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Changing Values

What is the purpose of vintage collection and how the vintage market is similar to the art market? What is the difference between vintage and second hand?

How right Tracy Tolkien, founder of the legendary “Steinberg & Tolkein“ vintage boutique in London was when she wrote in her famous book ‘Dressing Up Vintage’ that: “if you buy a vintage piece then it’s value will only go up, whilst if you buy a designer garment from the latest collection then in a years’ time you would be lucky to recoup 10% of its original price”.

Vintage Hermès Tri Colour Kelly in Box leather

This is, of course, the main sense of purchasing vintage pieces, because this rule of thumb can be applied even to Hermès bags, with a vintage Kelly made of box leather being far removed from the modern equivalent, as almost all discerning consumers of such products are aware. The general state of the vintage market today resembles the state of the art market: the value of pieces is appreciating rapidly and therefore represent a strong investment vehicle. As with the art market, the vintage market has its own laws and trends. 

First and foremost, it is important to understand the difference between vintage and second-hand. This is the first question that those who become involved in vintage will at some point ask. Formally, vintage pieces are those that are more than 20 years old and are somehow connected to the style of that era. This threshold of 20 years is, of course flexible, however on the whole it is quite accurate. Items which pass into the hands of vintage dealers, selected from charity shops and second-hand warehouses as being worthwhile, are classified as vintage and then returned to their former glory. This is where the owners of vintage stores (which may or may not be vintage dealers) obtain their pieces, so buyers can get their hands on them.

A good vintage dealer, just like a good art dealer, does not merely collect any piece made by a famous fashion house. A good vintage dealer selects those which correspond to current fashion trends, for example the current trend for 80’s and 90’s fashionwear. These pieces can be from famous labels like Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci, Hermès and even Madame Grès or Vionnet; of otherwise they may be pieces without such a label that are nevertheless just as beautiful. In Europe, especially in Italy and France, there has always been many high-end fashion studios which constructed (and to this day still construct) wonderful couture-quality garments without high-profile labels. 

Madame Grès dresses exhibition

Should you manage to get your hands on a dress made by Madame Grès or Vionnet during the designers lifetime (and thankfully both ladies lived long lives), or especially a piece by Balenciaga that does not cost an astronomical price, this is the same as acquiring a painting by Picasso or Matisse. It is the same crazy luck; and the same excellent investment. All pieces of this level of exclusivity will only become steadily more valuable because there are ever fewer in circulation and because the fashion for vintage pieces is becoming ever greater. 

It’s not all about the fact that the fashion of the new century is based on references to the past; endlessly mixing and combining aspects from the various decades of the 20th century. All large fashion brands have dedicated divisions and dedicated teams that spend all year round combing through flea markets, paying visits to vintage dealers and large vintage stores. They search for samples of prints, elements of finish (pockets, lapels, etc.), and accessories. For instance, London’s large Beyond Retro store has a dedicated unit that collects samples for brands and designers called The Beyond Retro Archive. And naturally the originals surpass the modern copies.  

It’s also about the fact that many textile techniques, artisanal methods and tailoring standards simply don’t exist anymore; production, even luxury production, is becoming ever simpler as new technologies are being employed. The way things were constructed in the 1950s, the golden age of couture, is simply not done anymore. This is why, when talking about couture, we always use the word ‘unique’, and it’s not just an emotional epithet, but a technical characteristic. And of course, the trend-setters of today are drawn to vintage precisely because they are looking for uniqueness; this is what makes it all the more valuable.

Kate Moss wearing a Madame Grès white column-dress at the Cannes Film festival

This is how vintage became part of the current fashion-context in the mid-1990’s, when people such as Anne Steinberg and Tracy Tolkien in London, Didier Ludot in Paris and Franco Jacassi in Milan began to find, select and display garments from the times gone by in their stores. They were frequented by John Galliano, Nicolas Ghesquière, Phoebe Philo, Stella McCartney, and Frida Giannini (who fondly remembers the times when she sold vintage clothes in a flea market in Rome). They were looking for something interesting, characteristic and original; something that not only looks fashionable and unusual, but inspires their own designer vision. The popularity of vintage began with the concept of finding an eye-catching outfit that was inexpensive. When Galliano, a student at St Martins at that time, visited Steinberg & Tolkien or the Portobello road market, this was precisely what he was looking for: something to suit his extravagant taste for the mere pennies he had to spend on clothes. At the time, vintage was not only a sign of forward-minded taste, but also of the anti-bourgeois mood. Later, of course, came the celebrities: Julia Roberts in the vintage black Valentino dress at the Oscars; Kate Moss in a white Madame Grès column dress at the Cannes Festival; who quickly making vintage a part of glamour that just as quickly grew in price. Since then, this process has never stopped.

Julia Roberts at the Academy Awards in 2001

Five years ago, it was still possible to go to Parisian vintage stores or visit Clignancourt; Paris’ main vintage market; in the hope of finding a grandmother’s Chanel suit for peanuts. Today it’s practically out of the question; miracles happen, of course, but usually to someone else. In the trendy stores of Paris, London and Milan, branded garments are priced at hundreds of euros and pounds. To find cheap vintage clothes, one has to travel far out of the city into the provinces and spend a lot of time and effort searching for treasures in the local flea markets, because the amount of Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Hermès pieces there is historically smaller.

In Russia, that for understandable reasons does not have its own vintage market, prices are even steeper. Quality vintage here is expensive, and that’s the objective reality: one has to find it, sort it, bring it back, fix it here, etc. Of course, some day the tonnes of Balmain and Dolce & Gabbana that our girls buy will also turn into vintage, but this will take quite some time. At least 20 years.

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