Pierre Balmain sequined tulle ball gown with painted velvet pheasant feathers, Spring/Summer 1961. Photo: Fiona Golfar.
Imagine my excitement earlier this summer when British Vogue’s Fiona Golfar came calling to do a story on my collection of fashion!
I have been amassing examples of fashion history since I was a little boy, when my pocket money of 50 pence a week (about 75 cents) could just about get me little Victorian purses and scraps of lace—if I really saved up. In my tweens I was seduced by the fantasy fashion images in British Vogue (which, as I later came to understand, were often created in collaboration with the unsurpassable Grace Coddington), and thence I started collecting the work of couture and fashion designers, from Charles Frederick Worth to the ever-changing present day. As a fashion student at Central Saint Martins I traveled to New York for the first time in the mid-1980s and was deeply inspired by the collection at FIT, then in the capable hands of Richard Martin and Harold Koda—I couldn’t believe what an incredible and rich resource it was for fashion and costume history students and designers. This visit gave me the courage to renew collecting with even more vigor and enthusiasm (though hardly greater financial resources). Today, some 40 years after I found my first Cristóbal Balenciaga at a rummage sale, I have amassed some 4,000 garments and accessories, which lurk in sundry storage facilities around New York City.
The initial directive of British Vogue’s portrait of me was “only ten dresses,” which for me would be like having to choose between your children. Faced with this cruelly Solomonic choice, I more or less ignored it and just delved into some of the more accessible acid-free boxes, creating a snowstorm of acid-free tissue paper while unearthing one or two treasures from their cushiony depths.
By the end of June, aided and abetted by the collection’s curatorial associates Molly Sorkin and Jennifer Park, we had assembled the eclectic selection. The girls set to work, along with dresser Tae Smith, manically steaming and fluffing and padding up the mannequins to sultry mid-century hourglass dimensions or padding them down flat for 1920s garçonne-line Chanels. Some of the transformations were incredible—faintly woebegone 1950 Christian Dior and Jacques Fath and Pierre Balmain ball gowns now looked ready to spin onto a dance floor for the first waltz, while Halston’s Fall/Winter 1980 “Fireworks” dress and a golden lamé Zandra Rhodes were all set for Studio 54.
Of course, all I could think of were the pieces that weren’t there. “What about the final collection McQueen?” I wailed, as stiff tulle and crin support petticoats were being stitched to reinforce vast skirts, and stubborn creases were being smoothed to buttery perfection. “The 1952 ‘Lampshade’ Charles James? . . . the 1922 Lucile? . . . the inky tulle 1937 Molyneux? . . . An early 1890s Charles Frederick Worth?” My protests fell on stony ground: With frocks still to be fluffed, there was no more time to dig deep into the boxes—although an elusive 1953 Dior bodice did see me scrambling up sky-high Metro Shelving units like a Navy SEAL on an obstacle course.
As I’m always curating exhibitions in my head, it was genuinely exciting to see these pieces come to life—I don’t often get to play with them. Here was the 1926 Chanel that had passed unnoticed through an auction room; the 1987 Dior from Marc Bohan’s 40th anniversary collection for the house, which I remembered seeing spinning down the runway and recently discovered dangling from a walkway at the Paris puces as I raced to the market between shows. Or the amazing purple gazar Givenchy that Francisco Costa so kindly gave me, along with its underdress (which was the part of the ensemble that really turned Narciso Rodriguez on when he came to look at some of my pieces); a Balmain jacket that I recently found in Italy and recognized from a marvelous René Gruau illustration of it; the unlabeled cherry red ball gown with the embroidery I knew was by the great Rébé (the Lesage of the 1940s). The construction and make and sheer pizzazz of it gave me such a tingle that I bought it for a song in a French auction house, though the wonderful archivists at Christian Dior have very recently identified it as a masterpiece from the designer’s Fall 1950 collection and sent me Dior’s original sketch—with the exact color fabric samples attached—to prove it.
The thrill of all this was only surpassed when I received British Vogue’s October issue with the cover line: THE GREATEST FASHION COLLECTOR IN THE WORLD—and then opened the issue to discover eight pages, an intensely researched (and very touching) story by Fiona, and Jason Schmidt’s scintillating photographs. You’ll have to buy the issue to read the story, but here are some behind-the-scenes moments to whet your appetites . . .
Yours truly examines the three layers of duchess satin petticoats in Valentino’s haute couture gown of Fall/Winter 1987. The petticoats pick out the colors in the draped chiffon “zebra” bodice. Photo: Fiona Golfar.
Jeanne Lanvin black taffeta robe de style, Fall/Winter 1926 (left) and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel beaded georgette evening dress, Spring/Summer 1926 (right). Photo: Jennifer Y. Park.
Yours truly with Yves Saint Laurent’s haute couture Chinese yellow silk faille opera coat, Fall/Winter 1983. Photo: Jennifer Y. Park.
Yours truly flanked by a Cristóbal Balenciaga black lace and ivory organdy evening dress, Spring/Summer 1962, and a Valentino couture evening dress, Fall/Winter 1987. Far right: John Galliano’s wool dress with vulture print by Luiven Rivas-Sanchez from his Ludic Game collection, Fall/Winter 1985. In the foreground, a Cristóbal Balenciaga daisy-embroidered bolero, Spring/Summer 1946. Photo: Jennifer Y. Park.
From left: Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel haute couture tunic, embroidered by Lesage, Fall/Winter 1996. Elsa Schiaparelli jet-embroidered crepe bolero in “Sleeping Blue,” Spring/Summer 1940. In the foreground, gold embroidered black crepe bolero by Mainbocher, c. 1945. Black embroidered ruby velvet bolero, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Fall/Winter 1946. Black embroidered blue linen jacket by Pierre Balmain, Spring/Summer 1946. Photo: Hamish Bowles.
Black faille zigzag evening dress, Christian Dior Spring/Summer 1948. Purple gazar trapeze evening gown, Hubert de Givenchy, Spring/Summer 1967. Photo: Jennifer Y. Park.
The mise en scène for photographer Jason Schmidt, with a 1945 jersey dress by Madame Gres (far right). Photo: Hamish Bowles.
Left: Pierre Balmain sequined tulle ball gown with painted velvet pheasant feathers, Spring/Summer 1961. Christian Dior’s “Oceanie” cherry red tulle and satin evening gown, embroidered by Rébé, Fall/Winter 1950. Photo: Hamish Bowles.
Back view of an Hubert de Givenchy embroidered deep pink faille evening dress, Spring/Summer 1964. Photo: Hamish Bowles.
Daisy embroidered black faille bolero, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Spring/Summer 1946. Photo: Hamish Bowles.
The scene in the staging room; clothes waiting to be dressed. Far left, hot pink taffeta and black lace evening dress by Marc Bohan for Christian Dior, Spring/Summer 1987, next to Halston’s 1983 Firework embroidered dress. Photo: Hamish Bowles.
Valentino rhodoïd embroidered orange organdy evening gown, c. 1967. Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel haute couture tunic, embroidered by Lesage, Fall/Winter 1996. Zandra Rhodes gold lamé evening gown and bodice, “Elizabethan” collection, Fall/Winter 1981. Photo: Hamish Bowles.
Jacques Fath black organdy evening blouse and green faille skirt with black satin ribbon appliqué, Fall/Winter 1951, and John Galliano’s pale green crepe dress with re-embroidered cherries on a print by Luiven Rivas-Sanchez. Photo: Hamish Bowles.
Yours truly on set. The ivory faille ball gown with pink tulle embroidery is Jacques Fath, Spring/Summer 1951. Photo: Jennifer Y. Park.