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Legendary Vintage Fashion Auctioneer Kerry Taylor on Madame Grès, Princess Di, and Why She Won't Loan Out Dresses

Ever wonder where great vintage comes from? In some cases, it surfaces at auctions, where dealers can acquire trunk loads of frayed 1930s chiffon dresses for pennies against the final retail price. But there’s another side to clothing auctions, one in which London-based fashion auctioneer Kerry Taylor specializes—museum-quality vintage and haute couture.

Ever wonder where great vintage comes from? In some cases, it surfaces at auctions, where dealers can acquire trunk loads of frayed 1930s chiffon dresses for pennies against the final retail price.

But there’s another side to clothing auctions, one in which London-based fashion auctioneer Kerry Taylor specializes—museum-quality vintage and haute couture.

This afternoon, Taylor is auctioning off more than 200 pieces of fashion history, including a group of Madame Grès gowns and a cache of Princess Diana-related ephemera. I stopped by the preview exhibition this weekend to chat with Kerry about her career in fashion auctioneering…

…and when I arrived, she was in a meeting with an important client, so I took a few moments to peruse my surroundings.

Picture a large room bordered with clusters of mannequins dressed in mint condition Jeanne Lanvin, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent creations, with rails and rails of Balenciaga, Mugler and Carven filling any remaining space.

That’s half of it. The moment when the experience upgraded from "gorgeous" to "jaw-dropping" arrived when I learned that not only could I photograph the goods…I could also TRY THEM ON! It was like a fashion exhibition without the stern reminders not to touch!

Having previewed the sale online, I knew to head straight for Lot 166, an Ossie Clark red crepe evening gown from the 1970s. I tried it on, did a little twirl, and emerged from the ad-hoc dressing room my usual poised, unruffled self, just in time to see Kerry come back through the door.

Here’s our conversation (edited for length and clarity), along with images from the exhibition:

Fashionista: How has the business changed since you started? Kerry Taylor: It’s changed radically. I’ve seen everything, really, because in the late 1970s, vintage was fashionable. It was cool to be seen wearing beaded flapper dresses and things like that. But in the 180s, it was dead in the water—no one was interested. It was very much about brand new, brash, brand-conscious, sort of showy clothing. Just think of Dallas and Dynasty, and you understand where I’m coming from.

At that time, I tried to have a sale of haute couture in New York. It was the first time ever…. In America, you can find the most beautiful haute couture, because all of the really, really rich women went to Paris for the season and spent a fortune at the shows. They’re a very, very important part of the French haute couture business. In America, it’s possible to probably find more good haute couture than you can find in France or England.

Is that still true? Still true…. So I had this auction, and it was a disaster. No one came to it. I remember sitting there, my heart sinking, with about three people sitting in this room. And even when the exhibition was on view, American matrons would come and say, “Hey honey, what’s this about? I can afford new, why would I buy this?” Just didn’t understand it….

I think that what’s happened, certainly from the late '90s up until now, is that vintage has become something which is socially acceptable. In this age when you have so much disposable fashion, actually there’s nostalgia now for the past, for the fantastic quality and beautiful finish. And there is this yearning for quality and for designs which are different…. It’s also incredibly good value for money. Even in our fine sales, you can buy something really splendid for £4-500. Which is nothing, when you compare it to mass-produced ready-to-wear. What I am selling is top-of-the market. It’s haute couture not by the fashion house, but by that particular haute couturier. So it’s Balenciaga by Balenciaga, it’s Christian Dior by Christian Dior, its Yves Saint Laurent by Yves Saint Laurent. There’s such romance to it as well, that the master’s hand was involved in the garment. Let’s talk about the auctions themselves—what are the steps involved in putting an auction together? First of all, I have to compile the collections. And I sell things at different levels. So for example, I have between 5 and 8 regular auctions, where the estimates start at about £100 upwards. At these, you can buy a little Biba dress for a couple of hundred pounds. They’re great for the dealers to come to. How long does it take? For instance, this one is a fine auction—when did you start assembling the items? Well, I do two a year. It takes about four months to put the things together. It takes about a month to finalise and design the catalog and mail it out. The catalogs go all over the world, but they’re online as well.

How many items are in a typical auction? And how do you pace the auctions? There seems to be a very deliberate pace of where certain items are placed. I usually start off with accessories, because Chanel and Hermes handbags normally go like a bomb. That’s a good, bouncy start to the sale. And then I order things chronologically, mainly. I’ll start with the 17th-18th century, and I’ll move on throughout the centuries until we get to the most recent pieces, which in this sale are the Martin Margiela pieces. It goes from a 1780s open robe to a Margiela of the late 1990s.

What’s the newest piece you would consider putting into an auction? It can be very recent if it’s haute couture. For example, if it’s a piece from 2010 John Galliano haute couture, I’d be interested. If it’s Marks & Spencer, no. There’s a very fine line between vintage and second-hand clothes. I do not sell second-hand clothes. I sell vintage and haute couture. Stylistically, second-hand clothes have little to commend them. They’re very useful, warm and wearable, but actually, what I’m looking for is always aesthetic beauty. That’s the first and foremost thing. It goes from there.

Other than beauty, what are your criteria? What makes a garment auction-worthy? You can sometimes find something that’s not by anyone in particular, but it’s just a fantastic example of its kind. I had a paper dress, which was mass-produced as a souvenir in the 1970s, which had the Twin Towers on the front of it. Now that’s something that’s just a disposable, fun thing at the time, but now has huge significance. That went to a museum, in fact. I think I estimated it would go for £100-150, and it made £6-700 in the end, because it’s relevant.

I’m looking also for things which obviously are by great designers. Things with an interesting provenance are also good. If something has belonged to Audrey Hepburn, as with the Givenchy dress in the last sale, and in this sale, we have the Emanuel collection of Diana things, that’s really very interesting.

How do you estimate the price range? There’s a kind of process my head goes through. Sometimes, you can have the most rare thing in the world, but there are no buyers for it, so it’s not worth anything. Rarity is not enough on its own. You have to look at aesthetic beauty, you have to look at condition, if the piece is labelled or not, and how big the market is for that. If I know that I have a lot of museums particularly looking for a particular period, I can be more agrressive in the estimations. For example, a couple of years ago, the 50s was what all the museums seemed to be wanting. At the moment, it’s Japanese designers. So you have to keep an eye on what’s going on in the marketplace.

Besides the Japanese designers, what’s popular right now? Anything haute couture form the 20s and 30s by leading designers, I mean, by Madeleine Vionnet, Gabrielle Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, anything like that would be really wonderful.

I’ve kept an eye on your auctions for a couple of years now through work, and I always wonder about supply—I have this anxiety, wondering if this is going to be the last Madame Grès gown, or the last Vionnet, that’s going to come up for auction. It’s drying up, for sure. And that’s why things are now fetching tens of thousands of pounds at auctions when they do come up. Because a chance of another one coming along is relatively slight. Once they go into museums as well, that’s it, they’re sort of lost to circulation. Do you do anything to manage supply? Let’s say you got a trove of Ossie Clark, would you put them all in the same auction? If I had, suddenly, 50 Balenciagas, no, I would not dream of putting them all in one sale because it would flood the market. I know a competitor did that recently, and it suffered because of it. I recently had a huge collection of Bill Gibb—I’ve been selling it for 2 years now. Do you ever pursue collections that have yet to come to market, or do you choose from what comes to you? I’m always looking, I’m always seeking, I’m always on the lookout for the next thrilling find. And it does happen. People still discover things in charity shops and attics. From family members, you know—‘My grandmother had this.’ It still happens. But those are harder and harder. People ring me, and if it sounds really exciting, I go to them, or if they’ve got one or two things, they bring them into me. So it varies.

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How many of those calls of people saying, "Oh, I found something in the attic," end up being worth following up? Maybe 5%. There’s an awful lot of stuff I simply can’t sell.

That little! Back to the auctions, what is the atmosphere like? They’re very different—each one has a different personality. It depends on whose things are in. In the last sale, the headline act was Audrey Hepburn, and in this one, it’s Princess Diana. Each auction attracts a different crowd, so we wait and see. We’ve got a lot of American interest in this auction because of Princess Diana. Internationally, we have all the major museums and collectors in the world on our books. They all anxiously await the publication of the catalogue, and we have very good relationships with all of these museums and collectors. If I know they’re looking for a particular thing, I’ll go out of my way to source it. Besides the museums, who are your customers? It’s museums, international dealers who deal in haute couture, who supply museums; private collectors as well, it’s ever-increasing numbers of young women who wish to buy-to-wear. These might be £100-200 at the lower end of the market, right up to £10,000 that they’re willing to spend for a unique evening gown that no one else has. The fact that a lot of the Hollywood movie stars are seen wearing vintage dresses, that all helps the acceptability and the glamor of wearing something vintage. I saw a couple of dresses in there I could definitely see on the red carpet. That Carven…. The '30s and '50s in this sale are ideal red carpet dresses. I think there will be a lot of US dealers who specialize in that who will be have an eye on those, for sure.

Do stylists ever ask you if they can borrow a gown for a client? I would never allow anything to be borrowed. Never. Ever.

Right. The buy-to-wear section of your clientele—what proportion of your business does that represent, compared to the dealers and the museums? I’d say they’re still smaller. The dealers and the museums are the bigger—they’re probably 80%, maybe 20% are the buy-to-wear. I have a lot of fashion designers who are also major buyers of mine—lots of fashion houses buy from me. Who? I can’t say, but lots of major ones. If you hang around, you might even see them come in….

Do they buy to build up the house archive, or for personal collections or use? Some buy for the house archive, but very often they’re looking for inspiration for their next season’s collections, and that’s what most of them are after. Which is why I can’t really say. I do notice things on the catwalk that are very similar to pieces I have sold.

That’s fascinating. It really is. It amuses me, but I also think it’s fantastic, that these old clothes are coming to life again, and that other people are able to wear them again, in a sense, in this new incarnation. It’s wonderful.

What have been some of your most exciting "gets," or things you’ve been able to bring to market? There have been so may, really. Obviously, the Princess Diana collection is incredibly historically important. Audrey Hepburn’s black lace dress by Givenchy that she wore in How to Steal a Million is a wonderful, wonderful piece. That was £60,000 in the last auction. I think it’s lovely when you get things where there is this provenance that makes them even more special, you know. When you have this beautiful woman actually photographed wearing them, at the time with the right hair and makeup, makes the whole thing just so much more interesting.

Do you ever keep pieces for yourself? Not of any great value. I do buy vintage to wear occasionally, but they tend to be lower-level things. If something is really fabulous and museum-quality, wearing it will ultimately harm it. I’m a bit of a purist, in that if it’s a 1940s or 50s dress not by anyone in particular, that’s one thing. If it’s by one of the great masters, it’s up to the person, but I personally would feel uncomfortable with that. I would not enjoy my evening—put it that way.

[An assistant comes in to ask whether a Lanvin gown has been altered on behalf of a dealer acting for an American museum.]

How do alterations change the value? To the buy-to-wear people, they don’t really mind if it’s been altered. They just want something that’s by Lanvin, looks fabulous, they’re fine with that. For a museum or private collector, they care deeply if something’s been altered. We’re always very careful. I inspect the insides of these dresses forensically, looking for alterations, old stitch lines.

What is the most expensive piece you’ve ever sold? £62,000, which was a Princess Diana dress which she wore in Thailand in 1986, designed by Catherine Walker. It was fuchsia with purple chiffon—very beautiful. In your years in this business, have you ever encountered any resistance to the idea of fashion as an auction-able class? I’m only preaching to the converted. The people who come to my auctions are already on side. Not really. Certainly, some of the bigger auction houses see it as a fairly low-value, not particularly interesting subject, but actually, a lot of their top clients who bid on Impressionist paintings also collect haute couture. There’s a lot of crossover at the top end of the market.

How many other houses operate in the same area? Bonham’s has sales, which tend to be a bit less couture-driven. Christies has one auction a year.

That’s it? So you’re the only specialist…. In the UK, I’m the only specialist, yes.

How has the recession affected your business? Not at all. If anything, we’ve had the best years ever. I think it’s because the things we sell really are such good value for money. It’s a no-brainer—the things we sell are superb, reasonably priced, they’re fantastic pieces, and we just have gone from strength to strength. What’s the best part of your job? Discovery. When someone comes in to see me, and they open up a bin liner, and you think, "What could be in here?" and your heart just skips a beat as the most exquisite Chanel comes out, or a robe designed by Matisse for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes that’s been in a garage for the last I don’t know how many decades, you just think, "Wow." That is what excites me.

And the hardest part? None of it is to do with the subject. It’s the grind, the logistics. Making sure lots have been shipped in time to the right place, chasing bills, making sure the truck has been ordered to transport the sale—the back office side of things. All the little tiny things it takes to make a very big auction like this a success.

Sure. I can understand that. And finally, what advice can you offer to anyone who might be interested in pursuing a career in fashion auctioneering? In fashion auctioneering, there are very few openings. If you’re really very seriously interested in this subject, and you want to be involved in vintage, then become a dealer. Start off small, get yourself booked a stand at a vintage fair, and get going!

That’s great. Thanks very much for your time.

**All photos by Emily Cronin.