There are bargains among those big monsters of frock

Vintage fashion has become an investment to rival fine art, and now is definitely the time to buy, says James Sherwood
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The Independent Online

Fashion, by the very nature of the beast, sheds its skin bi-annually and even the most dedicated followers are apt to discard last season's dress without remorse. Between the dressing-up box, the dustbin and the sinister thrift shop, it's a miracle that any important pieces by the old masters of 20th century fashion have survived intact.

In the 1980s one could barely give away glorious confections of Paris haute couture and, tainted by the second-hand tag, fashion barely registered on the saleroom radar. Specialised collectors like Hamish Bowles, US Vogue's European Editor, and designer Azzedine Alaia may have hoarded masterpieces by Schiaparelli, Dior and Balenciaga but in the last decade vintage fashion has boomed. A piece from Yves Saint Laurent's 1967 African collection, owned by Margot Fonteyn, realised a record £88,000 at auction.

Sotheby's leads the field with its celebrated bi-annual Passion for Fashion sales and everyone from Bergdorf Goodman and Selfridges to Topshop showcase precious vintage pieces alongside new season. Important collections like that of the late Princess Lilian of Belgium merit their own sales at Sotheby's where a 1958 YSL silver grey satin dinner gown for the house of Dior was sold for £12,000 in May 2003.

Poster girls such as Kate Moss, Nathalie Portman and Winona Ryder are buying unique pieces by Madame Gres, Adrian and Pauline Trigere respectively. Specialised dealers like Elizabeth Mason, whose LA store Paper Bag Princess sold Jennifer Aniston the vintage Halston she wore at the Emmy Awards this year, can justify a $12,995 price tag for a modest Charles James black wool worsted jacket.

Collectors are divided into buy-to-wear girls like Julia Roberts and Jennifer Lopez (who had vintage Valentino dresses fitted by the Valentino atelier for the Oscars) and collectors who equate fashion with fine art. For them, the auction house rules of provenance, condition and rarity are as applicable for an Ossie Clark chiffon tea gown with Celia Birtwell print as an Andy Warhol screen print.

"Fashion is still a relatively young category in the auction market, so now is absolutely the time to be buying," says Kerry Taylor, Sotheby's fashion consultant. "I sold a 1976 Saint Laurent from his African collection for £42,000 but these star pieces are the exception rather than the rule. 1930s Chanels may go for tens of thousands of pounds but you can still buy pieces by the greats like Balenciaga, Ossie Clark and John Galliano for under £1,000."

She said: "It's incredible that you could still buy a 1920s beaded flapper dress for £100. It won't be labelled but it will be haute couture. The fabrics and the beading couldn't even be produced today so the value is immense."

Showpieces by contemporary couturiers can easily exceed £100,000 which makes an important piece like the Dior silver satin gown look like a bargain. Dior's reign as King of Paris couture was brief: a mere ten years between his 1947 New Look collection and his death in 1957. A young Yves Saint Laurent succeeded the master but made only five collections for Dior couture before he was drafted to the army. Dated 1958, this dress is from Saint Laurent's second of the five collections. It is rare as hens' teeth. Made for Princess Lilian, the provenance is impeccable and because the lady was one of the 20th century's greatest couture clients it is in pristine condition. So £12,000 starts to look modest for an unique piece of fashion history.

"I would advise collectors to stay away from the demure and tasteful if they are looking for investment pieces," says Kerry Taylor. "Extreme fashion statements that embody the period in which they were made are the best sellers. The name and the label is not enough.

"The design has to be extraordinary as well. So for Galliano you don't want a tasteful pantsuit. You want something mad and Egyptian from his last Dior couture collection.

"You don't want a little black dress from Alexander McQueen. You want something covered in feathers, says Ms Taylor. "Fashion moments pass very quickly, so you need to catch designers at the height of their creative powers."

Tracey Tolkien, owner of London's venerable vintage emporium Steinberg & Tolkien and author of Vintage: The Art of Dressing Up, says "There are Ossies and there are OSSIES! Anything labelled Ossie Clark for Radley dates from the years 1967-77 when Clark designed for this manufacturer who mass produced garments with some inevitable loss of quality and cut. The early handmade crepe and chiffon Ossies with Celia print are highly sought after."

Similarly, a designer like 1970s supernova Halston produced Halston II, III and IV diffusion lines decreasing in cost and finally licensed his name to low rent chain store JC Penny. It's the white label that simply says Halston in black that signifies his precious main line. The most collectable Halstons are the sequins, silk jerseys and Ultrasuedes made iconic by his most famous client Liza Minnelli. Similarly, it's the boucle suits from Chanel's comeback collections in the 1950s that realise the big bucks rather than the later interpretations by Chanel's current designer Karl Lagerfeld. Age can be immaterial. As Ms Taylor says: "Late 40s Balenciaga is worth less than pieces from 1963 when the designer reached his peak."

Investors who want to anticipate the market would be wise to do their homework. The Pucci print wedgie shoes featured on the cover are a clever bet because Pucci was the Prince of Print and the pattern on the shoes is unmistakable. Christian Lacroix is currently creative director for the house so these shoes count two legendary names. If Lacroix's tenure at Pucci proves to be brief the value will soar. "Lay pieces like this down like a fine wine," says Ms Taylor.

Of course, fashion that was costly in its time will accrue the most value. There are exceptions, like Vivienne Westwood's earliest punk pieces or Katharine Hamnett's 1980s political slogan Ts that have become symbols of their generation, but haute couture by the monsters of frock are the collector's Holy Grail.

Dior, Madame Vionnet and Chanel are the Degas, Renoir and Monet of the fashion world and collectors today are in the privileged position of being able to acquire masterpieces for under £1,000 just as collectors of Impressionism could at the turn of the last century.

FACT FILE COLLECTING COUTURE

IN

* 80s POWER DRESSING 80s broad shoulders and micro minis are too extreme for the buy-to-wear client and hasn't enjoyed a fashion revival so important haute couture pieces by Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana and Lagerfeld for Chanel are under priced and available.

* VIVIENNE WESTWOOD AT THE V&A Anticipate retrospectives like the current Ossie Clark at the V&A, upcoming Vivienne Westwood exhibition or Giorgio Armani at the Royal Academy. Museum endorsement equals flawless provenance.

* BACK BRITISH Always back British-based designers. The British fashion industry is a minnow compared to 7th Avenue, ergo the production runs of their main lines will be smaller and more rare. Buy the most expensive pieces you can afford from Roland Mouret, Matthew Williamson and Luella Bartley then put them away after a season's wear. The death of Sir Hardy Amies in 2003 will make he and his rival Norman Hartnell attractive. Vuitton and Galliano for Dior may be the most powerful labels.

* BOX-FRESH TRAINERS Box-fresh limited edition trainers, particularly from Nike, Adidas and Puma, have already topped $22,000 (for a pair of 80s Air Jordans) on the auction market.

OUT

* THIS SEASON'S HANDBAG Unless limited edition, it's going to be too ubiquitous. The Fendi Baguette has fallen out of favour but these precious pieces will be realizing prices like a vintage Hermes Kelly bag (about £3,000 for an 1980s Kelly), whereas Chanel's S/S 04 video cassette clutch will be dated come 2010.

* DORMANT FASHION HOUSES Dior's death in 1957 saw the label lose its lustre despite a brief moment with St Laurent. Before Tom Ford emerged as creative director for Gucci in 1995 the label was catwalk poison. Ford's exit from Gucci and YSL closes a relatively short epoch and will see his vintage prices boom.

* PAST MASTERS Fashion history has monsters of frock like Chanel, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga, Dior and Givenchy as the greats but look to their contemporaries Jeanne Lanvin, Lucien Lelong, Mainbocher, Jacques Fath, Pierre Balmain, Edward Molyneux Jacques Griffe and Jean Desses.

* PARIS HAUTE COUTURE SNOBS Hollywood, not Paris, led fashion during WW2 and its legends Adrian, Edith Head, Jean Louis, Irene and Travis Banton are as collectible as Dior or Balenciaga. So too are US couturiers Norman Norell and Pauline Trigere. The darling of New York fashion week Zac Posen is influenced by Adrian and his wear will be collectible even if his career is brief.

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