The Quirky Couture Market:

by Holly Rich


Sotheby's Institute of Art - London

On November 22 of this year, the venerable performer known as Whoopi Goldberg proved that her acerbic brand of bawdy American humor could still sell. At the Christie's and Julien's New York auction for "Mackie: Costume & Couture from the Private Archives of Bob Mackie," the star lot was a wildly ostentatious Elizabethan costume worn by Whoopi when she hosted the Academy Awards in 1999.[1] The costume, which included gloves and a wig, sold for over four and a half times its high estimate; the frenzied bidding ended at $22,800 (including buyer's premium). That same day, a bold and colorful gown worn by Diana Ross sold for nearly twelve times its high estimate, and a fittingly flashy dress adorned by Cher (one of Mackie's most famous clients) on "Sonny and Cher" sold for six times its high estimate (both including buyer's premium). All three lots were bought by the Boca Raton developer and collector, Anthony Pugliese III. (Christie's and Julien's 2005) Mr. Pugliese bought the five top priced lots at the Mackie sale, which accounted for more than a fifth of the total generated sales. (Christie's 2005)

The Mackie sale epitomizes the international couture market, which is comprised of many unique mechanisms that amount to a truly quirky genre of the collectibles business. Like other memorabilia businesses, collecting iconic works of fashion is heavily influence by celebrity validation. Indeed, couture auctions of private collections often galvanize significant interest; like any genre of the art market, the role of provenance is paramount in terms of sales. But in no other collectible genre does the tastemaking stamp of approval depend heavily on an elite cadre of editors of certain high-end women's fashion magazines and internationally well-dressed social figures. The roles of institutional players, specifically museum couture collections, and of dealers, are also significant in the couture market. Notably, the beta and gamma auction houses have effectively conquered this niche market, as Sotheby's closed its couture department nearly five years ago [2] (Dunbar 2005), and Christie's continues to outsource many of its branded costume and textiles sales to its subsidiaries and partners (i.e., the orchestration of the Mackie sale was largely credited to Julien's Auctions in Los Angeles.) As the premier eschelon of the luxury goods business, the couture market must be analyzed as a sector of this broadly defined market. The purpose of this paper is to discusss each of these mechanisms, and to conclude with suggestions for a more efficient and profitable couture market.

There is an international market for couture, but it is a limited market; one must first identify the collectors and dealers and create a marketing campaign to reach them. (Julien 2005) The key markets for collecting couture are the world's fashion hubs: New York, London, Los Angeles, Paris, Japan, and increasingly China. (Twining-Globus 2005) The couture auction market is composed of 50% dealers and 50% collectors. (Julien 2005) Couture dealers act as any art dealers behave; they display items for sale and wait for their asking price to be met. Auction records are the benchmark for establishing price structures in the antiques and arts business, and couture is no different. However, there is a capricious, fashion-driven quality to most couture collecting that is not always seen in longer established, more conventional areas of collecting. (Fashion Trac Newsletter 2003) The most successful fashion auctions in the past have incorporated celebrity involvement. Unlike the traditional Hollywood and Pop memorabilia market, couture sales do not typically garner a lot of press, which in turn creates financial loss. While most art collectors and industry players are men, interestingly, the collectors of couture are mostly women.[3] One mechanism associated with the couture market, and one that is familiar to many facets of the art market, is the precarious balance between the rising demand for exceptional pieces (Socha 2005) and the finite supply of haute couture (Flass 2004). While many old guard designers created legendary fashion houses based on couture, today most design houses focus on prêt-a-porter, the ready-to-wear lines that generate the most income. (Twining-Globus 2005) Therefore, the "Old Masters" of couture are a dying breed, and when the legends retire or pass away, the value of their oeuvre is enhanced because the artists cease to create.

As a general proposition, interest in the arts is limited to relatively few people because only a few "have made the investment in taste or learning which the interest requires, and that is because the investment is worthwhile for only a few." (Grampp 1989, p.58; Heilbrun & Gray 2001, p.53-57) The interest in couture is even more limited because only a minority of people who buy couture to wear have the correct body type for the clothing or have the income to spend upwards of $100,000 on a gown, and also because as a collectible, it is privy to, in couture dealer Cameron Silver's words, that "organic passion" that few possess. (Silver 2005) It is impossible to accurately describe the allure and skillful self-assurance of the couture collector. One fascinating theory was introduced by Sir Kenneth Clark in his classic tome, "Looking at Pictures." (Clark 1960) Clark wrote essays about his experiences with sixteen paintings and in the process created an anthology devoted to the study of understanding, participating with and eventually learning to enjoy art. In his startlingly meticulous account of his experiences with looking at Vermeer paintings, no details escape Clark, from "the swag of curtain" to the complicated allegorical subject matter in Vermeer's "A Painter in his Studio." (Clark 1960, p. 101-109) Likewise, a couture collector will derive infinite enjoyment from the exactness of a seam, of the cut of a collar, or of the placement of a pattern.

For couture collectors, three issues dictate purchase price: name, provenance and condition. (Cascade 2005) First, designers such as Coco Chanel and Christian Dior created extraordinary works for the avant garde of their respective generations; over time and since their deaths, each has become legendary and their works command the highest of prices.

The second indicator of couture purchase price is provenance. Before the fashion world (re)discovered vintage clothing, and before costume museums became de rigeur tourist destinations, there existed a small, focused group of couture collectors.[4] Cameron Silver, arguably the most prominent couture dealer in the world and owner of the famous Decades vintage boutique in Los Angeles, characterizes the sentiment of these early collectors as an "organic passion." (Silver 2005). Hamish Bowles, Vogue magazine's European editor-at-large, has been a dedicated couture collector since the 1970s. (Cascade 2005; Twining-Globus 2005). Mr. Bowles, along with style icons like the late Tina Chow and Nan Kempner and American socialites such as Tiffany Dubin [5] (Cascade 2005) and Liz Goldwyn [6] (Yaeger 2005) are mechanisms for a market that operates on a very elite and sophisticated social caliber. Specifically, the stylish people who regularly buy couture, either to wear or strictly for investment purposes, inspire other social fixtures and social climbers to buy into their world of glamour and mystique. "[T]here is always a desire for a woman to have something that no one else can have," muses Macy Nyhart, Director of Couture, Vintage Clothing and Accessories at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers. (Nyhart 2005) Indeed, of a certain social mainstay, the couture market exemplifies the phrase "buying class." Exclusivity is the drawing force; one buys couture for provenance and mystery.

Third, the condition of a piece of couture dictates its purchase price. Just as a filthy painting or a broken frame will not be attractive to buyers, an altered or partially destroyed piece of couture will not garner a high price.

Couture collectors can be categorized. For the couture collector who is self-insured and who covers and hedges against mistakes (Robertson 2005, p.28-29), investing in Hermes is one of the most safe and stable options.[7] Most importantly, either the iconic Birkin [8] or Kelly [9] handbags, has practically infinite investment potential. (McLeod 2005; Yaeger 2005; Cascade 2005). It takes 23 hours to make one Birkin bag (McLeod 2005) and the exclusivity factor is unparalleled; the waiting list has been closed and those on the list wait for a year to receive their bags. (McLeod 2005) Last April, Doyle Auction House in New York sold a glossy black crocodile Birkin with a diamond pave clasp for $64,800.[10] (McLeod 2005) The mad desire for an Hermes handbag has literally been known to vanquish price resistance; many collectors consider the most particurlarly elusive bags (i.e. made of interesting or rare materials or colors) to be the holy grail of their collecting obsession. (Yaeger 2005)

When a collector is of the "magpie" variety, in the end it is never just about the money; these buyers will purchase items that invest well and also pieces that catch their indiscriminate eye. (Robertson 2005, p.28-29; Yaeger 2005; Carr 2005) Mr. Bowles typifies the couture hoarder collector type, and he approaches his collection with a historical, preservationist approach. (Robertson 2005, p.28-29; Cascade 2005; Twining-Globus 2005)

Fashion publications, and specifically super editors like Anna Wintour of American Vogue, play the largest role in the couture market. Throughout her tenure at Vogue, Ms. Wintour has dedicated a substantial amount of editorial to vintage fashion; she continues to be an incredibly influential force in fashion (Silver 2005) and is arguably the most high-powered person in the industry. Besides Ms. Wintour, Glenda Bailey at Harper's Bazaar and Carine Roitfeld at French Vogue exert substantial influence on the international market by favoring certain couture in their respective publications.

The institutional players in the couture market are the world's renowned costume museums, including the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Fashion, Jewellry and Accessories Collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum. When well known institutions exhibit couture, the market is strengthened because it is validated as an art form. (Julien 2005) This past summer, the Met held a Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld retrospective, which heightened brand publicity for an already solid brand (Twining-Globus 2005) and also reaffirmed Coco Chanel's place and affirmed Karl Lagerfeld's developing place as couture icons. While many art business players grumble about institutional players restricting important artworks from entering the market, the couture market is unique in this respect. Most costume museums are offered far more costume and textile pieces than they can accept or need from private donors. (Twining-Globus 2005) Because of storage limitations, museums are not considered a major threat to the couture market. In the same vein, the archive of a couturier over the course of her career could be as high as 3,000 pieces [11], a number not normally associated with the most revered painters.

When truly exceptional pieces come up for sale, however, the museums compete actively. This past spring, the Drouot auction house in Paris held an exquisite and historically important sale of rare pieces by the late French designer Paul Poiret. [12] In the early twentieth century, Poiret designed women's couture that freed womens' busts, and his fashion legacy is generally celebrated as that of a modern master who eschewed the restrictive corset. The Drouot sale consisted of a collection owned by Poiret's ex-wife, which had lain untouched in family closets for three generations. At the Poiret sale, serious collectors and every costume museum [13] in the world, all eager to own pieces of fashion history, made for great bidding activity, which in turn made for high prices. (Twining-Globus 2005; AFP 2005) In the end, two world records for couture were set at Drouot: A Poiret blue and white car coat from 1914 sold for €130,000 (including buyer's premium), a world record for a piece of couture clothing, and a pair of Poiret beaded evening shoes sold for €40, 912, which set a new auction record for couture accessories. (AFP 2005)

The consumer luxury good market is cyclic. The natural evolution of all luxury concepts begins at "class" and ends at "mass." At the beginning of the cycle, a luxury product is introduced and embraced by the affluent. It follows a progression that involves endorsement of celebrities and other public figures and ends with acceptance by the masses. According to one consumer theorist, this process is called "luxflation - the need for marketers to continually inflate or enchance the luxury value of their brand in order to counteract the inevitable downward gravitational pull to the mass market." (Danziger 2005, p. xiii, 257-259) The couture market will always be the cream of the fashion industry because of the high prices it commands, but as a luxury good, it is arguable that it has reached a type of luxflation. Everyone wants luxury, and the surprise of the last few years is that many people will choose to spend their disposable income on luxe items. (Socha 2005; The Economist 2004; Murphy 2005) This phenomenon has been coined, by two leading consultants, as "trading up." (Silverstein & Fiske 2005) While trading up has not reached couture, it is only a matter of time before fashionable consumers accept this market.

The beta and gamma auction houses have occupied this niche market. Doyle in New York, Drouot in Paris, Leslie Hindman in Chicago, Julien's in Los Angeles and Kerry Taylor in London have covered the spectrum of the fashion world and have created an international auction market for couture. Doyle New York in particular has taken Sotheby's' place to create a couture duopoly with Christie's, which still holds most of the world records for garments. (Fashion Trac Newsletter 2003). It is important to note that many people enter the auction world through fashion auctions because most items are estimated for less than those at the blockbuster art auctions at the major auction houses.

Sotheby's, as half of the premier duopoly of the auction world, should re-enter the couture market. The result would give further validation to the art of couture, which would contribute to higher prices at auction, as well as an increase in collectors in other parts of the world.

The onslaught of the age of the internet has tremendously affected this market because consumers have instant access to designers and trends. The juggernaut that is eBay has revolutionized this area of the auction business; at a recent couture auction held by Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, 150 real-time bidders participated through eBay. (Hahn 2005) Leslie Hindman posts its couture catalogs fully illustrated on eBay. (Nyhart 2005) While Sotheby's attempted to orchestrate an online marketplace and drew out after lackluster results, it should perhaps consider another attempt to utilize the internet to increase its couture market share.

In October of this year, Phillips de Pury & Co. announced the formation of a new advisory board, comprised of several fashion industry notables including designer Marc Jacobs and fashion photographers Juergen Teller and Mario Testino. (Karimzadeh 2005) The fashion world has become nearly synonymous with the art world in terms of high powered collaborative endeavors. Painter John Currin and sculptress Rachen Feinstein, the toasted couple of the New York art world, collaborated with Marc Jacobs in his recent advertising campaign, and Takashi Murakami teamed up with the ubiquitous Jacobs to design a line of limited edition handbags and accessories for Louis Vuitton two summers ago. Last month, Women's Wear Daily reported that fashion designer Hussein Chalayan created a collection of contemporary art and represented his native Turkey at the Venice Biennale. (Drier 2005) Sotheby's should take immediate notice of the intersection between art and fashion, and capitalize on it by soliciting those powerful in the fashion world to advise its business.

In conclusion, the couture market is still but a fraction of the art market. However, its unique mechanisms set it apart from traditional collectibles fields. The duopoly has neglected the couture market in the past several years, and in its place the beta and gamma auction houses have occupied nearly the entire market. Sotheby's and Christie's must, in order to stay competitive in this burgeoning area of art, capitalize on the special mechanisms of the couture market.



Holly Rich is currently pursuing a Masters in Art Business at Sotheby's Institute in London. She holds a J.D. from Hofstra University School of Law in New York, where she was awarded the "Distinguished Service to the Law School" prize at graduation and was Editor-in-Chief of the Hofstra Labor & Employment Law Journal. Her previous publications include "Dirty Dancing: Attributing the Moral Right of Attribution to American Copyright Law – The Work for Hire Doctrine and the Usurping of the Ultimate Grand Dame and Founder of Modern Dance, Martha Graham" (15 ENT., ARTS & SPORTS L.J. 11 (2004); 22 HOFSTRA LAB. & EMP. L.J. 325 (2004)). Holly has passed the New York State Bar exam and will be admitted as an attorney upon her return to the States this summer. She plans to pursue a career in the art business.



    1. See Appendix 1
    2. Kerry Taylor ran the Collectors Department at Sotheby's in London for nearly twenty years. When Sotheby's closed the department, she established Kerry Taylor Auctions, which specializes in costume and textiles. Ms. Taylor's auctions are still held at Sotheby's on Bond Street, even though the two institutions are completely separate enterprises. The author attempted to contact Ms. Taylor for purposes of this paper, but was unable to meet with her because Ms. Taylor was extremely busy with her upcoming auction. (Taylor 2005)
    3. However, Macy Nyhart at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers believes there is not a consistent way to typify the couture collector; at the last auction she held, one participant was a male in his 70s. (Nyhart 2005) Also, Darren Julien and Dorothy Twining-Globus both pointed out that there are many gay men who seriously collect couture. (Julien 2005; Twining-Globus 2005)
    4. In response to a query as to why people so voraciously collect vintage, Patrick Michael Hughes from the Parsons School of Design in New York said: "It really comes down to silhouette - primarily the shape and look - that is very, very conscious of the body and of construction . . . It's rooted in a vocabulary that today's clothing is not." (Carr 2005)
    5. Ms. Dubin is a fashion historian who held the first haute couture sales at Sotheby's in New York when the auction house still retained a costume department. (Cascade 2005)
    6. Ms. Goldwyn helped found Sotheby's fashion department, which is now defunct. (Yaeger 2005)
    7. Darren Julien, President of Julien's Auctions in Los Angeles, believes that most couture collectors are of the self-insured variety: "Validation and recognition are very important to most collectors of couture." (Julien 2005)
    8. See Appendix 1
    9. See Appendix 2
    10. See Appendix 1
    11. Dorothy Twining-Globus curated an exhibition of Geoffrey Beene in the early 1990's and found that the designer's archive held over 3,000 pieces. (Twining-Globus 2005)
    12. See Appendix 1
    13. Museums represented at the Drouot sale included the Metropolitan Museum, the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Fine Art Museum in San Francisco, the Brussels Museum, the Fashion Museum in Chile and the Louis Vuitton Museum. (AFP 2005)


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