A bespoke storage service helps those too rich to hang up their own clothes to cope with wardrobe overload. We visit its secret vaults

The Sunday Times 18.01.2015

I am standing next to a rack of beautifully cut day dresses, floaty tops and elegant party gowns — designer, every single one of them, with enough Victoria Beckham outfits to fill a shop. Stern-looking Russian seamstresses in white lab coats are putting each item on a mannequin and taking meticulous photographs.

They are overseen by the glamorous 37-year-old Uzbek Mounissa Chodieva, a former mining executive. “There are people,” she says, absent-mindedly waving a hand towards the designer clobber, “who buy a really expensive dress, then realise they have three others exactly the same at home.”She doesn’t say“duh”because she is too chic for that, but I can feel it hanging in the air. People forget they have three £2,000 blue Gucci gowns at the back of their wardrobes? Chodieva nods and laughs. These jetsetters, who are too rich even to hang up their own clothes, were a problem in need of a solution. And that is where Chodieva saw a business opportunity and set up her company, Vault Couture, three years ago.

Based at a secret location in London, Vault Couture is a high-end, bespoke wardrobe-management company that will organise your closet by taking all the excess clothes and photographing, barcoding and cataloguing them in the manner of a top-notch auction house, then storing them in temperature-controlled vaults (16C on the ground floor, 12C upstairs — humidity is kept at a steady 50%). You can call the pieces in at any time, or have them delivered to one of your multiple holiday homes, a ski chalet or a wealthy friend’s pad on the Med.

If you buy designer clothes hot off the catwalk, they are kept here until you reach the season they are intended for. You can also work with one of Vault’s approved stylists. Most important, when you go shopping, you can check on your iPad to see what you already have before splashing out — sigh — on duplicate Armani or Stella.

Chodieva understands these women’s dilemma well, since, as a businesswoman with the soul of a fashionista, she is one of them — although, observing her fastidiousness, I feel sure she would never buy anything that did not have a precise place in her collection. “I was my own first customer,” she says. Last year, she quit her job as head of investor relations at ENRC, a Kazakh mining company, to concentrate on Vault Couture full-time. “I had a small flat and so many clothes in several suitcases, it drove me crazy. I would throw my apartment into total chaos trying to find them.”

She researched the optimum temperature and humidity for storing clothes and was even prepared to sacrifice her own fur coats by testing them in different environments (they survived). She also assembled a team in Russia to design and build the software for the website.

Initially, the service was invitation-only. It has grown, mainly by word of mouth, and access widened. Now she has about 100 customers who store their clothes here. About 20% are celebrities, whose identity she protects, although Gwyneth Paltrow outed herself last year as a client when she raved about Vault Couture on her website, Goop. “My closet is now much less daunting,” Paltrow said of a wardrobe detox visit by one of Vault’s stylists.

The high-security vaults behind the offices, studio and sewing areas contain some huge stashes, the identities of the clients carefully protected. Several, with evocative code names such as “Crystal” or “Diamond”, have rack after rack of scrupulously labelled clothes and accessories. As we walk through the vaults, Chodieva opens shoeboxes with multiple photos of Jimmy Choos and Manolos attached to the sides; other boxes store tops wrapped in tissue, all folded with a template, which Vault will provide for clients’ housekeepers if necessary. (Yes, housekeepers — together with PAs, they are often the main point of contact for Vault staff.) By one wall, there are suitcases wrapped in Louis Vuitton fabric bags. I spot a number of Hermès Birkins.

Further along, Chodieva pulls out hangers to show me Vault’s special clothes bags — she won’t allow customers to use their own garment bags. “They have to be totally mothproof. If you get one breech, the whole vault is infected.” A scary thought, given the total value of the clothes stored here.

I also spot men’s clothes. Chodieva, whose work at ENRC involved travelling regularly with men, realised there was another niche market — the well-travelled foreigner who comes to London often enough to require clothes here, but not enough to justify a flat in Mayfair. Vault will deliver their clothes to their hotel an hour before arrival, then remove, clean and store them afterwards.

Vedo Zaimovic, a senior commodities executive, lives in California, but travels regularly for work. “I can go from California, where it is now about 20C, through London, to Kazakhstan, where it is -20C, or Africa, where it is the hot season. Vault helps me to do much of this without luggage,” he says.

Unsurprisingly, a large percentage of Vault customers — more than a quarter — are wealthy jet-setters from Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, the former Soviet republics. They are well groomed, like Chodieva, and credit-card-happy. “It’s a life-saver,” said one client, a Russian-British mother of two who lives between NewYork, Los Angeles and London. She has 700 items in the vault, including Birkin bags, boots, cashmere coats, dresses and Chanel gowns. We spoke last month as she waited for her flight to Miami for Christmas. “I love the fact that they delivered the clothes for my trip yesterday. It makes life easier when you have homes all over the place and travel with kids,” she said.

You can tell the CIS clients, Chodieva says, by their “fur count”. In the vault, racks of garment bags and shoe boxes are dotted with furs, which are best hung uncovered. Another growing client base is the Middle East — fewer furs, but more bling, intricate needlework, precious stones and Elie Saab.

Europeans — mostly Brits — currently constitute about 5% of Vault Couture clients, and their wardrobes are more sober, featuring separates and daywear. In a country where many people find it morally wrong to hire a cleaner, the idea of paying for what is, in some respects, a sophisticated update on the perennial magazine advice to take Polaroids of your shoes and stick them on the boxes, is still a little too surreal. This is not a dilemma that troubles the new rich from emerging countries, people who have so many blowdries, they never wash their own hair. “Two types of people use Vault at the moment,” says one American client, a beauty-industry executive based in London. “Those whose career in acting or fashion means they need to maintain a large wardrobe, and those who have an affinity with clothes and believe they are worth the investment. My British friends don’t see clothes in the same way I do.”

Chodieva agrees,but says that British women,especially businesswomen,are growing more interested in expensive clothes. Yet, even those with equivalent wealth to the CIS clients don’t spend as much money on clothes. “They are more likely to spend it on something like art.“

A keen technophile, she shows me Vault’s sleek and slick website. As well as a blog and useful information, there is a sample wardrobe. When I first look at it, I think the hundreds of items listed are an exaggeration. Now, having spoken to clients, I think it looks more like an understatement. No wonder they can’t remember what they have. Each entry goes into vast detail — not just the type of item, colour and designer, but also the precise make-up of the fabric, the cut, the care instructions and the most minute flaws.

It is soon clear that the website and the cataloguing system are a prospective goldmine. Chodieva is now expanding, “democratising” the service to include timepoor clients whose clothes actually do fit into their wardrobe. While Vault prices start at £2 per item per month (a current offer, on until the end of February) if you want it stored, for the cataloguing-only option there is a £6 one-off charge per item, plus £15 per month. For all the magnitude of the clients’ spending habits, this seems very reasonable, especially given the meticulousness of the service and the efficiency of all the staff at Vault. In fact, I might even try it myself.