Vintage couture: which brands rule at auction?

NEW YORK — One of the most rewarding aspects of owning vintage couture and pret-a-porter fashion is that, if you wear it to a party or other social gathering, you’re not likely to run into someone else in the same outfit. Vintage designer fashions are in limited quantity, even more so for couture pieces, and the market seems insatiable as a growing cadre of collectors and fashionistas covet fashions from past decades, driving up prices on the best pieces.

There are dozens of American and international designers whose pieces regularly pop up at vintage fashion auctions and shows. However, only a few coveted brands are regarded as collectible classics that have withstood the test of time.

Brigitte Kruse, lead auctioneer at GWS Auctions, Inc., in Agoura Hills, Calif., is a fifth-generation auctioneer who has her finger on the pulse of the vintage-fashion market. Among the labels she says are driving the auction market are Chanel, Versace and Hermes.

While not yet “vintage,” this contemporary Chanel demi-couture tweed jacket and dress from 2007 sold for $4,250 at GWS Auctions Inc. Photo courtesy of GWS Auctions Inc and LiveAuctioneers

Coco Chanel revolutionized women’s fashions in 1920, freeing women from corsets and giving them comfortable pieces to wear with simple lines that were sporty but chic at the same time. The house of Chanel gave rise to the iconic “little black dress” as well as its signature suits. The designer was famously quoted as saying, “Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.”

Within Chanel offerings, there are several tiers, Kruse said, ranging from ready-to-wear pieces which could be purchased at department stores and boutiques, to its more exclusive couture fashions. “You’re talking two different worlds completely. What people really are after are the vintage couture pieces. In most cases, they made five or less,” she said, adding that Chanel pieces bring the highest prices in today’s market. “Who does not love Chanel?” Kruse asked.

Among the top prices paid for Chanel fashions at auction were a Gabrielle Chanel beaded silk crêpe capelet, circa 1924, that sold for $10,533 in December 2015 at Kerry Taylor Auctions in London; and a Chanel couture black evening gown totally bedecked in black sequins, 1932, that made $11,534 in July 2015 at Sotheby’s Paris. A Chanel chantilly lace gown in black silk chiffon from the 1930s earned $10,800 at Augusta Auctions in New York City, November 2014.

Not surprisingly, Versace fashions also lead prices realized at couture auctions. “It’s not just the couture pieces that are popular,” Kruse said, noting that pieces actually made by the late Gianni Versace earn top dollar. Other pieces from the house of Versace bring perennially strong prices at auction, as well.

Launching his first couture line in 1978, Gianni Versace’s fashions were in tune with the 1980s. The combination of a rich color palette and the designer’s penchant for materials like silk, denim, leather and lace, empowered women with their sexy, theatrical qualities. In November 2011, Christie’s New York sold a circa-1992 Versace beaded evening jacket, “The Face,” labeled “Atelier Versace,” for $128,500. It came with celebrity provenance, having been part of the estate of film star Elizabeth Taylor, who had a major collection of haute couture.

A Gianni Versace fitted black cocktail halter-neck dress, late 1980s, took $15,449 at Kerry Taylor Auctions in December 2015. Photo courtesy of Kerry Taylor Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

While once-dominant names like Prada and Burberry are stagnant in the market now, Kruse said, it is interesting to note that interest in Versace pieces has surged. “A lot of younger people are looking for these pieces now,” she said, also commenting that the recent television series about the designer’s tragic death may have played a factor.

Hermès makes watches, accessories, silk scarves and jewelry, but hands-down, it is most famous for its handbags. Thierry Hermès launched the brand in 1837 as a harness maker. In the half-century to follow, the company expanded into saddlery. From its beginning, the name Hermès was associated with quality and excellent workmanship. Its signature handbags like the Kelly, the Constance, and the Birkin are passionately sought after and, by many, are viewed as investment pieces.

It is well known that Hermès handbags (vintage or new) are pricey. What a lot of people don’t understand, however, is that if you walk into a Hermès boutique today and see a $30,000 Birkin, you usually cannot buy it unless you have a significant purchase history with the company, Kruse said. “I’ve been all over the world looking for a Birkin bag. You can’t buy one unless you are on an exclusive list. You cannot even order one. I have literally turned over rocks for 10 years to get one for myself.” Nothing else compares to the Birkin, she added.

This 32cm matte white Himalayan Nilo Crocodile Hermes handbag brought $100,000 at Heritage Auctions in December 2017. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

At auction, pink and blue Hermès bags often bring the best prices, according to Christie’s, which said that shades like Rose Confetti or Rose Sakura attain robust prices. Its Rouge series has been in production for over 50 years, while black Birkins with gold hardware are still among the Hermès productions in highest demand. The current auction record was set in May 2017 at Christie’s Hong Kong when a 2014 white crocodile-skin Birkin embellished with 18K gold and diamonds fetched $380,000. Also at the top of the auction pyramid when it comes to fetching top prices for vintage Hermès bags is Dallas-based Heritage Auctions.

Of the three sizes of handbags produced by Hermès, the mid-size Birkin is the most highly coveted. Owing to the company’s low production levels, the rarity of its vintage bags makes them extremely desirable.

Fakes are prevalent among vintage fashions or accessories, so it’s buyer beware. Even with knockoffs, there are different tiers of quality, Kruse said. To spot authentic bags from the fakes, she says: “Look at the stitching, is is straight? Is the material painted on or actually embossed? Look at the quality of the material.” Chanel handbags feature a hologram sticker and an accompanying authenticity card. If the card is still present, a collector will have the ultimate prize — a bag with a matching number. Hermès stamps its bags with a dated brand stamp.

The rule that applies to buying vintage handbags is no different than the advice often heard about any other antique or vintage item — if you are new to collecting, seek out trusted dealers who are thoroughly knowledgeable about the market in which they specialize.

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