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Collectors Meredith Etherington-Smith and Hamish Bowles explain couture as art

The market for haute couture comes of age

In 1964, when Meredith Etherington-Smith (editor of the Christie’s International Magazine and editor-at-large for Harpers & Queen) started buying second-hand couture, “there was absolutely no resale value”, she insists. “We bought them to wear and would never consider selling them on or forming a serious collection.”

Today Hamish Bowles (style editor of American Vogue) is putting together an important collection which currently includes over 1,000 pieces, ranging from Poiret to Courrèges. Each garment is meticulously wrapped in acid-free tissue, catalogued with the accompanying details of owner, venue where worn, and any information culled from contemporary fashion magazines to place it in its social and cultural context.

In just three decades period couture has mutated from dressing-up box tat to an eminently collectable minor decorative art. The shift is clearly reflected in the price demanded. Mrs Etherington-Smith spent £5 on her black sequinned slither made by Chanel in 1928 and wore it until it was bald. This year an important Charles James ball dress, worn by Mrs William “Babe” Paley, fetched $26,000 at auction at the William Doyle galleries in New York. Curators would throw their hands up in horror if such a piece were ever worn again.

The market in haute couture has matured due to a combination of factors: the sheer plethora of information in catalogues, monographs and biographies published over the past decade; the legacy of Diana Vreeland, and her successors Richard Martin and Harold Koda at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the scholarship of Valerie Mendes and colleagues at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London; and more recently, the founding of Azzedine Alaia’s museum in Marseilles and the dramatic purchasing programme of the Kyoto Costume Institute.

Amongst designers and customers there is a realisation that both the lifestyle and craftsmanship of haute couture has passed. In 1968 Balenciaga closed his house with the emphatic declaration that “the world that supported couture is dead”. The scurry for major pieces by Poiret, Chanel, Schiaparelli, Vionnet, Grès, Dior and Saint Laurent, has escalated as museums in each major city compete for the few remnants considered to be of museum quality. Museums have also observed that attendance figures for fashion exhibitions break records and so are keen to enhance their collections.

It is also no coincidence that as fashion has begun to consume its past body of work by recycling past styles, designers like Alaia, John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld have sought the originals from which to copy. Inevitably as modern designers copy, so the smart dressers like Tina Chow and Mrs Bryan Ferry don originals.

The gem of Etherington-Smith’s collection is a Chanel “Coromandel” dress from the 1926 collection. Inspired by the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Chinese lacquer screens which the couturier used to collect, it is cut from black “treebark” crêpe and sewn with dull glass beads depicting eastern dragons, clouds and flowers. Bought in the early seventies for a mere £25, she donated it to the Metropolitan Museum last year.

Mr Bowles boasts a crimson velvet cloak which Balenciaga made just before the war during his first two or three seasons in business in Paris. He found it in a second-hand clothes shop in Barcelona. “There’s something very Spanish and dramatic about both the colour and the silhouette—reminiscent of a Velazquez painting and a complete evocation of his style at that period”, says Bowles. Despite the sophisticated market, his best bargain was surprisingly recent: an eau de nil faille evening jacket, without a label, embroidered with strips of cellophane, silver tinsel and raw matt ivory silk. He paid $18, suspecting it might be a Schiaparelli, and was proved right after consultation with the master embroiderer in Paris, François Lesage, whose father worked with Schiaparelli and kept the records. It came from her famous 1936 cellophane collection. “That made it doubly exciting”, he enthuses, “one was going by instinct. It was the thrill of the sleuth”.

If old dresses are fetching serious prices, what, in these two collectors’ opinion is now worth collecting? After intense scrutiny of contemporary magazines, Mr Bowles opines that the lesser known names such as Maggy Rouff, Edward Molyneux, Griffe, Augusta Bernard and Louis Boulanger are the names that he is seeking.

Mrs Etherington-Smith, whilst admiring Mr Bowles’ detached scholarship, wants to continue wearing her couture finds. “As I am rather large the clothes that I buy are not the fancy dress robes de style, but those made for two private clients with a similar size—Princess Mdvani and the Duchess of Windsor’s friend Madame Bedeaux. They bought really correct clothes, not flashy numbers”. She considers that if one were starting a collection from scratch today the Twenties and Thirties couture is a mature market with prohibitive prices and so she would be looking for really grand 1950s gowns from Dior, Balmain (only in the Fifties) and Balenciaga “who was at his best”. Finding a Saint Laurent while he was at Dior in the late Fifties is also cheering.

An under-rated designer, trained by the maestro Balenciaga, who reads well now is Courrèges, especially items from his mid-Sixties heyday. Don’t forget the master cobbler Roger Vivier, but you’ll have to join the fray of Japanese who have a shoe, and particularly Vivier, fetish.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Collectors Meredith Etherington-Smith and Hamish Bowles'