A vintage passion

On the evening of 9th November 1985, Princess Diana had a short impromptu dance with John Travolta during a gala dinner at the White House. It was an unforgettable moment for royal watchers. Diana was looking fabulous in a sleek midnight-blue silk velvet evening dress by British designer Victor Edelstein. On March 19 that gown will be auctioned in the London saleroom of Kerry Taylor Auctions. The estimate for the dress is £200,000 to £300,000.

One of the leading sellers of vintage fashions in the world, Kerry Taylor has an impressive track record with Diana’s dresses. In June 2010 she sold the black strapless evening dress that the then-Lady Diana Spencer wore on 9th March 1981 on her first official engagement after the announcement of her betrothal to Prince Charles. Designed by the Emanuels, who later created her wedding dress, it sold to a costume museum in Chile for £192,000.

The Duchess of Cambridge is proving to be just as collectible as Diana. At a Kerry Taylor sale last year two hats that Kate Middleton had worn just once — she had hired them, not even owned them — sold for an incredible £3,120 and £3,600 respectively. “We would have got more, but we couldn’t get the telephone line open to a keen buyer overseas,” says Taylor ruefully.

In March 2011 she brought the hammer down on the skimpy see-through lace dress by little-known designer Charlotte Todd worn by Kate at a student fashion show at St Andrews University — allegedly the occasion when she first caught the eye of Prince William. The price was £78,000.

The buyer was not an ardent royalist, but rather a smart property developer who saw his purchase — £65,000 plus 20% buyer’s premium -as a shrewd investment. Taylor recalls: “He said to me afterwards, ‘This woman is going to be Queen of England one day. How much will it be worth then?’

“Alongside celebrity items, haute couture is really affordable at auction and another shrewd investment. In 1993, while working at Sotheby’s,

I sold an Yves Saint Laurent dress from his 1965 ‘Mondrian’ collection for £2,000. In 2011 I sold the same garment for £28,000.»

Financial investors are just one of the groups that find the lots at the Kerry Taylor Auctions saleroom in Bermondsey, London, interesting. Fashion collectors are as varied as watch collectors. Her other major purchasers are: costume museums («There are fewer than a dozen around the world that can afford the top prices, but there are lots that buy less expensive examples»); dealers («There are a lot in LA, for example, selling vintage fashion to the Hollywood set»); important private collectors («There are about half a dozen serious collectors willing to spend six-figure sums»); fashion houses («They usually are trying to build up the archive of their own products»); fashion designers («They buy for inspiration»); little collectors («People specialise in all sorts of niches, like lace, buttons, quilts,..»); and people who just like vintage fashion and buy-to-wear («If they look after them, they can re-sell them later»).

Taylor’s global network of contacts has been built up over a 30-year career in auctioneering. Brought up in rural north Wales, she took a temporary job as a receptionist at Sotheby’s in Chester in 1979, aged 19. There she found her metier and so began a rapid rise to prominence. «I worked harder and longer hours than anyone else and I became one of the youngest auctioneers in Sotheby’s history at the age of 21,» she says. A move to Sotheby’s New Bond Street was inevitable and in her mid-20s Taylor re-established the costume and textile sales there. By the age of 30 she was director in charge of all collectors’ areas — In fewer than 20 years, the value of this YSL ‘Mondrian’ dress increased 14-fold

‘Mondrian’ collection for £2,000. In 2011 I sold the same garment for £28,000.»

Financial investors are just one of the groups that find the lots at the Kerry Taylor Auctions saleroom in Bermondsey, London, interesting. Fashion collectors are as varied as watch collectors. Her other major purchasers are: costume museums («There are fewer than a dozen around the world that can afford the top prices, but there are lots that buy less expensive examples»); dealers («There are a lot in LA, for example, selling vintage fashion to the Hollywood set»); important private collectors («There are about half a dozen serious collectors willing to spend six-figure sums»); fashion houses («They usually are trying to build up the archive of their own products»); fashion designers («They buy for inspiration»); little collectors («People specialise in all sorts of niches, like lace, buttons, quilts,..»); and people who just like vintage fashion and buy-to-wear («If they look after them, they can re-sell them later»).

Taylor’s global network of contacts has been built up over a 30-year career in auctioneering. Brought up in rural north Wales, she took a temporary job as a receptionist at Sotheby’s in Chester in 1979, aged 19. There she found her metier and so began a rapid rise to prominence. «I worked harder and longer hours than anyone else and I became one of the youngest auctioneers in Sotheby’s history at the age of 21,» she says. A move to Sotheby’s New Bond Street was inevitable and in her mid-20s Taylor re-established the costume and textile sales there. By the age of 30 she was director in charge of all collectors’ areas — such as sport, rock ‘n’ roll, fashion, special theme sales and celebrity sales.

She left Sotheby’s in 2003 to set up her own auction business specialising in her first love, costume and textiles. «I am interested in fashion as applied art, in the art of dressmaking itself, if you like,» she explains.

«I am not a collector of vintage fashion myself, partly because I just am not acquisitive and partly because I do not want any conflict of interest. It is enough for me that I get the chance to handle these beautiful clothes.»

The highlights of her auction schedule are her twice-yearly Passion for Fashion sales, which typically offer around 300 lots of the finest examples of collectible textiles and fashion. These are augmented by at least two «general sales», that offer items that are less expensive, but still of high standard. Then there are special sales, such as the March one this year with just 10 dresses worn by Princess Diana, or the sale in April of the clothes, accessories and watches of a single private owner.

Setting the rarefied pieces to one side, Taylor stresses that it is easy for anyone interested in fashion to buy from her. «If you buy from an auction, vintage is affordable. It is fantastic quality compared to the rubbish that is sold in shops today. It’s unique. Lots of people buy clothes from me to wear them. For example, in the shops now a modern dress with the Pucci label will cost maybe upwards of £1,000, but someone might be able to buy one from me that was made in the 1960s, when Emilio Pucci himself still ran the business, for maybe £200. They can wear it, enjoy it and probably resell it for more than they paid for it.»

Although the great majority of what she sells is womenswear, menswear is «very strong in the saleroom» at present.

«Anything eye-catching and strongly designed is in demand,» says Taylor. «Museums are looking for good 1960s menswear from Carnaby Street and boutiques of the era like Granny Takes A Trip, Blades, Mr Fish, Mr Freedom,

Tommy Nutter.»

Unlike the best womenswear, which is hand-made haute couture, fashion menswear tends to be ready-to-wear. «I recently sold a coat by John Stephen, the founder of Carnaby Street, for £1,500. I can only describe the fabric as curtain material.»

Sober and respectable nineteenth-century menswear is also in demand, simply because so little of it has been preserved. The oldest garment Taylor ever sold was a somewhat different example of menswear -a velvet doublet, or jacket, from 1573 with slashed sleeves that revealed the cloth beneath. A private collector bought it for £200,000, not in an auction, but with Taylor acting as a sales agent for a client.

Such is her reputation, other auction houses like Sotheby’s and Bonhams now refer clients with textiles and costume to sell to Kerry Taylor Auctions. Its reputation has been built by being honest, honourable and by trading in only a certain level of quality. «Just because something is old, doesn’t make it interesting,» Taylor passionately insists. «There is a lot of rubbish spoken about vintage fashion and there is a lot of tat that is called vintage. Do we really want to see anything else in Crimplene? Rarity or uniqueness in itself is not an asset. If it is so rare and specialised that no one wants it, so what? What I need is something really rare that everyone wants, like a Madeleine Vionnet dress from the 1920s, early Chanel pieces, something from Yves Saint Laurent’s Pop-Art collection of 1966 or his African collection from 1967. People expect me to offer the creme-de-la-creme.»

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