Try on an L.A. costume designer's life for size

A few hours spent touring a musty labyrinth of vintage dresses and pants in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley might not seem like a vacation activity, but it was heaven to a handful of visitors on a scorching hot day just before Halloween. 

Forget typical fare such as spotting names on the Hollywood Walk of Fame or Instagramming a double-double from fast-food favorite In-N-Out Burger, these women had shelled out $200 for an "experience" incredulously orchestrated by Airbnb: Four hours of face time with "Mad Men" costume designer Janie Bryant, who took them on a pilgrimage to the storage-and-rental behemoth Western Costume Company.  

If you think that price tag equates with an awful lot of hamburgers, let me explain. To anyone who cares about costume design, midcentury attire or the charisma of actor Jon Hamm in a gray suit and skinny tie, Bryant is among the royalty of behind-the-scenes show business. The friendly, impeccably styled brunette with a Southern twang rose to prominence through her famously diligent designs for AMC's period smash, which she parlayed into a book deal, retail partnerships and more than 44,000 Twitter followers - in addition to maintaining her regular gig. (Bryant's recent work is on view in the movie "It.")  

For the tour's 10 participants, spending a morning basking in Bryant's presence, touring where she works, learning her research methods and hearing candid commentary on what stars including January Jones are really like was priceless.  

And it came with personalized styling advice: The tour included vouchers for items from Bryant's 1950s-inspired fashion collection at Unique Village, a nearby boutique.  

"Any chance I can talk about costume design, I'm happy and excited to do that," Bryant said by phone after the event, adding that although "Mad Men" ended production in 2014, it's not uncommon for fans of the show to seek her out to obsess over every single costume worn by every single actor in every single scene, as some of the attendees did on the day of the tour. "I love it that people are still so excited by the show," she said.  

Last November, Airbnb - which famously disrupted the hotel and hospitality industry when it launched in 2008 with the idea that people could make some side cash by renting out their homes - began offering what it calls "experiences" via its Trips program. These are niche adventures in the company's major markets that allow renters to avoid what Trips Vice President Joe Zadeh calls the "cookie-cutter" vacation experience. Instead, he says, Airbnb customers get "an opportunity to connect with the people and places that make a city tick."  

Originally available in 12 major markets, including exotic locales Havana and Seoul, the program expanded quickly. To date, there are more than 3,100 active experiences on the platform across more than 40 cities, 26 countries and six continents, with solo travelers and millennials being the most enthusiastic patrons.  

Some experiences are more glamorous than others - a chance to go shoe-shopping with "Sex and the City" star Sarah Jessica Parker in Manhattan sold out in a matter of hours - while the company's solid performers are adventures with food or wine themes, such as a sailing trip around Barcelona featuring a complement of tapas. Zadeh said that the most popular experience in Los Angeles is a $25 hike to the Hollywood sign with a combination tour guide and actor.  

"We want to make sure that every experience listed on the platform is magical, handcrafted and powered by local people who open up places and things to do that you wouldn't otherwise be able to do," Zadeh said.  

Recent Airbnb experiences in Los Angeles have included a ballroom-dance class with Kenny Ortega, the famed choreographer and director known for his work on some of Michael Jackson's videos and the "High School Musical" franchise, as well as a tour of the area's comedy scene with local stand-up authority Jake Kroeger.  

For her part, Bryant said that she will participate in another Airbnb experience in the spring, when she launches her second collection at Unique Vintage.  

"Most people don't understand what it is to be a costume designer," Bryant said. But during a blissful morning spent amid rows of costumes for characters past and future and getting fitted for our own Eisenhower-era-inspired party dresses, she gave a crash course.  

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Airbnb Experiences  

These outings and tours are offered in 50 cities worldwide in 14 categories ranging from Social Impact to Technology to Nightlife. They vary in price and duration: A chance to spend three-and-a-half-hour rappelling and climbing through Palm Springs, California's wind towers is $480, while a two-hour yoga class in Havana is $10. Tours are booked through the Airbnb smartphone app or website and are available to all members, local or otherwise. Note that an experience may not be suitable for all travelers; read the descriptions carefully before booking.  

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Friedlander is a writer based in Los Angeles. Her website is Find her on Twitter: @Loislane79.

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