HIDEBOUND as we are today by corporate job-titles - president of this, editor-in-chief of that - it is difficult to label 'Vern' 's role in the fashion industry. He was an amateur fashion historian, but, amateur not in the pejorative sense but in the classical one; one who loved his subject, wore it lightly and shared it munificently.
He was an antique-clothes dealer, a writer (a columnist for L'Uomo Vogue) and a mentor to designers of all statures, from Manolo Blahnik and Karl Lagerfeld to the young eager students of fashion that he taught at the Domus Academy in Milan. But above all, in the egotistical and frantic world of high fashion, he was one of its few remaining gentlemen - a disposition that came from his heart and not his head.
Born in Melbourne, Vern arrived in London in the Sixties and opened one of the first antique- clothing stores in the Chelsea Antiques Market. By night he worked as head waiter at 'Parks' restaurant in Beauchamp Place, a playful venue for the in-crowd. Here he displayed his wit, artistry and camaraderie to the fashionable who sat amidst his crazy floral arrangements, such as massive tree-branches in which ladies' back-combed and lacquered beehives would become entangled.
In 1967 he met Anna Piaggi, the doyenne of Italian fashion and at that time editor of Ariana magazine. Together, dawn after dawn, they would set off torch in hand to trawl the street markets of Bermondsey, Portobello Road and Petticoat Lane in search of the ephemera of fashion's past. This was not destined for some crusty museum but was worn by them to surprise, inspire and please passers-by: a Quant mini, worn with a Georgian waistcoat or a Boer War officer's jacket and a Victorian courtesan's feathered toque. Together they played a delightful dressing-up game that lasted over 25 years and was often more entertaining and original than the catwalk fashion shows we witnessed in all the fashion capitals of the world.
Opportunists were quick to avail themselves of Vern's original eye. He advised the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones on their images and constructed that bridge between the past and future fashion that epitomised the late Sixties.
Piaggi persuaded him to move to Milan in 1973, where he opened a gallery for antique clothing, aesthetic and Arts and Crafts furniture and objets d'art.
His incredible knowledge - he could spot a Dior or Lanvin Castillo across a room and date it - was mixed with a love for the frivolity and joy of the subject. Vern's appreciation was not dry but alive. Holding a dress up to the light, he would tell you when it was made, by whom and even when it was altered.
To Vern life was the joy of researching, seeing, making connections and sharing his passions. He became a close friend and inspiration to Karl Lagerfeld, who celebrated Vern's last birthday with him and Piaggi in Paris. They admired one another and shared a curiosity for fashion in its different guises. Vern had a sixth sense about what would happen next and chain together the passing epoques of dress.
Vern was a fantasist, but, unlike many puffed-up minxes and ferrets in the fashion world, he was always modest, generous and impeccably mannered. He had the knowledge of the old sage and the innocent enthusiasm of a boy who has just discovered the subject. He never ossified and proved that fashion was not only for the young: always the one to remember, praise, console, encourage, he would point out the good, never linger on the bad.
'What I will miss above all things,' says Anna Piaggi, 'which it will never be possible to capture again, is the way he made things magic. Through his eyes and spirit he gave life to things. Now I took at them and they have lost that magic. He made beautiful stories, he was artistic, passionate and entranced by life, in a simple, elemental way. He was full of a natural simple joy.'
The sartorial partnership with Anna Piaggi at every fashion venue will seem now seem truncated, incomplete - the ying without the yang.
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