Old is very now as investors spot value in couture

Old is the new black. Go to a red-carpet event and you will spot celebrities parading classic couture. Visit the Victoria & Albert museum gallery and you will see 1970s Ozzie Clarke originals. Browse through a chic street market and you will find clothes from the past at prices for the present. Go to south London and you can discover the newly opened Fashion Textile Museum, dedicated to 20th-century designers.

Vintage is in vogue, and couture vultures, fashion followers and trendsetters are not alone in appreciating it. Private investors are keen, too. More and more are realising bygone fashion can be collectable and profitable.

Why is historic clothing suddenly in demand? The author, David Boyle, suggests a reason in his recent book Authenticity. He writes: "We now live in a world dominated by spin doctors, mass advertising and virtual goods and services. [We are surrounded] by the shoddy and the unreal, so we are looking for something that is honest, sustainable, rooted, human." Vintage fashion, he says, meets these requirements.

A select group has always collected vintage fashion. But anecdotal evidence suggests this minority is growing. "We are beginning to see new faces," says Leslie Verrinder, manager of Tin Tin Collectables, a vintage clothing shop in Alfie's Antiques Market, north-west London. "Once you just got dedicated aficionados, now you get all sorts."

Kirsty Wallace agrees. She organises Vintage Mayfair, a new annual trade show for vintage clothes dealers. She says: "Lots of people are starting to appreciate that vintage fashion can be valuable in the same way as fine art or antique furniture."

Experts say the market for vintage fashion is rising. Recent auction prices tell the tale A 1960 Balenciaga black gown, trimmed with mink, was expected to reach £2,000 this year at Sotheby's: it went for more than triple that. A 1953 red Christian Dior number fetched a similar multiple. More impressive still was a 1958 Yves Saint Laurent silver dress that went under the hammer for £12,000.

Vintage fashion, says Kerry Taylor, head of costume and textiles at Sotheby's, can be a wise investment. She cautions, sensibly enough, that prices can go up as well as down, but insists profits can be made over the long term. And for fashion followers it can be a lot more fun than studying share prices.

But where do you begin if you are interested in a piece of the sartorial action? First, follow the three golden rules of collecting: learn about the market; buy what you like, and buy the best you can afford.

Insiders say the labels to look for include French favourites such as Balenciaga, Dior and YSL along with Pucci, Louiseboulanger, Fortuny, and Chanel. British names including Biba, Mary Quant, Vivienne Westwood, Zandra Rhodes and the favourite, Ozzie Clarke, are also highly collectable.

Naturally, some pieces are worth more than others. "The trick," Ms Taylor says, "is to pick something seminal. Ideally, it should epitomise the designer's style at the peak of his or her career."

Better, the item should have credible and documented provenance. "If a dress was worn by someone famous or featured in a film, loaned to an exhibition or mentioned in a letter, then its value goes up even more," Ms Taylor says. And condition and quality must be perfect.

When you know what you want, the question is where to look. "Occasionally, you can still come across something amazing in an Oxfam shop, at a car-boot sale or at a deceased estate sale," says Linda Bee, manager of a vintage clothing shop in Gray's Antique Market, west London. "But most of the time you will have to go through traders, dealers, auctioneers and other collectors."

There is no guarantee of success. Ms Bee recalls one woman who was outraged when she learned her collection was worth little more than she paid for it.

"She screamed at me that she had done all the right things: read the right books, followed the right guides, bought the right designers, but she just didn't have an eye for what would go up in value."

This story does not surprise Alice Cicolini. She has an MA in vintage fashion and works as a project manager for the British Council, Britain's major arts funding body. She says: "If you don't have an instinctive feel for vintage fashion you may be wasting your money trying to collect it. The clothes can be beautiful, intoxicating, addictive even. But they may not be profitable. Be very careful about what you choose."

'I love the attention to detail and the history behind the clothing'

Sallie Ead has always adored vintage fashion. "I began wearing it when I was an art student studying textiles," she says. Thirty years on, she is a serious collector and owner of two vintage clothing shops in London.

Her favourite item is a 1790s waistcoat. "I just love the care and attention and detail of it," she says. "I also find the social history behind it fascinating." Her best buy is an Ozzie Clarke print dress she bought in the 1980s for less than a fiver. It is now worth £650.

Regrets? Ms Ead, 51, is disappointed she was forced to sell, for financial reasons, a 17th-century embroidered purse. She says: "I sold it for £600 four years ago: it would fetch around £3,000 now."

Other mistakes she admits include washing a jacket of its sequins. "That was devastating," she says. Once she thought a dye was colourfast and it turned out otherwise. "My lovely white dress with red roses came out pink. I felt awful," Ms Ead says.

But she has learned from her experience and is quietly confident she has amassed what she calls "a nice little nest egg for the future".

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