Photos: Jason Schmidt.
Hamish Bowles’s hands move like ballet dancers. His febrile fingers pirouette and twirl, jeté and pas de chat as he stands, still as a pin, barely breathing, his focus intent as he adjusts the billowing collar of an Yves Saint Laurent autumn/winter 1986 gold taffeta cape. He turns in his cobalt-blue suede Louboutin brogues, spinning his slender body an inch or two to the left, and gently running the tips of his fingers, nimble as Nijinsky, across the shoulders of a ruby velvet 1946 Balenciaga bolero. Then he lays it down, as gently as one would a newborn baby, into a garment box filled with tissue paper.
“I saw this jacket at a sale at Sadler’s Wells when I was just about 10,” says Hamish, who today is American Vogue’s international editor-at-large, a fashion historian, aesthete, journalist, curator, contributor to 18 fashion and style books, and global man-about-town. “Some well-heeled trustees had given clothes; Margot Fonteyn had donated a Balenciaga bolero jacket, like a toreador might wear, very Spanish. When they auctioned that, it went for £60. Of course I couldn’t buy it, and there were bitter tears of regret, because that was 120 weeks of pocket money that I hadn’t managed to save. Instead I bought a Balenciaga suit for 50 pence.”
Some 30 years later, Hamish – a lifelong fashion super-sleuth now in possession of one of the most revered collections of couture and fashion history – tracked down that very jacket. “I walked into a store in Los Angeles and there it was. It had lost its label, although you could see the long, narrow shadow of the Balenciaga label, like when you take a painting off wallpaper after years and there’s that ghostly silhouette. But, happily, the store hadn’t recognised it.”
Hamish and I are standing in the bosom of his collection, a windowless room in a vast, sleek art-storage facility called Uovo in Brooklyn where the majority of his collection lives, when it isn’t on loan to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, the Met or the Fashion Institute of Technology, among others – Hamish is a generous lender who has collaborated with all the great institutions. His two devoted research assistants, Molly and Jennifer, who work with him to maintain the archive, are puffing out sleeves with tulle, swelling skirts with yards of petticoat, bringing alive the contours of the dresses, their backs, waists, hips and busts, with gentle padding. Before us is 1926 Jeanne Lanvin, 1945 Madame Grès, 1948 Dior, 1951 Jacques Fath, 1967 Givenchy, 1969 Saint Laurent, 1981 Zandra Rhodes, and all these represent only a fraction of the 3,000-plus pieces he has been harvesting since the age of six. He recalls, “I had a red filing box, given to me by my father, in which I would keep the details of my jumble-shop finds on individual cards. I would write, ‘Ladies’ white satin evening slippers circa 1905, 50p, Bexhill-on-Sea jumble sale.’ I still have them!” Today, however, his items are recorded on computer spreadsheets, while the clothes themselves are kept in individual tissue-padded garment boxes in temperature-controlled environments. “Sometimes I wish I had pursued my stamp collection. It would have been a great deal easier to store,” he quips.
Hamish’s voice is gentle; it wouldn’t be out of place in a Thirties British film. As he twitches the tulle hem of a Pierre Balmain 1961 gown, he tells the tale of how it came to England for the “coming out” ball of the debutante Lady Lucinda Lambton, a little diminished. “Lucinda’s party was at Searcys, and Cecil Beaton did the décor. The dress, as it was originally designed, had real pheasant feathers running down it, but when it arrived at customs from Paris, it didn’t have the necessary paperwork for the feathers, so the whole Balmain atelier had to go to Le Havre and paint the feathers on to strips of velvet and re-embroider everything.” He pauses, before shuddering with delight. “Can you imagine?”
At first sight Hamish might appear aloof behind his square-framed Tom Ford glasses, but within moments his enthusiasm and quick sense of humour put you at ease. Tall and slim with immaculate posture, he has the perfect frame for his bespoke suit by Cifonelli with its famous flare through the shoulder. Anyone who knows anything about Hamish knows that lilac is his colour, so his pinstripe Charvet shirt is lilac, and his exquisite Wedgwood cufflinks are lilac. And, lilac, too is the face of his Rolex, while in his buttonhole sits a lilac Charvet silk rose. About him hovers the faint and deliciously powdery scent of the old-fashioned cologne Knize Ten. A question that trips from the lips of many Hamish observers is “Does he wear the clothes he collects?” Reader, he does not. I’m not saying that Hamish has never been spotted in a frock but, as he insists, “This passion has never been about putting the clothes on, although I know that everyone has a vision of me drifting around in a ballgown. It is an amusing fantasy, but not one I would ever realise. I’m too mindful of preserving the clothes.” Indeed he is. At one point during our Vogue shoot, the photographer suggests taking a dress outside to juxtapose its bygone splendour with the building’s modern façade. “I just can’t let the light on to anything,” groans Hamish, as if struck by a terrible malaise.
He speaks of his pieces as if they were characters in a novel: think Henry James or Truman Capote. He turns to a Galliano cotton dress with an asymmetric collar, which was from the designer’s first runway collection and for a while, he says, “belonged to a fierce girl who used to work the door at the infamous Cha Cha Club behind Heaven in the early Eighties.” She bought it directly from the designer, who was a regular there – and Hamish bought it from her. Then he shows me a black-and-white one-shouldered 1987 couture Valentino evening gown. “It belonged to the socialite Lily Safra,” he confides in a conspiratorial voice that wickedly chimes with the scandal that surrounded the mysterious death of Lily’s multi-billionaire husband Edmond*. “That took quite some sleuthing.” It is this segue from Galliano to Valentino, door-girl to society hostess, which is the egalitarian essence of Hamish, who is as comfortable in the demi-monde of a twilight world as he is in the most privileged of salons.
“Years ago, I bought a slew of really interesting things at an auction in New York that had come in anonymously for sale,” he tells me. “They had great verve and obviously all belonged to the same person. They were mainly by Mainbocher, an American couturier I was particularly interested in, whose clothes can be ladylike, to a degree – occasionally they have some real presence, but they always have great elegance, and are undersung. I knew then that someone significant must have owned these clothes. Later I found a tiny picture of Gloria Vanderbilt wearing one of the suits. Then I traced it back, and I found all these pictures of her wearing the other things. So that was wildly exciting.”
Hamish does his detective work all over the world. He works closely with the houses and their archives, often spending days sifting through original design drawings. He mentions how the Saint Laurent Pierre Bergé Fondation has recently “been immensely helpful”. Not long ago, “I sent them images of all my Saint Laurent and also my Saint Laurent for Dior pieces. They are identifying the owners because each couture label has a number and through that they can identify the owner.”
If Hamish is in Paris for the shows, he’ll spend an extra day dropping in to museums, talking to curators, examining yet more records. Valerie Steele, fashion historian and director of the Fashion Institute of Technology, tells me from New York, “The depth of Hamish’s research is nothing short of astounding. He doesn’t just say, ‘Oh, that’s a lovely piece’; he wants to know everything about it. ‘When was it in the show?’ ‘Who wore it?’ ‘Who covered it in the press?’ ‘Who bought it?’ ‘Where might it have been worn?’ He knows more than most fashion historians and curators.”
As a result, he picks up clothes at auction that others might overlook. Steele remembers her 2013 collaboration with Bowles on the exhibition A Queer History of Fashion: from the Closet to the Catwalk. “He lent us such marvellous pieces from famous gay dandies that nobody else had thought to buy. I heard he was pulling all these pieces out and saying to his assistant, ‘Do you think this is gay enough for Valerie?’ Oh! They were!”
Although his knowledge of the history of fashion is staggering, Hamish’s collection is not just nostalgic; it is altogether personal, dictated by the path of his own life and interests. He has Eighties Galliano menswear stemming from his time at Saint Martin’s School of Art (as it was then) with the designer John Flett, too, and more from Bodymap and Antony Price. He recalls, “At a certain point, when I became a fashion editor, I realised I was in an unusual position because I had a lot of contemporary fashion accessible to me. I went to a Gucci press sale years ago where I was faffing around looking for a blazer and I realised there was a whole rack of Tom Ford runway pieces. And I thought, ‘This is insane that I’m not acquiring these,’ so I did. Now I have a lot of Ghesquière and Dries Van Noten, although he has also been exceptionally generous and gifted me amazing pieces from his collections.” He adds, “Sarah Burton has also given me extraordinary pieces by Alexander McQueen.” Currently on his hitlist is one of Christopher Kane’s “leafing through a book” dresses, with all those panels of organza sort of fluttering as it moves, because, as Bowles points out, “that idea is a technique that Jean Dessès used in the Fifties.” Born in London in 1963, where he lived until he was nine years old, Hamish has fond memories of the family neighbour Dr Ann Saunders, editor of the Costume Society, giving him V&A silhouettes of paper dolls from the 19th century, on to which he would pin crinolines. “There’s a famous family story that when I was five years old I ran into her house saying, ‘Is this the right way to wear a fontange?’” (A fontange, for the uninitiated, is a high headdress popular in the 17th century.)
When Hamish’s family moved to Kent, his mother, Ann, ran the smallholding on which the family lived; she also introduced her son to antique shops and photography. He and his younger sister, Sarah (now a university administrator, to whom he remains very close), went to the local grammar school. “Sarah hasn’t worn a dress since she was nine!” he laughs. “My fault, I’m sure. I had fond hopes that I would have my very own Baba and Nancy Beaton [the sisters of Cecil] rolled into one, but not a bit of it. So I had to look elsewhere for dress-up dolls. I’m sure that’s why I went into fashion.” Hamish would be the first to admit that neither of his parents shared his early fascination with clothes. “But there was no stopping me. Luckily they were extremely liberal, Sixties parents who were very excited by the idea of challenging gender norms. My father, having at first despaired of me ever playing football, was then totally supportive. We would all go to the ballet and theatre, which I adored, and is something we still do together.”
Another thing they would do together is shop. Hamish’s father, David, former vice-provost of University College London, recalls, “We would go to Hampstead to a posh charity shop when Hamish was about seven years old. I used to stand to one side because I always found it amusing to observe the scene. The assistant would come up and say, ‘Oh, hello, little boy, are you looking for something for your mum?’ and Hamish would say, ‘Actually, what caught my eye was that dress in the window. Can I have a look at it?’ She would say, ‘Yes, but be very careful.’ After studying it he’d ask, ‘Do you realise this is from the early period of Balenciaga?’ And I would see her mouth beginning to open and then he’d say, ‘What caught my eye was the stitching. That is always the giveaway!’”
By the age of 10 he had read Cecil Beaton’s The Glass of Fashion: Fifty Years of Dress and Décor and had discovered Vogue. He started to become excited by the idea of fashion. Bill Gibb, Thea Porter, Ossie Clark, Zandra Rhodes… “Fantasy time,” he recalls with a smile. Aged 14, he entered British Vogue’s annual talent competition, received an honourable mention, visited the editors in the London office, drank a glass of buck’s fizz and wrote about the experience for his school magazine.
When Hamish moved back to London with his mother (his parents divorced when he was nine), he attended a sixth-form college, which he found “distasteful”. He eschewed the idea of reading English at university and secretly compiled a portfolio that he submitted to Saint Martin’s; he was immediately accepted. It took the glaring talent of a fellow student, John Galliano, to make Hamish understand that his future wasn’t in design, and so he studied fashion journalism.
By day, he immersed himself in art school, and by night he revelled in the delights of the London club scene. “I ignored punk – it absolutely repelled me,” he chuckles. “And I avoided New Romantic. My look was more tweedy Brideshead Revisited meets Anthony Blunt, with an occasional cape.” While still at college he was recruited to edit a teen issue of Harpers & Queen magazine. Before long he was made London editor for Australian Harper’s Bazaar for whom he covered the international shows. He was 19.
Hamish was swiftly making himself known in the world of fashion, and the travel his work involved allowed him to feed his growing passion for collecting. From Portobello to Paris, Milan, Rome and New York, his remarkable eye uncovered many hidden treasures. “I remember one day in Paris I found this scrunched-up black chiffon dress on a stand, and I started to get the chills, and sure enough, I found a tape sewn into the hem. Written on it was ‘Lucky Mystère de New York’, and then the name of the atelier. Lucky, of course, was Christian Dior’s emblematic mannequin. And Mystère de New York was a really famous dress; it was the dress from the Y-line collection of 1955. The little vintage shop had no idea what it was! It was the runway dress model, complete with the stiletto-heel hole in it – she got dressed in a hurry. Paris is full of serendipities like that.”
After art school, Hamish became an editor at Harpers & Queen, working on the fashion pages with a talented young photographer, Mario Testino. Both of them were newly exposed to, and captivated by, the glamour of “society” and the elegance of the worlds created by photographers such as Beaton and Parkinson. “He was a romantic eccentric,” says Testino. “We hit it off immediately. One of our many collaborations was a fashion story shot on a train filled with socialites. It became known as ‘Murder on the American Express’, because we spent so much money.” Beguiled by the same sort of glamour, “we were endlessly turning the very natural and beautiful model Cecilia Chancellor into Lady Diana Cooper!” hoots Hamish at the memory. Testino continues, “What is amazing about Hamish is that even though he is very clear of what he likes and who he is, his curiosity just doesn’t leave him in peace.”
By the time he arrived in New York to work for Anna Wintour in 1992, Hamish was firmly ensconced in the heart of the “shiny set” he had so admired. Nan Kempner, Anne Bass, Lynn Wyatt – he knew more about the history of their houses, their furniture and their gowns than most of them did, and they adored him for it. There is not a duchess, diva or designer that Hamish has not written about, photographed, partied or holidayed with. “I’m never not American Vogue,” says Hamish quietly. His friend Janet de Botton, the art collector and philanthropist, reports that he is also never not a delight. “When he comes to stay with me in Provence [Hamish photographed her French home for his coffee-table book Vogue Living], we play cards and watch films.
My grandchildren adore him. He knows how to be cosy. When he comes to stay for Christmas, we often hold off decorating the tree. We know he likes to swish in at the last minute and do the finishing touches.” A social asset with the lightest touch, whether escorting Sarah Jessica Parker to the Met Ball or working a dance routine in white tie and tails with Lena Dunham while teaching her to “Vogue”, he has kept his finger firmly on the pulse of contemporary culture. Just following his hectic schedule on Instagram is enough to make one feel faint.
Hamish lives alone in a what he describes as a “Proustian-looking”, intensely decorated apartment near University Place, where, he admits, like a true New Yorker, he has rarely eaten a meal, although he does host regular rounds of bridge. The walls, faux arches and trompe-l’oeil ceilings were constructed for him by Studio Peregalli, a design duo who were pupils of the great architect, interior and production designer Renzo Mongiardino, who was decorator to Rudolf Nureyev, Gianni and Marella Agnelli and Lee Radziwill. In the drawing room a freestanding bookshelf is host to his collection of first editions by Cecil Beaton, still immaculate in their dust jackets. Above them, on the top shelf, sits a pale pink silk coathanger belonging to Jackie Kennedy, which once hung in the White House. To call the apartment cluttered might be an understatement.
On a recent trip to London, Hamish watched the acclaimed production of People, Places and Things, a play about addiction. “It really resonated for me,” he says, standing looking at his dresses as they are wheeled away on trolleys back to the storerooms, like a parent reluctantly watching his children returning to school. “Things are coming in all the time, I’m always battling through Fed Ex boxes when I enter my apartment, or when I come back from a trip. Now people contact me with things – and don’t even get me started on how my habit has escalated with the internet. Although many designers are generous and donate, the rest has been entirely self-funded. It is safe to say I’m collecting beyond my means.”
I wonder what will happen to these wonderful clothes. The days of the grand balls are over; the generation he so admired is no longer. But Hamish is an optimist, and far from being stuck in the past, he is always looking towards the future. “Well, it’s certainly not the world it once was,” he admits. “But fashion is endlessly exciting. It will always move forward while looking back.” Valentino Garavani remembers how Hamish appeared in the film documentary Valentino: the Last Emperor: “You can see him rubbing his hands in glee at the thought of a thousand dresses.” Hamish must eventually decide where his collection will land for posterity, and many hands are clamouring for it, although one would assume the obvious goal would be the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the care of his friend Andrew Bolton. One doesn’t discuss anything as vulgar as money with Hamish, but a collection like this is of tremendous value, and the right deal could see him living in lilac luxury.
One thing remains certain. If you should see a pair of tailored legs and two red soles popping through the folds of a diaphanous gown at a vintage fair, stand well back. As Hamish is the first to admit, “I would counsel you not to engage me in conversation because you’ll be steamrollered out of the way. I’ve found a tremendous amount of things looking up old ladies’ skirts.”