Celebrities and investors have made vintage frocks more desirable than ever, but you don’t have to be rich to pick up a golden oldie
KERRY Taylor surely has one of the most enviable jobs in fashion. An auctioneer, and one of the UK’s foremost experts in vintage clothing and textiles, she was entrusted with the sale of wardrobes belonging to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Princess Diana, Audrey Hepburn and Daphne Guinness, among many others. In 2008, she presided over the sale of a rare Paco Rabanne chain-link, armour-plate mini dress that sold for £9,000. And, the following year, of an Yves Saint Laurent couture evening ensemble which a wealthy collector bought for £20,400. Other pieces have gone for upwards of £60,000.
So I’m almost blown away (and reaching for my credit card) when I discover, in an auction this week, for example, two Thierry Mugler suits from the 1990s with an estimate of just £150, a late 1980s Chanel velvet and taffeta evening gown for £200 and a John Galliano embroidered dress for £80.
Vintage fashion, you see, is not just about the headline-making, budget-busting sales; it’s about wearable, affordable fashion. And, anyway, what pleasure can you get from a £20,000 YSL frock if you can’t drink red wine and go dancing in it? Just ask Kate Moss, who tore her favourite vintage Dior frock after partying a little too heavily with Mario Testino at the Dorchester (she ended up flogging it for charity).
“If you want to go and buy a designer dress,” says Taylor, “you’ll spend £2,000 or £3,000 on something that was run up on a production line and, of that £2,000, I would say you probably have about £50 in terms of the material and the making of it. The rest of it is all to do with the branding and the marketing that makes you desire it in the first place.
“Whereas in the great age of haute couture, which was at its height during the 1950s, 99 per cent of what you were paying for was in the hand finishing, the beautiful fabrics, not only the cutting edge of design but a really high-quality piece. Even if you turn it inside out, all the seams, all the raw edges are hand-overstitched. It was a labour of love and it was an exquisite artisanal piece.
“And you can buy the most fabulous piece of haute couture for hundreds of pounds.”
The trend for vintage fashion – not just worn by the likes of Moss, but by stars such as Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon and Penelope Cruz on the red carpet – is down to the fact that, says Taylor, everyone is sick and tired of looking the same as everyone else.
“A lot of fashions today are based on vintage styles anyway,” she says. “There’s a tiredness with this mass-produced, designer label look. And with vintage, people always say, ‘Wow! Where did you get that? Where can I get one?’ Well, you can’t.”
But while more of us than ever are buying into vintage as a fashion trend, it has never been more desirable for collectors and investors. If you were buying furniture or embroidered samplers in the 1980s and 1990s, for example, you would now be making a huge loss on your investment, she says. “If you’d bought fashion you can often add a zero.
“There has been a leap in value, but we’re still quite cheap really. When you look at, say, £60,000 for a dress, that’s a really bad Old Master drawing or a really bad Impressionist sketch. It’s nothing. But you can buy the crème de la crème of the fashion market. It’s an applied art, really. They are design objects, objects of desire.
“Some of the people who are collecting,” she adds, “they don’t really care about the investment aspect because they really need to have that piece because they love that designer. These things are so rare, people fight over them.”
However, the word vintage is overused and misused. “So much that is described as ‘vintage’ is just second-hand clothing, and the vintage tag just an excuse for overcharging. You can get something like a paper dress, which is not haute couture – it was a mass-produced promotional thing for Campbell’s soup – but it’s still interesting. Whereas you can get something that’s 1970s Marks & Spencer and it has age but it’s not very exciting. So it has to have a really strong aesthetic appeal as well as some age.”
And serious investors – those with serious cash to spend – know to look for items by a designer when they were working at their peak. “So, for example, for Balenciaga you’d be looking for something in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. If it’s Coco Chanel, then something from the 1930s would be wonderful. Elsa Schiaparelli from the 1930s again. You’re also looking for things which are very beautiful and also unaltered, in good condition and preferably labelled.”
If Granny’s old frock in a trunk in your attic ticks all – or at least some – of those boxes, you could be on to a very good thing indeed. She recalls a dress she spotted in a collection in Paris which was unlabelled – the client thought it was worth around £200 – but which Taylor suspected was by Madeleine Vionnet.
“I managed to track down an archive photograph of it being modelled in the mid-1920s, and that was as good as having a label, because here was the proof.”
How did she know it wasn’t a copy, I wonder. This is the designer, after all, who was so furious at being heavily copied that she would dip her thumb in ink and put her thumbprint on every one of her labels.
“Vionnet was a genius,” says Taylor. “Her construction was always clever. She would never do things the orthodox way: the seaming, the shapes of the panels, the beading was extremely high quality.”
The dress, in the end, was deemed an original. It sold for £60,000.
• Vintage Fashion & Couture: From Poiret To McQueen, by Kerry Taylor, is published by Mitchell Beazley, £25