Down in Chelsea, very close to the river on Manhattan's West Side, stand a block of warehouses and other old storage sites. In one of these nondescript buildings, at 601 W. 26th Street, there's an old-fashioned, manually operated elevator that takes you queasily up to the 17th floor. But the ride is well worth it, because your destination is the home of the TDF Costume Collection, the not-for-profit rental company housing over 75,000 costumes and accessories, organized by production and color, ranging from pre-historic to present day. It's a little like the C.S. Lewis novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in which a group of children walk into a wardrobe and are magically transported into another land.

"We have everything," says Greg Poplyk, the TDF Costume Collection's associate director. "We have armor pieces, breastplates, Alaskan footwear, prehistoric leg wraps, and swaddling for the leg. We have hats for showgirls and Babylonian headwear with attached yarn wigs. We have copies of the red shoe featured in the ads for The Life." If that doesn't give you an idea of how eclectic the Collection is, Poplyk sums up by joking, "This is a place where you can get jockstraps or a sequin snake that matches a turban."

The Costume Collection began with a donation from the Metropolitan Opera and was administered by the New York State Council on the Arts. In 1974, it came under the auspices of the Theatre Development Fund, the multifaceted performing-arts organization, which continues to subsidize the company to this day. The Collection's emphasis is on period rather than modern pieces, which are usually more easily available to theatre companies.

Poplyk describes the TDF and Costume Collection relationship as "an octopus and its tentacles. All the tentacles have something to do with developing theatre. We deal with renting costumes." That the Costume Collection is subsidized by the TDF allows it to remain as a resource for not-for-profit companies.

"This is not a profit-making business," asserts Domingo Rodriguez, the Collection's director. "The minute we turn the prices into profit-making, half our customers will not be able to afford us."

And as the only organization of its kind, Rodriguez, who oversees virtually every aspect of the company's operation, proudly declares, "There are very few sources for costume designers and certainly no place for not-for-profit organizations. We deal with well over 1,500 companies a year, and without the Collection, where would they go? There is no way they would be able to do what they do. It is such an invaluable resource."

As an offshoot of TDF, The Collection's main function is to provide affordable costumes to not-for-profit performing arts groups. Prices are based on a sliding scale, which is determined by how many costumes are being rented, theatres' seating capacity, and number of performances.

Poplyk notes that the company operates "strictly by donation." As is only appropriate given the organization's origins, the Metropolitan Opera remains the Collection's largest contributor. As recently as two years ago, the Met donated costumes from a Lucia designed by Colonnello that had originally been performed in the 60s.

The Collection does not control what groups use the costumes for--as Poplyk points out, you can use a Lucia wedding dress for a production of Twelfth Night. In addition, theatre groups are allowed to make alterations as long as they can be undone; all items must be returned in the form they went out and must be dry-cleaned before being returned. This policy of allowing alterations leads to the clothes wearing out (one of the reasons they are always trying to add to the Collection), and the Collection therefore has a policy of donating no-longer-needed costumes to high schools or colleges. They also donate costumes to charitable organizations, such as shelters and support groups for battered women.

All members of the seven-employee staff are designers, an important aspect of the service the Collection offers. Their knowledge of costume design and history assists clients in finding exactly what they need for their productions. As Poplyk notes, "That most of the people who work here are designers in their own right is one of the glories of working for the Development Fund. They hire working professionals. Right now, I am designing for Opera Delaware, a production of Eugene Onegin. I am able to take time off from work to do that. The Development Fund wants me to do things, to keep up, to attend my union meetings, and keep involved in what is going on in the community."

Another important aspect of the Collection is its dedication to the art of costume design in general. Not just a rental house, the team of design professionals also utilize their skills to foster younger talent and to honor working professionals in the field. Rodriguez, for instance, runs a seven-week summer program for college students, who apply by submitting their portfolios. Applicants must have at least one or two college-level costume design/history courses under their belts. In the program, they attend classes, are taken into the field, and design--by computer--a final costume project. Rodriguez describes the program as an "intense one, designed to show them what it means to be a New York designer."

Since 1993, the Theatre Development Fund, through the TDF Costume Collection, has also sponsored the Irene Sharaff Awards, which honor excellence in costume design. In the past it has consisted of two awards: the Lifetime Achievement Award (this year's recipient is Willa Kim, designer of Victor/Victoria) and the Young Master Award (which is being awarded to Suzy Benzinger, designer of Miss Saigon and Woody Allen's most recent film, Celebrity). This year, a new award, the Benchmark, will be given to a person or persons who contribute to the field of costume design, or as Poplyk puts it, "anyone in the field who makes a contribution to the craft or the fruition of the process. It can go to a shop, to an associate designer--who tends to be the motor behind everything--or authors of textbooks. It is a very exciting thing." Ray Diffen, who ran a costume shop for many years in New York, has been chosen as the first-ever Benchmark recipient. Rodriguez declares that Diffen is especially deserving because Diffen "spent most of his life in NY promoting, encouraging and instructing young designers to do what they do."

The Collection also includes historical garments dating from 1820. Although these garments are not rented, they may be examined in the Collection's reference library, which is available to customers at no charge. Among the Collection's other services are fitting rooms for clients, outfitted with all the accouterments a designer needs--mirrors, tables, chairs, even rugs. The Collection also rents out--for a fee--costume workrooms located on the 18th floor, complete with industrial sewing machines, cutting tables, and dress forms.

Asked about the crazier experiences he has had working at the Collection, Poplyk says, "Once I was walking in the back and there were two guys in the aisle, totally nude. I just said, 'What are you doing?' That's why we have the fitting rooms, and that is a big no-no. But because it's theatre performers, they're so used to having no modesty. But then you also have the mothers of the high school students who are searching for clothes for The Music Man. We want to avoid having them come upon such a scene!"

But Poplyk notes there are some things you definitely would want to stumble upon: "You also see some brilliant things that you would never have thought of. I was just walking in the back with a customer and came across Mattie Ullrich [a theatrical designer], who had this Spanish bolero jacket with turquoise pants--it was stunning and interesting to see how she had pulled it all together from different pieces. That is the art of design."

Poplyk continues, "You have the opportunity to watch Willa Kim put something together, or see how Gregg Barnes reconceives an existing piece, to look at the clothes up close and see how Alberto Colonnello chooses trims to work on the stage at the Metropolitan Opera or how Barbara Matera's bodices get put together. It is a learning experience every day of your life to just look at these clothes."

He also expresses a sense of wonderment at being allowed to work with the history of the art: "You can browse through the past in a sense, sort of browse through history. There are a series of kimonos that were given to us by FIT that date from the 17th century to the 19th century, where you see the handworked embroidery, the coloration, the Vermicelli stitching. And it just inspires you to try to do things with your own work."

Plans, as yet unannounced, are in the works to ensure the Collection's continued growth. TDF executive director Jack Goldstein--he was named to the position in January 1998--states, "As a new administrator here at TDF, one of the first decisions I made was to try and make the Collection even more valuable. I have been taking a look at our operations, and how we can in fact be of greater service. I would anticipate that in the next year, there will be some well-received developments that will make the Costume Collection even more essential."

The Costume Collection functions then as both a practical resource and an artistic outlet. Costume designers interact with other designers and work with a variety of types of costumes. But its single greatest resource is without a doubt the people who work there, all of whom speak with great--and clearly genuine--enthusiasm about what they do. Perhaps Rodriguez sums it up best when he declares, "We have a passion for costumes; we love it and it probably shows when people come here."