Haute couture gowns saved for Britain by export ban – for now

A museum must find £450,000 to keep 11 unusual French designer outfits in this country permanently

Britain is battling to keep a collection of rare couture gowns in the country. The Culture minister, Barbara Follett, has placed a bar on the export of 11 dresses by the French designer Madeleine Vionnet, in the hope that a British museum can come up with the £450,000 asking price.

While details of the sale are confidential, it is thought that the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris is attempting to buy the dresses from the British private seller. The museum, to which Vionnet bequeathed all her designs in 1952, is devoting a major exhibition to the designer, which will open in June.

A contemporary of Coco Chanel, Vionnet is regarded as one of the greatest couturiers of the 20th century. Her unfettered designs and antique drapery inspired the works of modern designers including Azzedine Alaia, Issey Miyake and John Galliano.

"She was an incredible master, and forward-thinking for her time. With her Grecian draping she really released women from the corset," said Harriet Quick, fashion features director of Vogue magazine.

Although the French couturier is held in high regard, fashion designers and experts are divided over whether the dresses should remain in the UK.

"Obviously it is great to keep precious pieces in this country for fashion students and historians, but I can see why a French museum holding the collection would want the pieces to complete it," said Susannah Frankel, The Independent's fashion editor.

The minister's ruling follows a recommendation from the Reviewing Committee on the Export Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest that the export of the dresses be deferred, on the grounds that they are of outstanding aesthetic importance, and of outstanding significance for the study of the history of fashion.

Under an export bar, the Government will delay granting an export licence after the sale of an object of art judged to be of national importance, to allow a public collection to match the price.

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