Collecting designer fashion is a quiet market racking up thousands of pounds at auctions. Investment in a designer or a decade is like collecting art and goes hand in hand with the trend for vintage. Aesthetics aside, there is big money to be made in collecting couture.
- What to collect?
- How much could you make
- Where to start collecting
- Accessories and leather goods
- Caring for Vintage
- How to sell your couture collection
The average couture collectors club today is mostly made up of socialites or fashion magazine editors. Luxury items are easily accessible to the affluent and couture clients can get their manicured hands on pieces easily. But how can the Average Jo start collecting couture?
Most collectors start by collecting a favourite designer or to collect by decade. You have two main choices:
- Either you collect what is already vintage
- Or you try to get your hands on new pieces that will become vintage.
If you want to check that a designer name really is a designer name, you can look them up. Fashion houses must belong to the Chambre de Commerce et D’Industrie de Paris (French Federation of Fashion). The biggest names in the fashion world are listed here as members and are considered high end couturiers. You can check for a list of grand couturiers and it give you an idea of names to look out for.
Really vintage couture is highly sought after because they are names that are no longer in production today, such as Madeleine Vionnet, Paul Poiret, Elsa Schiaparelli, Mariano Fortune, Charles Worth, Norman Hartnell and even Biba. In their time these names were the crème de la crème of high fashion and are highly coveted today. Equally desirable are pieces from the original designers of houses that exist today, such as Coco Chanel, Cristobel Balenciaga and Christian Dior.
Items that are produced in limited quantities and are in good condition will hold or increase their value. Smaller sizes are more valuable than larger sizes, as museums (who buy from auction houses) prefer smaller sizes.
Of its time
Dig around fashion archives to understand what was sought after and trendy for a decade or a trademark of a specific designer. High street trends are almost always copied straight off the catwalk. For example the Herve Leger bandage dress from his Autumn Winter 2008 collection sparked off a nationwide trend for body-con dresses. The high street picked up on the demand and body-con’s were the most popular trend in the last couple of years.
Fashion history is worth reading up on to see what trends were popular and researching which fashion house inspired it. Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and Roland Mouret have lead the run way with innovative pieces. Choose strategically and target pieces that made an impact.
Historical context adds value to an item. The internet has great research advantages. Ask yourself if the item appeared on the front of a magazine or whether it was considered controversial or ground breaking for its time and for what reasons.
Avoid high street
Don’t waste time investing in collaborations with high street retailers. The most popular collaboration collections in the past few years have been Karl Lagerfeld for H&M, H! by Henry Holland for Debenhams and Zandra Rhodes for Marks and Spencer. High street designer collaborations have yet to become vintage or make an appearance at auction houses, but they are likely to only be worth no more than £100. Although the name will inspire, the quality is still high street.
Designer wardrobes are hot money. Unwanted couture pieces from the wardrobe of heiress and Alexander McQueen muse Daphne Guinness fetched at £60,000 at a charity auction in April 2008. In December 2009 Audrey Hepburn’s collection of Givenchy couture was auctioned at £270,000.
As a price guide I checked out online designer vintage goldmine Atelier-Meyer. An Ossie Clarke empire line silk chiffon dress from the 1970’s costs £4,022.55 and a Zandra Rhodes hand-embroidered silk chiffon dress also from the 1970’s is £3,327.66 (excluding VAT). These can only fetch for more in the future.
What makes these garments worth as much as a (small) car is the uniqueness that they were made in limited numbers and the manual work in making these by hand. The name doesn’t hurt either. The time that goes into making couture is why it is valuable when it’s first released and its price increases as they become pieces of cultural history. Check Vintage Academe’s online vintage couture shop to get an idea of prices. Even if a garment is not classic (meaning that it can be worn in any decade and not dated) and it is a signature of it’s decade (ie, a distinctly 1960’s piece) is still just as valuable for being an historical artefact and takes its place in costume history.
Auction houses in the key market cities are a good source for buying couture and where vintage dealers and costume museums source for stock. The big ones include Doyle in New York, Drouot in Paris, Leslie Hindman in Chicago, Julien’s in Los Angeles and Kerry Taylor in London. Auction results provide a guide for valuing couture. A black Givenchy dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961) sold for a whopping £467, 200 at Christie’s in London in December 2006. Cultural history bumped up the price; there is a lot of history behind the dress and it was made specifically for Audrey by Monsieur Givenchy. It sold slightly lower than its estimate price but that’s still a lot of dosh. Ok, so realistically you may never have a dress once worn by a famous movie star but there is still big money to be made.
Sample sales are a brilliant way to pick up discounted stock. I subscribe to Daily Candy to receive daily emails about the latest that’s hip and happening in London, and every now and again I get one listing all the sample sales taking place at the weekend. What entices me are the discounts: up to 30% or 70% off. A sample sale is when a fashion house or designer has unwanted stock from a previous season that needs to be shifted. Sample sales have a reputation for being kept hush hush but with their increasing popularity and dependability during the recession, sample sales are now easy to find online. Time Out lists the latest sample sales and a general Google search will return some positive finds or try Designer Sales which runs in London and Brighton.
There are warehouse style “shops” and Time Out and The Independent rate Designer Warehouse Sales (5-6 Islington Studios, Thane Works, Thane Villas N7 7NU) in Islington as one of the best venues to pick up a designer bargain, boasting discounts starting at 60% off and with a stock list of labels to rival Selfridges. Big name designer stores have sister shops for discounted out of season stock, such as Browns (Browns Labels For Less, 50 South Molton Street W1K 5QQ) and online retails Net-A-Porter. And if you like your Burberry, there’s an outlet in Hackney (29-31 Chatham Place E9 6LP).
The trend for vintage designer fashion shopping has become enormous in the last few years and it’s now more fashionable than ever to dress like your granny. Anything pre the 1920’s is considered antique and anything between the 1920’s and 1980’s qualifies as vintage. Sometimes, vintage shops hold hidden treasure: couture! Retro Woman (20 Pembridge Road W11 3HL) in Notting Hill has eye boggling stock, from John Galliano shoes to Diane Von Furstenberg jackets. I enquired with the staff how they acquire their stock and was surprised to learn that it’s simply donated in exchange for coupons. What is astounding is that the designer clobber is in relatively mint condition and sometimes even unworn and sells for under £200, when I’m sure that these could go for a lot more on eBay, even thousands. Not a bad start to begin a couture collection.
London hosts major vintage fashion events and there are frequently vintage fairs held around town. Attracting fashion insiders from all over the world is the London Vintage Fashion, Textiles and Accessories Fair in Hammersmith which is one of the biggest trade fairs.
It’s worth rummaging through vintage markets for designer gear, such as Portobello Market W11, Camden Market NW1, Bermondsey Market SE1 or Camden Passage in Islington N1. Brick Lane in London’s East End has vintage shops and Beyond Retro (110-112 Cheshire Street E2 6EJ) is worth a rummage for designer finds.
Internet shopping is a great way to get your hands on collectable couture, especially from across the Atlantic and vintage couture dealers are easy to find online. eBay is easily the preferable choice for most as it reaches the masses but how do you know what’s real and what’s fake?
Fake designer goods are illegal and it is illegal to purchase them too. This is the problem with eBay, that you have to take the sellers word that it is genuine and there are a lot of counterfeit goods out there. Log on to MyPoupette which is a website devoted to the issue of fake goods and can offer advise if you believe your item may be a fake.
Another area of couture that is increasing in value (and often easier to store and keep in good condition) is accessories.
In May 2004 a Louis Vuitton trunk belonging to Katherine Hepburn sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $4,500. This is another example of cultural history and celeb status influencing value. Vintage handbags are expensive because of the leather used. Crocodile, ostrich, alligator and lizard. Names to look out for are Vuitton, Channel and Hermes. Be aware that it’s not just any bag from these designers. Kerry Taylor Auctions sold an Hermes Kelly bag for £4,693 in December 2004. Specific styles are collectables: the Vuitton Speedy bag, the 2.55 Quilted Classic Channel bag which debuted in 1955 and for Hermes, the Birkin of 1984 and the Kelly are the most valuable. Portobello Road is a hot spot for vintage designer hand bags. It-bags are worth investing in as they usually have cultural significance such as being designed specifically for someone (Mr Hermes designed the Birkin for actress Jane Birkin).
It’s not the label name that amounts to the price; it’s the Birkins hand-made qualities, its occasional diamond pad locks with its own key, limited production and exotic leathers. One Birkin could be made from ostrich and another from crocodile. It takes 48 hours to make a Birkin by hand and a price quote varies depending on size and skin.
The high price tag means that the bag is reserved for the rich and famous. But even Red Carpet A-listers have to join a waiting list of several years to get their hands on one. In 2007 the Birkin topped the list of the Most Extravagant Handbags release by Forbes Magazine. There’s a rumour that Victoria Beckham owns over a hundred Birkins! Christie’s held an auction in November 2009 for Vintage and Modern Jewels at South Kensington, Including Find Hermes Handbags. The top three lots were Birkin bags. The highest was a 2004 black crocodile Birkin, estimated between £30,000 and £50,000 and sold for £49,250. The lesser of the top three was a 2007 fuchsia crocodile Birkin, estimated between £20,000 and £22,000 and sold for £37,250. You can pick your jaw up off the floor now.
Birkin bag reseller and Huffington Post columnist, Michael Tonello, published his memoirs on how he began the Birkin journey. Tonello’s memoirs, Bringing Home The Birkin (2008), tracks the journey to get a Birkin on demand. Considering that the exclusivity of the bags means you have to be on a waiting list, requests were put forward to Tonello from the rich and famous to provide same day Birkins. And he did it! On a Europe-trotting one day time scale reliant on the gift of the gab, Tonello still managed the impossible and intimidated that infamous waiting list. And the idea came to sell Birkins on eBay to pay his rent in Barcelona. His secret was to go to a Hermes boutique and act ready to buy jewellery and accessories and ask for a Birkin last, which would be produced, presumably from a back store room. Waiting list, ay?
If you don’t have the courage or the cash to strut into a Birkin boutique in Paris and pretend to be a regular like Tonello, there’s always eBay. Six out of the top ten most expensive fashion-related items sold on eBay in the last year were Hermes Birkin bags. However, you have to be very careful with eBay. There are currently around 300 Birkins being sold on eBay, from $3,000 to $125, 000 and all claiming to be authentic.
There are a lot of knock off designer hand bags out there. The Chloe Paddington bag was subjected to major plastic and faux leather versions sold on street markets. Quality will set a real Birkin apart from a counterfeit one. An authentic Birkin will have a matching code engraved to the key and lock and the bag will come with an orange dust bag and there will be a smaller dust bag for the pad lock and key.
If real Birkins cost so much to buy second hand on eBay, how can I make an investment, I hear you ask. In February 2008 Hermes increased the price of Birkins to reserve their exclusivity. The price jump increased the value of older Birkins, too. Tonello has made a business out of selling Birkins, earning thousands from the reseller price so if you are careful, do your research and invest in really good items you should make money later on.
Designer silk scarves are big bucks too. They are harder to find and will generally mean that you will need to rummage through scarf boxes in vintage shops for a designer label. Hermes silk scarves are collectables but again, watch out for fakes.
You can even make money from couture and fashion memorabilia if it is classy enough. An old copy of Vogue magazine can sell for around £10 on eBay and in vintage shops. Save all your old copies before you send them to the recycling bin.
The price seems minimal compared to the couture prices that have already had your eyes popping out of your head but if you’re a monthly reader of Vogue it’s worth starting a collection of copies and a years worth of editions can amount to around £120. Vogue is one of the biggest-selling fashion magazines in the world and its influence in the fashion world in unshakable.
Another advantage of buying and selling magazines is that vintage copies of Vogue are something you can purchase from eBay without the worry of fakes and they can sell for as little as 99p or £10, depending on the age of the magazine. Magazine memorabilia can also be purchased from Vin Mag, whose vast stock also includes Vogue. The price of a copy of Vogue is determined by its age; a Vogue from the 1960’s sells for £40, from the 1950’s is £50 and between the 1930’s and 1940’s a copy can go for as much as £200, though you can get one on eBay for a lot less.
As a serious collector, you want to archive your collection. Don’t make any changes to garments and hand washing items is highly recommended. For any seriously bedraggled repairs, contact textile conservationist Janie Lightfoot.
If your garment has stood the test of time, it will increase its value. You can wear it because it needs to prove it can resist the effects of wear and tear. Insurance is also something to consider.
So now that you’ve got your swag, what should you do with it?
Now may be the time to sell it or it may be best to wait as fashions change and your items become even more vintage. It’s a good idea to get your stuff valued if you want to sell it. Valuations are free with Kerry Taylor Auctions in London although they are by appointment only and you must take the garment along with you.
It’s tempting to try to sell something on eBay for a higher price than you paid as soon as you get it home. The Fashion-Era website gives tips on how to present vintage for sale online so that you can get the best price. I’ve thrown you around a bit between vintage and buying current trends at sample sales. Vintage is worth more, so the trick is to know when to sell today’s pieces, which will be after it’s around twenty years old.
Internet buyers are likely to be looking for a bargain to add to their collection too, so you wouldn’t get the best price for it there. You’re better off taking it to auction such as Kerry Taylor Auctions in London who provide to Sotheby’s. If it’s a really good item or collection try Christies too. Auction bidders will be serious collectors with big dosh to compete with each other and museums source for clothes at auctions. Museums like the Victoria and Albert and the Fashion and Textile Museum, acquire their collections from donations or auction houses. Museums have larger budgets than serious collectors at auctions and will bid high if a piece is worth it.
We’ve covered what couture is, what to collect, where to get it from and what to do with it. One important point to remember, though, is if you want to make money on these clothes you either need to wear them very carefully or not at all. If you’re a shopaholic or someone who just can’t resist the luxe of expensive clothes, you can turn it into an investment. It’s easy to get carried away and start buying anything you can get your mits on and wearing it on a night out. Remember that you want to earn back from it, so set a budget, choose wisely, look after it, and your wardrobe will be paying you back.