Vintage couture collectors get wrapped up in the history of great design.
Written by Ted Loos
Produced by Doris Athineos
Collecting fashion wasn’t always in fashion—seeking out the best-designed gowns, bags, and shoes of the past was once an eccentric byway for lovers of fine things. But over the past few years, it has gained traction bit by bit, fueled by fascination with Oscar red carpet recaps, the emergence of the designer as rock star, and suddenly serious treatment in museums. (Witness the public’s gaga response to the 2011 Alexander McQueen show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.)
But the most serious fashion collectors don’t do it because it’s trendy. They bond intimately with their finds, picturing them coming to life in a way that’s impossible to imagine with a drawing or a piece of silver. "You can touch people’s silver, or their paintings," points out New York-based collector Tiffany Dubin, but when you start touching people’s clothes, they start to squirm. Dubin founded and ran the fashion department at Sotheby’s in the 1990s, right at the moment when the modern era of interest in fashion took off. "There’s something so personal about clothing," she says.
Fashion collectors generally fall into one of two camps: those who wear what they buy, and those who don’t. Dubin, like many others, came to the field simply because she wanted to look good.
"I was in a consignment store, and I found a Norman Norell dress," says Dubin, referring to the American postwar designer famous for tapered lines. "My body looked leaner, longer, and my waist looked smaller. I had no idea it was ‘vintage’—it was just good body armor for me."
Heidi Rosenau got started early, donning vintage goods in high school. As an adult, she has specialized in seeking out American fashion from 1920 to 1945 and generally wears items from the 1930sbecause they flatter her petite figure. Along the way, Rosenau, whose day job is doing public relations for the Frick Collection in New York, amassed (without really intending to) more than 1,000 pieces, including 450 dresses and 200 hats.
For her, fashion is only part of an interest in the overall history of the period. "I had always listened to the music of those decades—the costumes came with that attraction," she says. They’re not the only thing she collects, but they certainly stand out.
"I have also collected Chinese export ceramics. But this [fashion] is a more thorough self-expression."
Donning vintage duds also sparks interactions. "A lot of people stop and ask me what I’m wearing," says Rosenau. "It creates a lot of conversations. A 92-year-old former paratrooper told me, ‘I mean this in the nicest way, but you remind me exactly of my mother in 1942.’ And we shared a moment."
Rosenau is dressed in samples of her collection. Above is a postwar printed cotton; on the previous page is Rosenau at a lawn party with husband Joe McGlynn.
Style icon Iris Apfel, a Palm Beach resident so chic that the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted a whole exhibition to her aesthetic in 2005, has never been a fan of buying pieces just to archive them. "I never collected clothes to collect clothes," Apfel, now 91, said earlier this year about her treasure trove, which numbers in the thousands of items. "I bought for me. To buy things and put them in a box to me is kind of dopey."
That’s typical of Apfel’s generation. "Up until the 1970s, the collectors were women who wore the clothes," says Harold Koda, head of the Costume Institute at the Met. "But then people began to buy older things that were too fragile to wear. The pioneer there was Tina Chow, with the Fortuny sale."
The late Chow, a model, jewelry designer, and ’80s celebrity, fell madly for the work of Spanish designer Mariano Fortuny and eventually kept two closets—one for her clothes and one for important vintage couture. "She kept them better than most museums," Koda adds.
With couture and vintage clothes, condition is paramount—well-preserved pieces command a huge premium. "Garments deteriorate," says Phyllis Magidson, the curator of costumes and textiles at the Museum of the City of New York, which holds some 25,000 of them. "You have to look at the perishability of a garment. If you wear it, you might be the last person to do so."
Iris has donated her mix of haute couture and flea-market finds to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, where a new fashion gallery is slated for 2019. Apfel wears her collection, while other fashionistas never raid their own closets.
If you’re not going to wear the pieces, protecting them is "a little daunting," says Magidson, both in terms of space and expense. "Sandy Schreier and a few other have achieved standards of a museum." Schreier, based in suburban Detroit, is perhaps the top couture collector in the United States and possibly the world. Growing up, her father worked at a local department store. "The ladies who worked there would let me play dress-up, and, eventually, people just started giving me couture," she says. At that time, vintage fashion was just old clothes: "There was no cachet in saving things back then."
Names like Mainbocher and Schiaparelli began to have a powerful hold on her mind. Now she owns 15,000 pieces kept in pristine storage (she has to make an appointment to see them), and she is courted by most major museums for donations. Michael Kors and Isaac Mizrahi are among the fashion luminaries who sometimes call her up and ask for a peek into her special storage.
"It starts in 1858 with Charles Frederick Worth and continues all the way to the present—not only couture, but also the best of ready-to-wear," says Schreier of the collection, which is heavy on Yves St. Laurent, for whom she once designed accessories.
Schreier is the epitome of the collector who’s interested in history and preservation. "I’ve never gone to buy a couture gown to wear, and I don’t wear what’s in the collection," she says.
"If I owned Picasso, it wouldn’t be on my back. I don’t think of them as clothes, I think of them as art." Just one time she made an exception, in the late 1970s, when she donned a valuable 1910-era dress for an event. She recalls, "All I could think was, ‘What if someone spills on me?’"
Pictured above is a piece from Sandy’s collection, an Yves Saint Laurent outfit that Claudia Cardinale wore in 1963’s The Pink Panther.
Accessories have their own devoted fans. Barbara Berger has amassed the largest collection of fashion jewelry anywhere—4,000 pieces that have traveled to museums around the world, most recently to the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, where a selection is on display until January 2014. "It’s easy," says Berger, who spends six hours a day on her hobby from her home base in Mexico City. "You can find fashion jewelry anyplace, and you can afford it. It empowers a woman." The personal angle for Berger is that the collection evokes her mother. "She was a model, and very elegant, and she died when I was 12," she says. "This is about memories for me."
Berger points out that the more rarified forms of fashion—like truly antique gowns—are not good entry points for beginners. "When you collect, you have to have abundance—otherwise it’s no fun," she says. When it comes to very old pieces of couture, there’s not a lot left in any case. "Most of the 19th century has been yielded up," says Koda. But dedicated collectors like Hassan Abdullah, a London-based restaurateur, shop owner, and interior designer, don’t let rarity stop them. In his home, Abdullah has a tightly edited selection of 60 dresses—representing different eras and styles, one of which goes back to the Georgian era (1714–1830)—plus 160 handbags.
"I don’t have a favorite. I bought them because they are different," Abdullah says of the dresses, though he can’t help praising the softness of a 1940s Hardy Amis dress in yellow embroidered silk. "It’s narrow-minded to go for just one style."
Berger’s first purchase was a pair of vintage Chanel earrings almost 60 years ago. She owns 4,000 pieces, some of which are on display at NYC’s Museum of Arts and Design. Pictured above is Freirich’s multistrand necklace, circa 1960s.
On the purse front, he’s shown a willingness to pay as much as $4,000 for a Schiaparelli "Lantern" bag; demonstrating their sculptural elements, he has actually hung his handbags from the ceiling of Les Trois Garçons, his Shoreditch restaurant. He also sells a select number of fashion pieces in his Maison Trois Garçons shop.
In case you’re not able to visit Abdullah’s shop, there are many places to look for fashion. Even the top collectors are not above scouring flea markets and estate sales, since the sellers don’t always know what they have. But Magidson notes that when it comes to value, sometimes the previous owner matters a lot: "People love wearing something worn by a famous individual."
Auctions remain a top resource. Chicago’s Leslie Hindman Auctioneers began running couture and vintage sales six years ago, and they have become a mainstay for the house. "Young people now view couture as an art form," says Hindman, who sells to a lot of collectors in their 20s and 30s, many of whom shop her sales online.
The price range is part of the appeal. You can buy a Pucci dress from the 1960s for as little as $200, or splurge on a vintage Birkin bag from Hermès for $60,000. In Hindman’s September sale, there’s a 1910 Charles Frederick Worth gown estimated at $1,000–$2,000. "It’s not in great condition, but it’s a historic object," she says.
Getting a piece of fashion’s past is irresistible, even to those who are used to wearing their vintage finds, like Rosenau. "My husband and I have also gone through the Paris flea market and bought 18th-century vests just because they were important—knowing they would shatter if worn," says Rosenau. "They tell a story."
Vintage handbags dangle from the ceiling of London’s Les Trois Garçons restaurant, co-owned by fashion collector and interior designer Hassan Abdulluh.