They told no one about the dresses. Not their friends, or neighbors, or even their children. Not that anyone would have believed that an ordinary suburban hausfrau has more dresses than Imelda Marcos had shoes — much less that it's her husband, a retired contractor, a man's man, who insisted on buying them. In the past 56 years, Paul Brockmann somehow accumulated 55,000 cocktail dresses.
The first 10 he got for free, as a young man back in Bremen, Germany. Brockmann worked at a seaport there, and when the bales were opened, the workers were allowed to pick out what they liked. Paul selected 10 dresses. He gave them to his then-girlfriend, Margot.
“I was fascinated by the dresses from the '50s. The petticoats and the wide skirts made a woman look real feminine. And that is what I really liked. When I seen a gal with a dress like that,” he says, “I wanted to get her on the dance floor.”
When the Brockmanns married and moved to America, those 10 frocks emigrated as well. The couple moved from Germany to Ohio to Arizona to California. “And I kept collecting dresses,” Paul says. “With my wife in mind that she's gonna wear 'em. We went ballroom dancing every week, and I wanted her to have a different dress for every dance.”
By the time they got to Los Angeles in 1988, they had quite a few dresses. “Probably around 25?” he estimates, meaning, of course, “25,000 to 26,000.”
He is 78 now, and Margot is 76. They have two kids, five decades of marriage behind them, and more dresses than they humanly know what to do with.
He was born at a terrible time to be born in Germany. War began when Paul was 4. His father became a fanatical Nazi and left the family to fight for Hitler. Paul's mother went to work in a cigarette factory.
When the bombing started, Bremen, home to Germany's second largest port and its main U-boat bunker, was hit hard. Some days, the bombs fell two or three hours apart. You didn't know if you would live or die or be buried alive.
With the country's entire manufacturing sector geared toward the war effort, stores went empty. At age 8, Paul carved wooden clogs to sell on the street. At age 11, he traded the family's tools for food. Rations were meager, and people starved.
If food was scarce, fabric was scarcer. You wore clothes until they fell apart, and when they did, you scavenged the parts. In this way, two threadbare dresses could be recycled to make one slightly less threadbare. Margot Brockmann recalls that when her brother fell and cut his knee, their mother said, “Never mind the knee, it will heal. Thank God the pants are OK.”
At 15, as Germany struggled to its feet, Paul quit school and took on odd jobs. He repaired roofs and built cabinets and chicken coops until finally, he found employment at a seaport.
There, great bales of clothes came in from the United States. And there, for the first time, Paul saw the dresses that would become his life's quiet obsession.
A Parisian designer named Christian Dior had just released his debut collection, and the American dresses bore his influence. Dior's “New Look” featured fitted bodices, cinched waists and voluminous skirts. A sea change from the lean cotton dresses and other sartorial privations of the war years, these clothes were luxurious. They were unabashedly feminine, dreamy and romantic.
They left a powerful impression on Paul.
To him, the sleeves, hems and necklines of a dress don't matter. Just the skirt. It has to flare out from a tiny, fitted waist. The fabric has to be taffeta, for the crisp, scratchy, elegant swishing sound it makes when a woman walks by in it.
They are ballgowns, technically. “After 5” dresses, he calls them: dresses to sip Champagne and cocktails in. Dresses to waltz and tango and foxtrot and laugh the night away in.
No one danced during the war. For years afterward, Bremen was in ruins, and with the postwar inflation, you needed a wheelbarrow of money just to buy a loaf of bread. But at least people could dance again.
Paul was 20 when he met Margot on the dance floor. She had short brown hair, blue eyes and a contrary spirit. She was no great beauty, but she knew how to move. She kept the beat better than anyone else, Paul recalls.
“We started to go steady,” he says.
Margot's father became Paul's role model. But the elder man was done with Germany. Yes, Paul could marry Margot, he declared, but only if they moved to America.
So in 1955, the young couple arrived in the land of plenty. The land where a person could buy whatever he wanted, as long as he had the money.
Paul made money. No stranger to hard labor, he built up a construction business.
And he shopped.
At some point, for reasons even he can't fully explain, he lost his mind about the dresses, one of the many abundant resources in America.
Irony of ironies: His wife is not a shopper. She hates shopping. She'd rather clean an entire house. She considers shopping for Christmas gifts a punishment. The crappy workmanship in contemporary, mass-produced goods irritates her no end.
In Germany, Margot wanted to be a seamstress, but when she came to America, she had kids — a daughter, Louise, who works as a property manager in Beverly Hills, and a son, who now lives in Michigan. Paul became a general contractor and was gone 20 hours a day and “that was the end of all that stuff.” Sewing fell by the wayside.
So Paul shopped by himself. He'd buy the dresses before work, after work, sometimes during work. “I keep my eyes open and I go shopping.” It's not that he'd go out looking for the dresses, exactly. Not unless there were end-of-season sales at department stores, in which case he'd visit Sears and JC Penney, where he'd befriended the sales clerks. “And they showed me the dresses. For reasonable prices. That I couldn't let go.” He'd bring home 30 dresses at a time.
Otherwise, yard and estate sale signs were like catnip. He could not resist. “I was happy-go-lucky,” he says. “I did it not on inspiration … ” He struggles to describe the thrill of driving by a yard sale and glimpsing a wisp of shiny taffeta hanging on a garage door.
He bought regardless of size. He didn't even check. He was, in other words, completely impractical. “If there was a dress that I liked, I could visualize what she would look like in it. And I had to have it,” he says. “Even if it was the wrong size.” It is a notion both romantic and impertinent.
Margot's size changed over the years, he notes. She shoots him a look that says, “You are treading dangerous waters now, buddy.” She wore a size 6 when they met but today wears a 14. “You know, it's a crazy idea, but I kept thinking maybe my wife grows into them,” he says, laughing at his own ridiculousness. “Whether losing weight or gaining.”
Occasionally, she would alter a dress if he came home with one he seemed especially smitten with. But for the most part, they remained unworn.
Paul did not set out with a budget. “I spent whatever I had in my pocket. If I was broke, I'd wait until next week.” Sometimes he bought 15 dresses, sometimes one. “Depends what I came across.”
The most he ever spent was $300. “Let me show it to you,” he says, and fetches a plastic Nordstrom bag. Inside is a black gown with gold lace ruffles. Margot has never worn it. She has never seen it. “I guess it went straight to the garage,” she says.
The garage is where the dresses went when Margot's walk-in closet eventually, inevitably, maxed out.
“Would you quit?” Margot would say, when Paul came home with a dress, or two, or 10. And, “You've been shopping again?!” And, “I don't need all those dresses!” And, “You're crazy!”
At what point does a collector become an insane person? Paul is by all other accounts a steady, reasonable man. A hardworking man. A businessman. Yet Margot's protests fell on deaf ears. “It was not going to stop me. I was gonna buy dresses no matter what,” Paul says. “I never thought of having enough. It didn't matter how many I already had. I didn't care. I had to have that one, because it was not in my collection yet.”
Eventually, he took to hiding them from her. He'd sneak the shopping bags in, whisking them directly from his truck into the two-car garage.
“A lot of times he wouldn't tell me,” Margot says.
“There's a new bag in the garage. Where'd that come from?” she'd ask, though she knew perfectly well.
Paul: “That's been here for quite some time.”
Margot: “Oh no, it's not. The garage is getting fuller and fuller. I'm not blind.”
Stop, she'd beg. Please. But he couldn't. “It just got to be a habit,” Margot says.
When the garage of their house in Lomita filled up, Paul rented shipping containers, six total. He kept them secret. Imagine what people would say. What kind of man collects dresses? “They maybe think there's something wrong. Who's this idiot? They maybe think that I was wearing the dresses, or off the wall, or that I didn't have the right mind.”
Out dancing, friends would remark on Margot never wearing the same dress twice. Where do you get them, they'd ask?
“And little bit I lied,” Paul admits. She sews them, he'd say.
“Most men, they don't care what their wife puts on,” he says. “I'm different. I like my wife to look good at any time.”
If Paul had his way, Margot would change clothes three times a day.
Yet at some point, Margot, once the collection's ostensible raison d'être, had become an afterthought in his obsession.
“It was always in the back of my mind, we're going to have to do something,” she says. “We couldn't keep on keeping them.”
Things went on this way “until last year,” Paul says, “when my daughter walked into my garage and said, 'What's all this?' ”
What Louise actually said was, “What the HELL is all of this?”
The garage door was open. The space was crammed floor to ceiling with black trash bags.
“What do you mean?” Paul said.
“What do you mean, 'What do I mean'? What is all this stuff?”
So Paul opened one of the bags and pulled out the garments neatly folded inside. “They're filled with dresses?” Louise said. “You've got to be kidding me.”
“He'd built, like, little partitions, and a second level,” she recalls.
“What are you going to do with them?” Louise asked.
“I'm gonna leave them to you,” Paul said.
“Oh no, you're not.”
Louise, who has her mom's unsentimental practicality and her dad's bullheadedness, is 55 years old. When she was growing up, her dad was interested in hunting, fishing, golf, hammers and nails. She had absolutely no idea he was collecting dresses.
“Well,” she reconsiders, “I guess that's not quite the most truthful statement.” For a while, when her father was thinking about moving from Arizona to Los Angeles and he'd visit Louise in Santa Monica, he'd want to go to vintage clothing stores. It struck her as odd, “but you don't really second-guess your parent.”
Earlier still, when she was a kid, she remembers him helping her mother design dresses to sew. They'd lay the patterns out on the dining room floor. “I never thought that was weird. My dad's a good mathematician. I didn't realize he was that interested in clothing.”
True, he'd always had a thing about dresses. Margot was a stay-at-home mom. Every day, she made her kids sit down at 4 p.m. for cake and coffee, a German tradition, after which they were allowed to go out and play. Margot may have worn shorts during the day, Louise says, but “when my dad came home, mom always had stockings on, heels and a dress.”
To this day, Louise wears dresses during the holidays to please her dad. “It's better not to deal with the aftermath. He gives me a hard time if I wear pants.”
His household remains old-fashioned, formal and patriarchal. Louise bristles at the thought of her mom always in a dress. “That kind of pisses me off. Why do you have to tell her what to wear? Really? If we go to a baseball game and it's freezing outside, she'll wear stockings and a skirt.”
In Ohio, Paul hid the dresses in his workshop. In Arizona, he and Margot lived in a huge, unfinished house with 2,000 square feet of storage. There the dresses hung until the Brockmanns decamped to Los Angeles, where the dresses took over the closet, then the garage, then the shipping containers and now a warehouse in Gardena.
“I walk around here and I still can't believe it,” Louise says. She's at the warehouse, and as she takes in the double-decker garment racks her father installed, the pile of unopened plastic bags underneath a tarp in the corner, a small mountain of yet more dresses, her voice becomes clipped and insistent. “Honestly, I don't think he had any idea what was gonna happen with these in the future. It's like, what are you saving them for? What?”
Paul never had an answer.
“We've got to sell,” Louise decided.
They argued about selling — whether to sell, how to sell, how much to sell for: “My father and I are two peas from the same pod. We're both hardheaded. He has his ideas and they're antiquated in some respects, and I have mine.”
Mainly they argued about whether the dresses were worth anything at all. Louise thought they were probably ruined. Sitting in railroad cars out in the middle of a field, how could they not be? Some had been out there for 25 years. “They're probably moldy,” she told him. “You're probably paying for clothes that are just rotten.”
“No,” he insisted. “They're not.”
They picked the oldest container and brought it home. “When I saw the way he packed them,” Louise says, “it looks like somebody's closet in there.” He'd built closet rods inside the shipping containers, carefully placed the dresses in plastic dry cleaning bags and hung them. The floor, he layered with more bags of dresses.
Some were indeed ruined. The purples and dark blues had bled into the neighboring fabrics. But otherwise, the colors were vibrant. The whites were still bright. The dresses, amazingly, were in great shape.
“The more I saw these clothes,” Louise recalls, “the more I thought, 'Dad, you have something here.' ”
At first she took the dresses to swap meets. Then to the Vintage Fashion Expo in Santa Monica, where she met buyers and other people in the fashion industry.
On the advice of local designer Yotam Solomon, she hung the dresses by color, to make them more soothing to the eye. Her fingers cramped and turned black from gripping thousands of hangers. There were dresses in pale blues and seafoam greens and pinks and reds and yellows. There were wedding gowns with trains and bustles straight out of Gone With the Wind. There were cute ones and garish ones and massively puffy ones with pearls and bows and ribbons as far as the eye could see.
Don't look at them, she learned. Otherwise it will take forever.
In the end, it still took a month, working nights and weekends. Paul built dressing rooms and welcomed the public into the warehouse. He has monthly sales now — three so far — with music and food and a social media presence managed by an outgoing young FIDM graduate.
Slowly, the dresses moved.
They sold to vintage-store owners like the lady from Salem, Mass., who bought $17,000 worth. They sold to companies like Urban Outfitters and ModCloth, who re-create retro styles with modern materials; they chop the dresses up and deconstruct the patterns. They sold to textile designers and to high school girls, for prom.
Unfortunately for the Brockmanns, however, they have not sold fast enough. At least not fast enough to keep up with the $2,200 a month it costs to lease the warehouse. The place looks as packed as it ever did.
Paul hopes to sell them en masse, in one fell swoop, ideally to a fellow connoisseur. Until such a buyer comes along, the idea of the dresses slowly trickling back out into the world, “being activated” again after their long hibernation, is small consolation.
Can Paul afford to keep paying to store them? “Not my call,” says Louise, sifting through paperwork in the warehouse office one Saturday. “I would imagine at some point you have to ask yourself that question. What are you gonna do, put them back in a container? What are they gonna do for you there?” She sighs. “When we started hanging them up, I thought, how are we gonna get rid of all this? I don't know what I was thinking, either.” She raps one finger on the desk. “So here we are.”
In a minute, her father pops in unannounced. “What are you doing here?” Louise asks, startled.
“I need to go to the mailbox.”
Paul offers that he did not buy any dresses this week.
“Are you sure?” Louise says.
A pause and then, “What do you mean, am I sure?” Paul leaves the room, then returns holding an envelope: the rent statement. “I shouldn't have come,” he says, sadly.
Her mother, Louise admits, is a patient woman. “To have put up with all of this. I don't know if I would have been that supportive. If he bought 10 to 15 dresses every weekend for the past 50 years?”
Including storage costs, Louise estimates that the dresses represent a $1.5 million investment. Paul was a successful contractor. He did huge jobs, building university buildings, churches and custom homes. These days, though he's well past retirement age, he still works for Louise's company, doing tenant improvements. He cannot afford to stop. “And that hurts my heart,” she says.
She does not understand why the dresses are so important to him, although she supposes pride is a factor. “My mom gets compliments every time she goes out,” she says. “That must have fueled his constant search. Because what she wore was really a reflection on what he picked out.”
The collective weight of 55,000 dresses is a heavy load. It feels almost like responsibilities have switched, Louise confesses. “That I'm a parent and they're my children.” But she can't imagine not being there for them.
On a different day, Paul is walking around the warehouse, pointing out which dresses he loves. He might as well close his eyes and point. He loves them all. He picks one up and rustles its taffeta skirt. “You hear the swish?” he asks. “To me, that's about as elegant as it gets. You can't beat it.”
Margot shakes her head and walks away from yet another dress she has never worn nor wanted to wear.
As Paul watches her disappear into the racks, a conspiratorial gleam enters his eye. “Listen to this,” he whispers. Then in a louder voice, “You know, I could alter it. I could make it fit.”
A small commotion erupts from among the dresses, followed by Margot's muffled shout: “We are not altering nothing!”
Paul laughs. “I love this type,” he says, pointing to another dress at random. “This one right here. That is class.”
The next monthly sale, on Aug. 24, is right around the corner. “None of it feels good,” Paul says. “It's a lot harder to sell them one by one than to sell all of them. You sell all of them, you go through that one time. Here, 10 or 15? It repeats itself.”
He regrets nothing. And so he must keep reminding himself to think financially, to let them go. “It's best to turn them loose. Much as I hate to.”
It has been two months since he bought a dress, the longest he's gone in 56 years. Good timing perhaps. It had been getting harder to find his garment of choice. These days, a ballgown at a yard sale is a rarity rather than the norm.
In the future, if he buys, he swears it will be only one or two. And only if it is a truly outstanding specimen. Any more than that, Louise says, “I think my mother would shoot him.”