On 14 June, the specialist vintage fashion auctioneer, Kerry Taylor, delivered another Passion for Fashion sale with a wonderful selection of classic and not so classic couture. Assessing the results (available here) some interesting headlines emerged.
Royal tartan, however ugly, sells. Pea-green tartan ensembles one worn by Princess Diana, the other worn by the Duke of Windsor both sold for spectacular amounts – £9,000 and £7,000 respectively. This can be explicable only by their royal provenance – there was little else to recommend them.
Royal sequins sell even better. Princess Diana’s Catherine Walker sea-green sequinned evening gown sold for £80,000. It came with the provenance of having been worn during a State visit to Austria in 1986 and it was really a super-heroine of a dress.
Yves Saint Laurent – both couture and pret-a-porter – continues to attract high prices. A complete ‘Ballets Russes’ ensemble from the celebrated AW 1976-77 collection, including chiffon blouse, taffeta skirt, velvet belt and turban and silk stole, fetched £26,000. An iconic lipstick print dress from 1971 was classic YSL and sold for £3,800.
John Galliano’s genius was reflected in the value attached to his earliest work. The sale included 14 designs, spanning 17 years of the designer’s career from degree show to his first foray into haute couture for Givenchy and his later work for Christian Dior. The selection was particularly interesting because it was so rich in designs from his early career – 11 of the 14 ensembles pre-dated his 1996 move to Givenchy. Topping the lot was an ‘Incroyables’ coat from Galliano’s degree show collection of July 1984, selling for £36,000. The rarity of a find like this is hard to over-state. Few degree show pieces survive this long but the auction catalogue sets the context well.
Galliano’s degree show, ‘Les Incroyables & Les Merveilleuses’, was something of a ‘fashion moment’, which launched his career. The clothes were inspired by post French revolutionary dress, which Galliano had researched at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He said of this collection: ‘I was looking like this down-and-out French tramp. Living it, breathing it. Drawing by candlelight. Producing parchment paper stained with tea. Drawing with a calligraphy pen and sepia ink. I could just imagine these fantastic creatures marching, running across the wet shiny cobblestones of Paris….My show was very styled up when everyone else was being very minimalist – very Armani. The idea of these wonderful terrors tearing down aristocratic curtains and turning them into waistcoats and coats, inspired by the French Romantics’. The show took place at Jubilee Hall in Covent Garden. Each of the students showed half a dozen or so pieces each, and Galliano was selected by the lecturers as the grand finale. Joan Burnstein of leading London retailer Browns was watching in the audience. She recalled: ‘The atmosphere was so exciting. Some (of the 24 or so student collections) were pretty bad. Then, all of a sudden, these wonderful pieces came out.’ Galliano’s rebels strode out with white eye-shadow, frizzed and disheveled hair, held in place by knitted cotton headbands with revolutionary cockades and matching waist sashes. The frilly oversized shirts were worn under patterned waistcoats with pennies used as buttons, combined with giant frock coats, riding boots or flat leather shoes with large tongues and bows. Mrs Burnstein approached Galliano after the show, offering to buy the whole collection and giving over to him the Brown’s front windows. Occasionally waistcoats from this collection appear on the market (which were more easily combined into an everyday 1980s wardrobe) but very few of these swashbuckling coats seem to have been made and only two others are known to have survived – one of which was purchased at Browns by the singer Diana Ross.
There was also an oversized shirt from ‘The Ludic Game’ A/W 1985-86 that fetched £4,700 and two ensembles from the ‘Blanche Dubois’ collection for S/S 1988, a skirt and shirt that sold for £2,400 and a dress for £7,000. Another rare piece – a couture silk ballgown from Galliano’s brief period designing for Givenchy – sold for £17,000. From his ‘Princess and the Pea’ collection for SS 1996, it was one of his first haute couture pieces.
Away from the headlines there were some beautiful vintage pieces
Visiting the auction rooms for a pre-sale viewing, I was struck by two items that I had failed to notice in the catalogue and one that I definitely had. I would not normally have picked out an Elizabeth Arden piece but the embroidered, late 50s cocktail dress stopped me in my tracks (see left and top). Silver-grey organza covered with bugle beads and sequin flowerheads spread like the petals of a flower from a tiny 22 inch waist. Amazingly it sold for £700, at the low end of its estimate of £700 – £1000. Perhaps there were few small enough to fit into it.
Standing next to the Elizabeth Arden was another stunner: a Pierre Balmain couture evening gown, ‘Oriane’, from the AW 1954-55 collection (see right). Made of ivory and ice-blue satin, with Lesage embroidery including bugle and pearl beads, small sea-shells and glass droplets it combined a classically elegant silhouette with some serious bling. There is a similar dress in New York’s Metropolitan Museum collection, so it was no surprise that it exceeded its £800-£1,200 estimate to sell for £1,600.
A black Balenciaga couture Chantilly lace evening dress that I had on my wish list was even more beautiful in reality than the catalogue suggested and as eminently wearable and stunning today as it would have been in 1964. It sold for £1,700 against a £600-900 estimate. Also highly desirable were the 22 Christian Dior pieces, some haute couture, selling for four or five figure sums. Chief among them was the beautiful black silk faille ball gown from the ‘Ailée’ (winged) line, A/W 1948 that sold for £15,000.
There were some surprises and some bargains
Lauren Bacall’s black satin dinner dress worn in the 1956 film, `Written on the Wind’ failed to find a buyer and overall it looks as if mid-century US designers were not popular – pieces by Maggie Rouff and Claire McCardell also failed to sell, despite being very wearable and classic designs. Were they overshadowed by the wealth of classic French couture on offer?
As I had predicted Chanel handbags were strong but reasonable buys – you could have picked up a Chanel handbag for £200! There was also a good selection of Chanel clothing, including a stunner of a bargain: a classic 1960 couture pale blue and black tweed coat for £400. The sale also included several Hermes Kelly bags, some selling for less than £1,000.
There were two hats in the sale and it is always intriguing to see how these sell. A 1930s Jeanne Lanvin conical hat would have been my choice. It sold for £180, below its £200-300 estimate. There was also an eye-catching butterfly covered couture hat by Philip Treacy that reached £2,200. I do wonder whether it was bought just in time for Ladies Day at Royal Ascot.