Published in T Emirates: The New York Times Style Magazine (July 2013)
The Vintage Couture Bazaar
The appeal of vintage fashion lies in its heritage, rarity and ingenuity, while its exclusivity is guaranteed by a premium price point. T Emirates investigates the growing popularity of vintage fashion as an investment opportunity.
By Priyanka Pradhan
Is buying a 1940s vintage couture gown as solid an investment as purchasing a Matisse masterpiece?
Yes, if vintage couture experts are to be believed.
Seeing the demand and appreciation in value of vintage couture at high-profile global auction houses, more investors and fashion-conscious folks alike are trying it for size. According to research by online resource vintage textile, which aims to educate and inform enthusiasts, vintage clothing benefited investors more than any other collectible category in the period 1990-2012.
The source gives the example of a Chanel women’s suit from the 1960s, which went up from $805 (AED 2,957) to $3,220 (AED 11,827) in less than six years (quoted prices are actual realized prices at major auction houses). This works out as a 300 percent appreciation over 6 years, or 20 percent a year.
A more recent example is a Charles James evening dress that climbed from $29,900 (AED 109,826) to $49,450 (AED 181,635), yielding a 65 percent appreciation, in two years.
As in the case of art investment, the ingenuity and rarity of the collectible play a major role in determining the price tag attached to the item.
But more specifically for vintage couture, the designer, period, fashion house and story or narrative of the item are just as important.the iconic little black dress designed by Givenchy and worn by Audrey Hepburn in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s sold at Christie’s for $923,187 (AED 3,390,958) in 2006, while the estimated value was only between $98,800 (AED362,902) and $138,320 (AED 508,063).
Similarly, ‘The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor” in 2011, in the Christie’s “online-only” section, made a record $10 million (AED 36,731,000) in a series of
sales that made a total of $183.5 million (AED 673,995,473), showing the stellar demand for vintage fashion today.
According to Clare Borthwick, specialist at Christie’s vintage couture department, there’s growing mass appeal for vintage fashion, and the business is being fueled not only by seasoned connoisseurs and collectors but also by people influenced by Hollywood.
She says: “The wardrobes of film stars and generational legends often attract great attention at auction and command the highest prices due to their status as memorabilia rather than purely fashion pieces. We have, however, sold some memorable pieces of vintage fashion, including the personal collection of
Coco Chanel in 1974, as well as a 1966 YSL ‘Mondrian’ dress that fetched £30,000 (AED 163,961) and a 1939 velvet evening jacket by Schiaparelli that made £73,250 (AED 400,337) in our last vintage couture sale in 2012.”
Borthwick says they also see a lot of buyers from the Middle East, owing to significant interest in “modern vintage”, paying particular attention to luxury handbag auctions, specifically labels such as Hermès, Chanel and Louis Vuitton.
Apart from the high-profile auctions, vintage bazaars in discreet nooks and street corners of the world are also doing brisk business, but on a smaller scale.
Although the UAE is a bit behind the times, according to Dubai-based vintage boutique owner Maha Rasheed, the business is catching up, with increasing awareness of the nuances of vintage fashion in the region.
Rasheed, who runs Bambah Boutique and sources authentic vintage items from across the world from LA to Japan, says: “Perceptions are slowly changing, and
people are becoming more comfortable about wearing vintage and pre-owned items in the Middle East. If the items are impeccably restored, maintained and presented, one does not mind that the item is not brand new. Celebrities and movies have also made more people aware of vintage fashion, and there’s no taboo in buying worn pieces.”
She adds, “Even pre-owned or pre-loved items that are not vintage per se have a big market here in the Middle East, and I think it’s a good trend!”
One such “pre- owned” items’ fashion boutique owner, Dubai-based Micha Maatouk from Garderobe, says her customers are highly fashion-conscious, affluent, and know their vintage Birkins from their Kellys.
“While we do get a few good vintage pieces from 30 to 40 years ago,” she says, “we mostly deal with pre-owned luxury and designer items as young as 10-15 years. These are consumers who don’t like to be seen in the same designer dress, shoes or accessories more than once or twice and so sell their piece to us for half the price. We at Garderobe then split the profits with the consignee in a 50-50 agreement. So yes, they get to clear out their closet every season and get about half the price of the item back.”
Apart from the aesthetic value of the items and the history associated with them, the price of pre-owned fashion then becomes a key factor for her customers.
“The prices of these items could vary,” she says. “You could sometimes find a 30-year-old Valentino gown that originally cost easily more than AED 25,000 at less than 20 percent of the price now, but then you could also end up paying more than the original price of a designer vintage handbag that is not available any more, or has an endless wait-list at the brand’s store. I’d say the pre-owned market is increasingly becoming an important part of the vintage fashion movement.”
But because the authenticity of vintage items is difficult to assess, and they can sometimes be challenging to find or even uproariously expensive, “vintage-inspired” fashion and jewelry has come under the spotlight in a big way.
Inspired by the vintage era from the 1920s to the 1960s (by definition, items from before this period are considered “antique”, but the term “vintage” is being more loosely translated in today’s context), these fashion and jewelry pieces attempt to capture the cuts, colors, prints and essence of the vintage era for a slice of nostalgia, but without the price tag of the original vintage pieces.
Laurent Cathala, vice-president, emerging markets at Tiffany & co., says, “Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation movie, ‘The Great Gatsby’ has created strong interest and demand for 1920s-inspired jewelry.“Although Tiffany & co. does not offer vintage pieces for sale,” he says, “many of our designs are based on the original sketches and collections found in the Tiffany archives. These designs highlight the timeless beauty and unerring quality of Tiffany designs. These archival pieces also transcend fashion trends and hold great appeal for discerning customers.”
He adds, “In addition to Tiffany’s Great Gatsby and Blue Book Collections of fine and statement jewelry, we introduced this year the Ziegfeld Collection. Also inspired by the same Jazz age, it is named after New York’s legendary Ziegfeld theatre, a model of Art Deco architecture that opened in 1927. The jewelry captures the period’s elegance with freshwater cultured pearls, black onyx and sterling silver.”
Similarly, Swiss luxury watch manufacturer Jaeger-Lecoultre does not sell its original vintage timepieces, but helps verify the authenticity of rare vintage watches for its customers and also restores vintage Jaeger-Le coultre watches in its workshop in Switzerland. Certain factors of the vintage watch are then considered while evaluating the piece.
Stéphane Belmont, marketing and technical director of Manufacture Jaeger-Lecoultre, says: “In the case of an authentic vintage watch, the
watch has a story related to previous owners, a story of transmission of the piece. When a very small quantity of pieces were produced in a certain era, the offer of those vintage watches in the market is very limited today. Where the demand exceeds the supply, the price of the vintage watch goes up every year. The rarity of the watch depends on the quantity, exclusivity, quality of the movement and functioning of the watch, and its aesthetics.”
It is this quality and exclusivity that the vintage business is founded upon. In an age of global retail chains and uninspired, off-the-rack fashion, vintage couture has an undeniable appeal and immense value, as an asset.
The character of Carrie Bradshaw from the popular TV series, Sex and the City couldn’t have put it better: “I like my
investments where I can see them… hanging in my closet!”