A vintage Chanel jacket for £220? Who needs the high street?

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Vintage fashion auctions can be fascinating events, highlighting current and new trends and always delivering surprises. Much can be explained by the participants and dynamics in the auction room itself and I’d be willing to bet that last week’s Kerry Taylor action of Antique and Vintage Fashion and Textiles was conducted in a room packed with vintage dealers, collectors, enthusiasts and period drama costumers.  On this occasion though, the ordinary consumer would have been the winner too with some highly desirable items going for extremely competitive prices – the vintage Chanel jacket in the title being a case in point.

There was a lot of “true” vintage in this sale with clothing and accessories from the early to mid-twentieth century. These lots all seemed to sell steadily, despite some being challenging to work into a modern wardrobe. There was also a strong contingent of pieces by Japanese designers – Issey Miyake, Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto – most of which fetched prices at the upper end of their estimates, suggesting buyers that appreciated them as important elements of fashion history. By contrast, an array of dresses by Bill Gibb and Ossie Clark fetched lower prices or even failed to sell, suggesting that the recent hot trending of these designers may be fading.

The driver for many of the sales seemed to be a desire to acquire important or landmark pieces. So if you had gone along, attracted by the pre-sale estimate of £400-600 for an original McQueen dress from the controversial AW 2006 Widows of Culloden collection, you might have been disappointed to see it sell for £1,300 (though still, to my mind, a bargain for an original McQueen). Similarly a number of Dior gowns from the 60s fetched four-figure prices. Though not landmarks, they were still beautiful and highly wearable.

Some of the biggest surprises in the sale were more modern pieces from Chanel, Hermes and YSL. If you were a bargain-hunter there were some incredible buys here. A beautiful ice blue and black Chanel jacket sold for £220; a YSL gold lame evening column for £380; an Hermes collier de chien belt in white ostrich for £200 and a printed silk shirt for £150. At these prices, why buy a mass manufactured high street item of inferior quality and design?

It was not only a sale to please the collector and the bargain-hunter. There were also some wonderful pieces for prospective brides or those looking for interesting eveningwear. Wonderful 1920s flapper dresses and slinky 1930s columns sold for prices comparable with the high street. These were exceptional, unique works of artisanship but surprisingly accessible prices.

So what would I have chosen? Pre-sale, I would have gone for the spectacular YSL gold lame evening column – an absolute classic of the designer’s style and a perennial stunner. It exceeded its £200-300 estimate to go for £380 but was still a great buy at that price. In retrospect, I would definitely have tried to acquire a marvellous Margiela deconstructued tuxedo trouser suit that failed to sell, or perhaps one of the very beautiful 1920s flapper dresses.

So if you are tempted to try your luck next time, the next sale will be a “Passion for Fashion” on 14 June. Look out for updates and early catalogue viewing on the Kerry Taylor website.

And if, like me, you are perpetually enchanted by 1920s flapper elegance, you’ll be delighted to learn that this Autumn’s big exhibition at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum will be dedicated to this particular period of fashion history. I’m already dusting off my cloche hat in expectation of a treat.

Is this the perfect business travel wardrobe?

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Imagine the best of late-60s Couture minimalism re-fashioned as contemporary Ready-to-Wear using the best wool crepe and a flash of Liberty print lining.  Imagine that this might just form the ultimate capsule wardrobe – the few highly edited pieces that could help you get through a week of business travel with hand luggage only.  Imagine that you could actually acquire this perfect blend of couture design, modern manufacturing and the perfectly-edited suite of items.

If any of this sounds like the answer to your prayers, then you have William Blanks-Blaney to thank.  The founder of WilliamVintage and globe-scouring haute couture hunter spotted a gap in the market and worked with Liberty’s designers to create a limited edition capsule wardrobe.

One evening at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, William himself explained how it all came about and what inspired the pieces themselves.  The most eye-catching of all is a full-length, sleeveless tunic, split to the thigh and modelled on a Maggy Rouff original from 1967.  It is without doubt an “impact” item, whether worn with the perfectly-cut trousers from the collection or, more daringly, on its own (in the spirit of Penelope Tree at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball).

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The hottest item in the collection is the cape (now sadly out of stock), with a small stand-up collar and a dashing Liberty lining.  There remain a few of the silk blouses in the hot pink Kaleidoscope print.  Most versatile of all, perhaps are the knee-length coats and tunics – smoothly streamlined, loose enough to be comfortable day into evening and capable of being worn layered or alone.  These are all the simple, stylish classics that should be in every business-woman’s travel bag.

Consistent with their quality and limited run, they’re not cheap but despite that, sales since the launch in October have been extremely strong – you can snap up the remaining treasures on Liberty’s website here.  Even if you can’t find your size left or stretch your budget, the collection itself stands as a superb template for a perfect business travel wardrobe.

Blanks-Blaney is an extremely engaging speaker, even down to characterising himself as a “Frock ambulance chaser” for his activities in rescuing extremely distressed couture pieces from re-modelled destruction.  He illustrates with a story about a visit to a Palm Beach shop.  As he was about to walk away empty-handed they produced a bundle of fabric destined to be cut up for cushion covers.  It turned out to be a ruby velvet cape, a Dior original from the AW 1954 H-line collection.  Severely degraded from years lying folded in a drawer, he bought and lovingly restored it

He founded WilliamVintage in 2009 because he loved vintage fashion and felt there was a gap in the market for an edited, wearable selection of vintage couture classics.  He has forged a business by accumulating an enviable range of beautiful clothing based on close observation and understanding of his clientele. He says that the thing that excites him most about his work is seeing a woman transformed by her outfit – her confident regard, the set of her shoulders, her erect posture all signaling a woman who knows she looks tremendous. Thank you WilliamVintage for reminding us what fashion is really all about.

Adventures in Haute Couture (Part 2)

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Why should we still care about Haute Couture?  Part 1 of this 2-parter addressed this question describing some of the wonderful Couture garments held in London’s Fashion and Textile Museum archive.  During a recent workshop with Curator, Dennis Nothdruft, we were taken through the decades, starting with Dior’s New Look, then to 60s modernism.  Few designers straddled both decades more comprehensively than Balenciaga and here I came face-to-face with a sarong gown that was simply stunning in its conception and execution.

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From the outside, the dress appears to be a simple column of silk, as if tied in a sarong, d20160127_143218raping gently over the body.  There is no hint of the interior construction around an integral corset, built into the cross-over draping of the sarong and secured with hooks and press-studs, each covered in the same silk fabric.  Every stitch made by hand, every corset seam reinforced, this is a garment that would hold the wearer like a suit of armour whilst appearing as light as a cloud.  The matching stole was double-faced but left open at each end so that the seams would lie flat with no sagging.  Of everything I saw, this was the garment that I was most sorely tempted to carry off with me – an astonishing feat of sculpture.

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We also saw an example of Balenciaga’s fabric innovation with a green opera coat whose velvet had been manipulated to resemble astrakhan (a type of fur derived from lambs).

 

20160127_144712The modernists were represented by garments from Andre Courreges and Pierre Cardin. For the former, we saw a double-faced, bonded jersey shift dress with vinyl detail on collar, sleeves and pockets.  It was a simple design, elevated by innovative use of fabrics that maintained the garment’s cone-shape but without restricting freedom of movement.  20160127_145502

 

For Cardin, we saw a matching ivory dress and coat, lined in silk, patterned seams matched flawlessly, buttons finished to perfection.

 

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Moving into the twenty-first century, we saw three iconic pieces by modern couturiers.  Alber Ebaz’s couture techniques were recently celebrated at his Manifesto show at Paris’s Maison Européenne de la Photographie.  We saw one of his earliest pieces for Lanvin from 2001-2: a ballet-inspired dress in charcoal jersey, overlaid with pleated and gathered layers of net and drawn together through the bodice with delicate ties.  Here the emphasis is on comfort – clothing to envelope the wearer like a cloud but with a powerful statement of chic and glamour.

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Glamour of an altogether different kind came from a Christian Lacroix evening column, a catwalk sample made for the model Alek Wek.  Similar to the Dior and Balenciaga gowns, it was structured around a corset with draped sheaths of patterned and textured silks flowing down as the skirt, contrasted against an industrial-looking shoulder strap of wire and metal.  Typically of a Lacroix piece, the colour, print and texture clash delivered unforgettable impact.

 

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Finally we saw Elie Saab’s gown for Halle Berry, worn when she collected her 2002 Oscar for the film Monster’s Ball.  The heavily and strategically embroidered bodice is in fact a body suit that delivered a perfect and comfortable fit and anchored a lavish burgundy taffeta skirt and train.  Despite the amount of fabric involved, it was light as a feather.

So does Haute Couture continue to have a place today?  If we stop for a moment to consider what drives the fashion industry forward, it is innovation, artistry and artisanship.  Couture is the laboratory that allows experimentation, driving these essential elements into the future.  Instead of asking whether Couture is part of fashion’s past, we should be asking whether there is any fashion future without it.

 

Adventures in Haute Couture (Part 1)

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Last week’s Haute Couture shows in Paris have been reported variously as triumphs of art and artisanship (especially at Chanel, Valentino and Maison Margiela) or the last throes of a dying business model.  Every year we see reports that Couture cannot survive in an industry dominated by celebrity, speed-to-market and constant pressure for re-invention, and yet it does and may even be on the verge of finding new expression as talented designers like Gareth Pugh, move towards a business model based on carrying out individual bespoke orders.

Paris is where the art of Haute Couture finds formal structure.  The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture is the exclusive membership organisation for those companies designated as Haute Couture houses. It controls the Haute Couture mark – a legally protected label – and it reviews annually the list of companies that can employ that designation.

Why so much fuss?  London’s Fashion and Textile Museum offers a rare opportunity to find out when they open their archive and allow visitors to see, and even touch, Haute Couture garments.  Attending one of these workshops last week, I was keen to understand what sets a couture garment apart from a beautifully-made ready-to-wear or even a bespoke tailored piece.  Quite simply it is an altogether different level of artistry, artisanship and engineering.

20160127_141318Curator, Dennis Nothdruft was our guide and we started (where else?) with Christian Dior and two exquisite evening gowns that were made for Mrs Henry Heinz III.  Both featured a similar construction of a corseted bodice sewn to an underskirt, with an embellished overskirt to cinch the waist into the familiar New Look silhouette.

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From the Muguet collection from Printemps-Ete 1954, there was an ivory gown, sprinkled with lily of the valley buds after which the collection was named (pictured above).  The from the Libre collection from Printemps-Ete 1957, we saw a seafoam tulle gown (right), lavishly embroidered with bucolic scenes – exactly the kind of thing one could imagine a latter-day Marie-Antoinette appreciating.

20160127_141405Everything was hand-stitched and embellished, right down to the interior construction of the corset, with boning for shape, internal reinforcement and two horizontal elastic tapes to enable the wearer to pull in the corset for the perfect fit.

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From there we moved onto an Yves Saint Laurent design for Dior and a complete contrast – no corset, no underskirt, no embroidery but instead what would become a distinctive bell-shape to the skirt and a pared down aesthetic in tune with 1960s fashion.

 

 

20160127_142351From the same decade, we saw a Chanel suit that, even though made in the late 60s, was completely wearable today.  In typical Chanel style, the jacket was chain-weighted at the hem to keep its shape and the simple design was given lustre with gilt chain detailing at the cuffs (see left).   It was total Chanel and embodiment of Coco herself who worked right up to her death in 1971.

 

Fro20160127_142736m her 1954 comeback and throughout the 60s, Chanel was highly popular in the US market and we also saw a Chanel evening dress made under licence to Bergdorf Goodman – an ultrachic black dress, hand-stitched (even with a tiny tailors’ chalk mark still visible) with ivory collar and cuffs and more gilt and braid embellishment.  One notable thing about this garment (shared with some other couture pieces) was its weight.  Haute Couture fits like a glove but is not necessarily easy to wear.  Corsets are rarely comfortable and heavily embellished garments can be heavy – but wearing such exceptional pieces comes at a price and not only a financial one.

So far so gorgeous but easily my favourite piece was yet to come and was a miracle of extraordinary skill and structure.  To be continued.