--after some pressing--Von Morganroth identifies as the laundry of Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks. ("They're wonderfully sweet parents. He's so down to earth.") She ticks off more celebrity clients: Jane Fonda ("a lovely person"). Calista Flockhart. Sting ("Is he in town again?"). Demi Moore, Michelle Pfeiffer and, yes, Madonna.
But if you think you're going to get more details on all this dirty laundry, think again. Von Morganroth is as discreet as an ambassador in trade negotiations.
"They're all the top producers, directors, stars," she says. "I think they appreciate it that I never say anything."