By Galina Espinoza
September 20, 1999 12:00 PM

Sandy Schreier has the kind of designer wardrobe any woman would envy: Chanels, Halstons and Gallianos. But what makes the suburban Detroit grandmother really proud is that museums envy her clothes too. “It’s the broadest and deepest of any private collection in the world,” marvels Richard Martin, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York City. “It’s like a small museum.”

In fact, among the 15,000 items in Schreier’s possession are some of the most memorable pieces of 20th-century couture and Hollywood costuming. There are three Valentinos once owned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the Yves Saint Laurent pants outfit Claudia Cardinale wore in 1964’s The Pink Panther and the silver-mesh Robert Rojas minidress that Twiggy made famous in a 1967 Richard Avedon photo. Not to mention gowns by historic couturiers like Cristobal Balenciaga, Jeanne Lanvin and Mariano Fortuny and such contemporary designers as Jean Paul Gaultier and Michael Kors. “All the designers know me—they’re like family,” says Schreier, who has hired an assistant to keep up with her full-time schedule of consulting, appraising and lecturing. “By extension, their designs are my babies. I have 15,000 children.”

Schreier, who celebrated big-screen style in her 1998 book Hollywood Dressed and Undressed: A Century of Cinema Style, regularly writes for and appears on fashion-related programs for American Movie Classics. She also flies around the country curating museum exhibits on fashion and has loaned pieces to the Met, as well as to the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and the Louvre in Paris. “I hold the history of 20th-century fashion in my hands,” she says.

But that’s as close as any of it gets to her body. In 1981, Schreier donned a vintage Fortuny gown for a Chicago exhibition honoring the designer and says she “felt so nervous the whole night” that she never did it again. Though she seldom steps out of the house in anything but designer clothes—Prada, Jil Sander and Calvin Klein are favorites—she keeps the pieces she believes are the most important safe in storage. “I’m interested in fashion as an art form,” she explains. “I wouldn’t strap a Picasso to my back.”

Instead she wraps her treasures—which range in value from $100 (Mary Quant hosiery) to $50,000 (a gown by ’40s designer Charles James)—in acid-free paper and stores them in a rented warehouse that is temperature-, humidity-and light-controlled. Even celebrity pals like Bette Midler and Isaac Mizrahi need appointments to see them, and Schreier says she “loses sleep” when pieces are away. Still, she’s always seeking more. She sometimes attends auctions and estate sales or tracks leads through dealers and newspaper ads, but nearly all her finds come through private contacts. “Her ability to lay her hands on a certain type or style of item is really impressive,” says British designer Zandra Rhodes, a friend.

Schreier’s obsession took root when she was a child and her father, Edward Miller, was the furrier at a tony Detroit department store. (Mom Mollie was a homemaker.) When the store’s wealthy clients cleaned out their closets, they’d give Schreier old Schiaparelli and Mainbocher gowns to play dress-up. “I noticed the labels were unique and insisted my parents take me to the library to research them,” she says. “I was hooked.” By her teens, Schreier had a collection that numbered in the hundreds. “My parents were mortified,” she recalls. “They were convinced these things were covered with germs.”

After marrying Sherwin Schreier, an attorney, she began turning her acumen into profit. Though she had no formal fashion training (her University of Michigan degree is in music), she worked as a hair model for Vidal Sassoon and began designing jewelry, scarves and hair ornaments, making regular trips to New York City to sell her creations. By the late ’60s she was creating accessories for Yves Saint Laurent and designing costumes for Detroit-based Diana Ross and the Supremes. A late-’70s stint as guest on a local TV show about films put Schreier in touch with legendary Hollywood costumers like Edith Head and Jean Louis, who in turn introduced her to clients like Lana Turner and Gloria Swanson.

But her passion for fashion did sometimes make her an oddball in her Detroit community. Once when she went grocery shopping in a Mary Quant dress, feather-duster earrings and false eyelashes in the 1960s, “a neighbor said, ‘Your kids will be embarrassed if you don’t dress like the rest of us,’ ” Schreier admits. And her children—Lizzie, a marketing executive, and LeeAnn, Mark and Jay, all lawyers—didn’t appreciate being dressed in the current fads either. “When you’re a kid, you want to look like everyone else,” says Lizzie. “But I look back now and see I was totally hip!”

Schreier never let criticism slow her down anyway. “People around here laughed, even my friends,” she says. “But I feel like a one-person savior.”

Galina Espinoza

Amy Mindell in Detroit