‘To me, that Lacroix dress is priceless.’

By Alexander Fury
Photographs by Jess Bonham

A personal peek inside the vintage fashion market.

A few weeks after the Autumn/Winter 2017 haute-couture shows in Paris, I’m in a taxi on the way to the Saint-Ouen flea market just to the north of the city, exchanging the search for fresh ideas to the pursuit of the old. I’ve heard a rumour, passed through different channels, that there is something worth seeing up there: an original bunch of Christian Lacroix dresses, from his final collection for Jean Patou 30 years ago. After Lacroix was poached to establish his own haute-couture house, the clothes were never commercially produced. Any outfits now available for sale are rare, true one-offs. Hence the circuitous route, outside of fashion month, to the dusty outskirts of Paris, and the remembrance of clothing past.
Vintage has been fashionable for decades, but lately, our definition of the term ‘vintage’ has become more fluid. The concept of time has collapsed, so clothes from barely 20 years ago are now declared vintage and hence ripe for resurrection. We are no longer cribbing from the period stretching, roughly, between the 1940s (big shoulders, draped crepe dresses, platform shoes) and the 1970s (the first revival of the aforementioned styles, possibly the birth of vintage) for style notes. Today, vintage may describe a 1991 leopard-chenille Azzedine Alaïa catsuit, a 1996 Halston-alike Tom Ford for Gucci jersey evening gown, or even a logo-splattered saddle-shaped handbag by John Galliano for Dior from 2000. In quick succession, the unfashionable, unexpected and often unloved have suddenly become scarce, desirable, and often, unaffordable. 

Many call this the ‘new vintage’ or ‘future vintage’ – the implication being that it isn’t quite legitimately vintage, yet. That is perhaps because although designers tinker with styles season after season to generate relentless novelty of appearance, the nuts-and-bolts of silhouette change has actually slowed down over the past few decades. Meaning that a dress from 1997 doesn’t seem anywhere near as alien in 2017 as a 1947 dress looked in 1967 (think of the respective styles). That’s an extreme example – the New Look versus a Courrèges mini – but try it between 1967 and 1987, or 1927 and 1947. The theory stands.

‘We were one of the first,’ says Steven Philip, co-owner of Rellik, a west London vintage shop established in 1999, which specializes in clothing from roughly the 1970s through to today. On the racks of his store, in the shadow of the Brutalist Trellick Tower, 1970s Bill Gibb and Zandra Rhodes may jostle with 1980s Romeo Gigli, Stefano Pilati’s designs for Yves Saint Laurent from barely a decade ago, and a healthy swathe of Vivienne Westwood (Philip is an ardent fan and fanatic collector). For him, Rellik was about deflating the pretension of ‘vintage’: ‘It doesn’t have to be about 1890s Victoriana or 1930s sequins. That market is there, but our market is looking back as little at 10 years, 20 years, 30 years.’

‘In quick succession, the unfashionable, unexpected and often unloved have suddenly become scarce, desirable, and often, unaffordable.’

Alexander Fury

His idea has proved both lucrative and influential, and has attracted new collectors who can rival noted private collectors of vintage couture, such as Hamish Bowles, Azzedine Alaïa and Louis Vuitton’s men’s style director Kim Jones. He has amassed entire painstakingly assembled outfits by Vivienne Westwood, and also esoteric creations by little-known London designers including Rachel Auburn and designer-cum-artist Leigh Bowery.

Generally, there is a preference for marquee names – Alaïa, Galliano and Ford-era Gucci are big, as are Alexander McQueen, Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela. The clothes of the last, in particular, can demand prices far higher than their original sale tags: in March, when Gill Linton of US vintage retailer Byronesque held a squat-style Margiela-exclusive sale in Paris, many pieces sold for five figures. One of the first items snapped up was a pair of gargantuan oversized jeans from Margiela’s Autumn/Winter 2000 collection, in which garments were expanded or enlarged by varying degrees. Linton confessed to me that the owner of the jeans had bought several pairs years before in US discount-store chain T.J.Maxx, where unsold or ‘dead stock’ frequently winds up, for about $10.

The sourcing of vintage can be troublesome. Supply is limited, demand ever-increasing, meaning that it is not only collectors but also dealers scouring eBay and auction houses in search of finds, which can then be flipped for a fast profit. Margiela at T.J.Maxx is exceptional, although, occasionally, pieces can slip through for a song. A vintage dealer I know managed to snag not one but two of Mariano Fortuny’s turn-of-the-century pleated silk ‘Delphos’ gowns for a few hundred pounds at an auction (they generally sell for tens of thousands). They hadn’t been correctly identified and, just as an expert may spot the brushstroke of an Old Master in an anonymous portrait, he realized the worth stitched into those intricate seams. I once found a John Galliano jacket from his first catwalk show, ‘The Ludic Game’, for sale on eBay for £60.

Azzedine Alaïa remembers sales at Parisian auction house Drouot in the 1970s and 1980s at which a tiny cadre of couture enthusiasts would bid low for exceptional pieces that today would fetch many multiples of their selling prices. Alaïa now owns a collection to rival any museum; indeed, he has lent various institutions work by Madame Grès, Madeleine Vionnet, Yves Saint Laurent, Jacques Fath and Balenciaga, and has a number of pieces in the blockbuster Christian Dior show currently at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. But as collectors and museums snap up pieces, the number on the open market dwindles.

The Lacroix dress I am searching for in Saint-Ouen was, I am told, bought directly from Jean de Moüy, Jean Patou’s great-nephew, possibly at some point after the business was sold. After Lacroix’s departure, Patou ceased producing fashion to focus on perfumes (Joy, a fragrance first launched in 1930, still sells healthily). The house was acquired by P&G Prestige in 2001, and then by Designer Parfums in 2011. In 2010, Moüy auctioned Lacroix’s final collection at Parisian auction house Chayette & Cheval; the 60 lots, including my dress, brought in over €160,000.

The Patou sale was exceptional. Generally, vintage doesn’t come straight from a designer archive, but rather via complex, meandering paths. Clothing dealer William Banks-Blaney, whose company WilliamVintage specializes in Met-worthy, mid-century clothes, finds couture everywhere. He attends estate sales and auction houses, such as Kerry Taylor Auctions in London, specializing in fashion and textiles. He also approaches families directly, through networks of friends. One French family, who avidly collected haute couture through several generations, kept their archive in plastic containers in the basement of their Parisian home: from one, Banks-Blaney unearthed a pristine-condition Pierre Balmain gown, embroidered by François Lesage and worn once. Kerry Taylor solicits for submissions to her sales through email and, again, through social introductions. She recalls pawing through suitcases of clothes from the attic of a Devon country house where many of the pieces were so moth-eaten they were tossed, immediately, onto an open fire. ‘Luckily, it was the woollen things that the moths had gone for. Tailcoats, things like that,’ recalls Taylor. ‘It was a quite smart family, so it was sad, but thank God the moths hadn’t gotten to the Schiaparellis.’

The Internet has certainly opened up the market. You can easily dredge eBay for hidden treasures, or pay through sites like Vestiaire Collective, a French resale website where vintage runs the gamut from a few mid-century couture pieces to last season’s Gucci. And if you search hard enough, you can come up with gold. But the Internet has also changed the market for sellers – many are now far more aware of their pieces’ potential value, meaning heirloom pieces are now coming to auction, where prices are also rising. ‘We got £110,000 for a Schiaparelli jacket,’ says Kerry Taylor. She takes a deep, sharp breath at the mention of the price. ‘I think that made people really sit up and look.’ Presumably, for their own Schiaparellis.

Kerry Taylor’s sales aren’t fixated on couture, though. I attended one, where lots included panniered 18th-century ballgowns and a 1999 Gucci-branded snorkel set, designed by Tom Ford. The highest bid for a garment was for a 1994 Versace slashed, silk-jersey dress with rhinestone buttons. The auction took place three days after Donatella Versace’s archive-inspired Spring/Summer 2018 collection, a tribute to her brother Gianni. ‘Versace’s going to be big,’ Steven Philip of Rellik told me at the same auction. He raised his eyebrows (but not his paddle) when the gavel sounded on that dress.

Vintage buying shifts and switches mood and temperament according to external cultural influences. Certain items will always hold value: major designer names; pieces prominently featured in editorial shoots or advertising campaigns, and so immediately recognizable; pieces with supporting catwalk images (rare for pieces before the 1980s, and difficult to source until around 2000); anything owned or worn by a celebrity, especially with provenance. ‘A lot of it is about condition, and a piece’s cut and look,’ explains William Banks-Blaney, who like Philip predominantly sells to people wanting to wear the clothes, rather than to collectors. But exhibitions, label revivals, or even movies can throw interest and attention for both collecting and wear onto specific periods or designers. The recent flush of interest for Martin Margiela, both for his own label and Hermès, for which he designed between 1997 and 2003, has been partly driven by an exhibition in Antwerp and much discussion in fashion magazines, and is set to accelerate with a 2018 retrospective of his work, curated with Olivier Saillard, in Paris. The revival of the Helmut Lang label brought the already frenzied bidding around his vintage pieces to fever pitch. Versace is set to be next.

Collectible clothing generally passes through several hands before ending up with its final owner: from auction house to dealer, to a restorer or dry-cleaner, perhaps then uploaded online to a website like 1stdibs.com, which has an entire sub-section for vintage fashion alongside fine art and furniture. There are some people who have Steve Philip’s hunter-gatherer instincts, and enjoy foraging through salesrooms; some prefer to pick clothing up in a boutique, and pay extra. The advantage of the latter, of course, being that the garment has been pressed, prepared, sanitized (ideologically, sometimes literally) and, possibly most important of all, curated.

The 1987 Lacroix I’m schlepping out of Paris to get is more unusual. I have a personal passion for the work of Lacroix; I have had it since I was a child, when the inflated, campy shapes and brilliant colours obviously appealed to someone enthralled with the fantasy of fashion, especially French couture. It was a colourful contrast to a childhood spent in the fairly bleak countryside of northern England. Abstracted from that, the piece is a prime example of the symbolic excesses of mid-1980s fashion, before the crash of October 1987 floored the economy and ended the party. A short, polka-dotted and petticoated example of Lacroix’s signature ‘pouf’ skirt, the model was the 20th passage of the January 1987 show. Ironically given the intrigues then blustering about Lacroix leaving Patou and the discussions underway with Bernard Arnault, now the CEO of LVMH and the man who financed Lacroix’s own-label couture house, this dress was titled ‘Retenez-moi’ – ‘Hold me’. As a dress, it’s coquettish, fun, interesting and a bit mad; the French term ludique, so expressive of the very best of Lacroix’s work, springs to mind. 

‘Back in Saint-Ouen, in a small store tucked away in the Puces market, the Lacroix dress is sitting in a trove of other archive fashion pieces.’

Alexander Fury

It’s also a unique fragment of French fashion and cultural history, perfectly expressive of the fashion of its time; of the 1980s revival of haute couture for which Lacroix was chiefly responsible; of the styles with which the designer’s name remains associated; and of a peculiar fashion-based expression of postmodern ideals and aesthetics. Technically, it’s also an example of fashion at its very highest level – haute couture, entirely sewn by hand. As the original catwalk prototype, it is exactly how Lacroix wanted it to appear in his Patou show, without client alteration. It’s also the only one ever made, and particularly collectible as it’s from his final show. (Designers’ first and last collections are often highly sought after; Marc Jacobs’ final Spring/Summer 2014 collection for Louis Vuitton, for instance, was bought by customers to wear and collectors to treasure.) In my mind, it mimics the morbid spike in the price of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s work after he was diagnosed with AIDS – collectors were buying against the artist’s death, and the implied rise in price. ‘The deader, the better’, as the macabre mantra goes.

In any case, I want this dress.

I collect clothes, but generally they’re part of my wardrobe, bought to be worn. I have rails of Prada and Balenciaga, and even Comme des Garçons, which I wear frequently. There are also pieces I bought because I wanted to own them – and not because of an avaricious impulse to buy and then sell them at a profit or as an investment. It’s always been more about the thrill of the chase, the rush of discovery. Steven Philip shares the impulse: ‘I’m the hunter and gatherer. It’s hunting down the next piece, gathering pieces that excites me.’ Philip not only buys stock for Rellik, but for his own personal archive. Gems are showcased on his Instagram account, generally thrown on the floor, because Philip refuses to be precious about his precious pieces (although he does have a number of storage units to house key items).

The pieces I hunt and gather are John Galliano (mostly 1990s); Azzedine Alaïa (anything exceptional, from the 1980s through until today); Antony Price; and Lacroix. Lacroix is, possibly, the most specific: only haute couture, preferably eveningwear. They come up for sale infrequently, especially Lacroix’s work for Jean Patou (which was purely haute couture). I had seen a number of pieces from this collection for sale elsewhere, probably because of the Moüy auction. Back in 2014, Californian boutique Decades had a wonderful example, in taffeta and lace; it was priced at $30,000. Which is understandable, given its scarcity. And makes searching for another example out in the Puces more exciting and more extraordinary. Hunted and gathered – and hopefully cheaper.

Because conversations about vintage clothing can often get tied up with costs and worth. The rule when buying a new car can sometimes apply: a designer dress depreciates in value the minute you hand over your credit card and slide it into a slippery paper bag. As soon as a couture dress is worn, it’s worth a fraction of the astronomical sum paid for it. As an unconventional commodity, vintage fashion has long been considered an indulgence, rather than an investment. Yet as the scarcity has increased, so have the prices. ‘But do you know what?’ says Kerry Taylor. ‘All of the people who have been buying from me over the years, not one of them has regretted anything they have bought. The value has gone up dramatically. Some Chanel couture bought from me for £2,000 in 1993 is now worth £30,000. If you bought a Georgian table back then, it would be worth absolutely nothing now.’

Back in Saint-Ouen, I have found it. Here, in a small store tucked away in the Puces, the Lacroix dress is sitting in a trove of other archive fashion pieces, both contemporary, and antique. There are 1920s flapper dresses and 1990s Chanel (the rap-inspired, gold-logo-and-chain-festooned stuff). The Lacroix pieces are hidden away, a little dusty, unloved, defiantly out of style, pretty much unwearable; the dress is alongside a hat from the same collection, a top-knot of taffeta and cabbage roses that seems from an entirely different age, an example of the telescoping of costume references and influences that Lacroix did so well. Its roses are flat, a little sad.

Please note the humanizing, the empathy that emerges when talking about vintage clothing. I’m never sure if it’s my own personal taste coming through, but I like to think that, when it comes to clothing, the intimacy of a garment – an object that touches the skin of a human being – has something to do with our reaction to them. Vintage clothes bear the traces of other lives, the lives of their wearers, the lives of their creators. Haute couture, of course, is exceptional in that it has touched many hands and, therefore, is imbued with not one life, but many. ‘Couture has a power that ready-to-wear can never have,’ Lady Amanda Harlech – Karl Lagerfeld’s right-hand woman, and couture aficionado – told me. ‘Because the intention of les petites mains as they sew, all that love and belief goes into the cloth, and that’s what you feel when you wear it.’

It’s a romantic notion (in addition to her day job, Harlech is by nature an incurable romantic), but there is something romantic about vintage clothing, about this direct connection to the past, even a recent past. Who doesn’t have a certain degree of nostalgia, whether for the 1890s or the 1990s? ‘Find something you’re obsessed with,’ says Steve Philip. ‘The Westwood thing, I was always obsessed with three collections. One was Pirates, one was Witches, and another one was Mini-Crini. I adored all the crowns, all that. Because I was in London, skipping around and suddenly God, everybody could be a royal. The message was: we’re as good as them.’ Philip shrugs. ‘It’s not all about the value of it.’

The Lacroix dress I’ve found is worth something, to someone, and a museum may love to have it in its collection. But I’d argue it’s worth more to me – it brings back all those memories of my childhood, and to the party I was never invited to, the one I was pressed against the window of, observing, turning the references over in my mind, hoping I would be allowed to attend, eventually. To me, that Lacroix dress is priceless. So I paid for it. Then I took it home – to cherish, to love.

Taken from System No. 10.