Friday, 24 October 2014

Oscar de la Renta: The Fashion Maker

“If my life were to end now … I would have no regrets. I’ve lived every day to the fullest and I’ve had a marvellous time. I’ve tried to be nice to people I care about and ignore the ones I don’t. I enjoy what I’ve done.”

Spread in The Fashion Makers by Barbra Walz and Bernadine Morris

Understandably, the death of the designer Oscar de la Renta early this week resulted in a huge number of tributes. One - frustratingly I can't remember which - used the quote taken from the book The Fashion Makers, which described what de la Renta said on his 40th birthday.

It sent me back to the book to see if the way he was talked about in the late 1970s was any different to the way he was discussed his week. And – pleasingly – the answer is no. The profile reveals the same charming Oscar, who enjoys the company of “people with a tremendous commitment to life” and making beautiful clothes for women in the spotlight (although while contemporary articles mention the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Jessica Parker and Amal Clooney, The Fashion Makers goes for Nancy Kissinger, Pat Buckley, Lee Radziwill and Babe Paley). The verdict of the author, Bernadine Morris, that “fashion has been good to him, and he’s made his mark on it, turning out clothes that are usually outrageously feminine and flattering,” could have been taken from 2014 as easily as 1978.

Spread in The Fashion Makers by Barbra Walz and Bernadine Morris

When I wrote about this book before, I commented on the mix of old meets new designers in the book. Looking at the other names from the book that are still known and operating today, de la Renta seems to stand apart again, distinct from the preppy empires of Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren or the soft, strong, body aware fashions of Diane von Furstenberg and Donna Karan.

“Being well dressed hasn’t must to do with having good clothes,” he states in the piece. “It’s a question of good balance and good common sense, a knowledge of who you are and what you are. There are many kinds of taste. The rules that apply to one person do not hold true for another.”

As much as talking about how to decide what to wear, in that simple piece of advice Oscar de la Renta summarises the design philosophy that maintained the desirability of his clothes for over forty years: know yourself and stay true to your style.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Talking vintage fashion with Nicky Albrechtsen

One of my first jobs after going freelance was project managing the Thames & Hudson book, Vintage Fashion Complete. It's a huge book, over 400 pages, over 90,000 words, over 1000 pictures. The book is based on the amazing collection of Nicky Albrechtsen.

In the sea of vintage fashion books that now exist, Nicky brings a stylist's eye to the subject. She explores vintage fashion through its prints and patterns - from animal print to polka dots - and through its individual elements, be that a jumper, a swimsuit or a wedding dress, making it more of a gorgeous book to inspire than simply another fashion history of the twentieth century.

When she's not writing books for Thames & Hudson (she's also written on scarves, handkerchiefs and spectacles for them), Nicky owns Vintage Labels, a vintage clothing resource studio in London. She was kind enough to answer some questions for me about her love of vintage and her incredible collection.


The lovely Nicky Albrechtsen 

How did you start collecting vintage?
Vintage clothing has really always been apart of my life although I never gave it such a grandiose title. I grew up during the sixties in fairly impoverished circumstances, albeit in the very attractive and bohemian lower part of Hampstead, known as Belsize Park and Primrose Hill. Jumble sales were the primary source for clothing and household bits and pieces and nothing was ever new. We would queue for ages on a Saturday morning outside church halls and scout huts, but what we found was amazing and I had the most fantastic dressing-up box. I still have the old wicker chest that I kept everything in, it's one of those large old theatrical hampers that belonged to my father who was a dancer, but sadly none of the wonderful clothes that were in it. As a cash strapped art student most of what I wore came from the local Hampshire jumble sales and once I joined the BBC costume department as an assistant designer "old clothes" took on the new title of "period costume" whether the era of the particular story was set in, be it the early 1800s or the 1950s.

How big (roughly) is your collection now?
I'm too scared to count the individual garments but it fills a studio that is 18, 000 square feet and everything is hung on two tiers of scaffolding! (Not counting the boxes and drawers…)

How did you grow it into a business rather than purely a passion?
After having trained and worked as a fashion textile designer, I changed track and joined the BBC. My changing career taught me to appreciate the value of old clothes from all aspects. I had always sold vintage pieces that I picked up from the fantastic jumbles sales around Hampshire where I was at art school. It supplemented my student grant and it proved there was a demand for lovely old clothes. When the BBC made all the design services redundant I began to freelance as a designer and stylist and over the years ended up with quite a large, eclectic stock of garments that were too good to sell. I knew their value to both the fashion/ textile trade and other costume designers and stylists so I looked for premises in a good location.

What is your favourite piece from your collection?
It's impossible to pick one – I have so many pieces that I love for different reasons; I have some beautiful jersey pieces from the seventies by Bill Gibb and Yuki. The clever cutting and resulting drapery is exquisite making them timeless without being boring classics. Among the scarf collection I have several of the famous Ascher Squares by different artists that I love not only for the artwork but for the uplift their acquisition gave me. I went out buying very early one Saturday morning at the time I was writing the book Scarves. I was feeling utterly depressed and exhausted from family/ work pressures and the additional commitment of trying to write a book. I picked up two of the most famous squares by Philippe Julian and the yellow rose design by Cecil Beaton for Ascher for pennies! How could I not continue the book on scarves?! Julian's illustrative designs are so intricate and Beaton’s rose is so evocative of the early fifties.

Have you any piece you really regretted letting slip through your fingers?
When I first opened up the studio on a commercial basis Topshop's online department approached me to supply them with really special vintage garments. Nothing like the cheap, easily found vintage that was sold in store at the time and can be found in many vintage shops and concessions today. The buyers wanted to create an online vintage selection, very high end, expensive and unusual. From my constant sourcing, I used to sell them the garments that I felt I could part with: one maxi dress was a real museum peace by Jean Varon. The floral print was so bold and distinctive set within a black and white checkerboard border, rather like an empty crossword. Around the neck someone had filled in an address and phone number on the white squares: it conjured up pictures of bohemian sixties parties and a very stoned gentleman leaving his contact details on a ladies dress. I managed to remove the ballpoint message and Topshop loved it: but that dress would have quadrupled in value even now. 

Now that vintage is your business, do you still wear as many vintage pieces?
Yes of course! But I really miss my art school days when my best friend and I used to plan our Saturdays around the local jumble sales of Winchester. We used to drive around in her old green Renault 4 called Horace and return with the car overloaded with naval whites, fifties ball gowns, thirties silk night dresses – just an incredible selection. My staple student summer wardrobe included white canvas brogues and long white cotton drill sailor shorts.

What is a ‘typical’ day/week in your business?
In all honesty no day is really typical! I am constantly sourcing new stock, which is getting harder as British stock is starting to run out. I may have an appointment with a high street design team looking for inspiration for two seasons ahead or I may be prepping for a photo shoot or helping a costume designer select garments for a television series. I rarely know what the following week will bring!

Have you noticed any difference in the types of vintage being most sought after in the last couple of years?
There is an increasing demand for inexpensive "recent" vintage that is cleverly styled by the vintage shops. While many knock it for not really being "vintage" it has an important place in the cycle of fashion; street trends often trigger fashions that are adopted by the more commercial and mainstream markets.

Now that vintage is fashionable, do you think it’s in danger of becoming over-priced/over saturated?
Original pieces cannot saturate the market as there simply aren't enough of them. But many are abusing the term vintage and applying it to any second hand clothes. These are saturating eBay, market stalls and cheaper venues. The rarer, original pieces are being bought and resold through "curated" vintage outlets so much that the price is just escalating. A dealer will search auctions or ebay for desirable garments that are then bought and resold by selective vintage shops and so on: the price of a garment just increases as it passes through so many hands.

What piece of advice would you pass to someone just starting to experiment with vintage?
To do just that; experiment until you find the shapes and styles that suit you. Vintage holds its price so garments can always be resold if you make a mistake. Think eclectically, not in terms of era – treat each garment as a thing of beauty in its own right and then you will successfully blend it into your wardrobe.

And what advice do you wish someone had told you when you started collecting vintage?
Well I suppose I have always looked at vintage professionally rather just for wearability. So I will buy a ripped mouldy dress if it has a commercial print. I don't think there is much anyone could have told me except that it was going to start running out more quickly than anyone ever imagined.


Thanks Nicky for those wonderful insights. But how depressing is the thought of vintage running out? Stockpile now, everyone (I seem to have been obeying that policy for quite a few years now...)

You can order a copy of Vintage Fashion Complete here. Nicky is also taking part in an event at London's Fashion & Textile Museum on 6 November, discussing how vintage fashion influences contemporary style. Find out more and how to get your tickets here

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Monday, 6 October 2014

Monday Detail: The Hand Motif

5. The Hand Motif

Gloves designed by Elsa Schiaparelli, autumn/winter 1936. Philadelphia Museum of Art

Over at my new blog Fancies, I've pulled together a collection of items all inspired by the hand motif. While I was writing it, all I could think about was Schiaparelli. I'd seen some of her hand gloves in the Paris Haute Couture exhibition and they still looked suitably shocking, almost 80 years on.

Causse x Yazbukey via Colette

Really, this 2014 design, a collaboration between French glovemakers Cause and the designers Yazbukey just jazzes up her idea a little. 

Another company I feature, Vivetta, have a love of the Surreal that screams Schiap, while the scarf makers SuTurno acknowledge their debt to the designer on their About page.  

Evening belt, Elsa Schiaparelli, a/w 1934. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Schiaparelli first employed hand motifs eighty years ago, for her autumn/winter 1934 collection. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she also used hand on a jacket, cape and handbag. Schiaparelli was moving in Surrealist circles and the hands, along with the rest of the body, were a key surrealist motif. The likes of Man Ray in his photographs and Meret Oppenheim's art objects also played with them in their work. 

Elsa Schiaparelli 'Cocteau' evening jacket, a/w 1937. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This jacket from Schiaparelli's autumn/winter 1937 collection is a result of her collaboration with Jean Cocteau. Indeed, her association with the surrealists proved fruitful in many ways: think of her witty Shoe hat or the Lobster dress which resulted from working with Salvador Dali. 

Elsa Schiaparelli brooch, a/w 1936. Via Or Not Magazine

As well as the gloves and the bags, Schiaparelli used hands motifs for jewellery too. This elaborately bedecked brooch was designed by Jean Schlumberger, Schiaparelli's jewellery designer, for the a/w 1936 collection. 

Almost as well-accessorised is this contemporary hand brooch, this one designed by Lou Taylor

Hand motifs also appeared in a/w 2014 collections from the likes of Holly Fulton, Osman, Opening Ceremony, Karen Walker and Carven. Perhaps - in reaction to all the 'normcore' chat - fashion is taking a turn for the surreal. now, wouldn't that be fun? 

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