Four straw hats by Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel and Ralph Lauren, which were owned by New York socialite Nan Kempner, sold in October 2007 for $5,250, nearly double the auction house estimate.
And some of the important pieces by legendary fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, such as his 1960s Mondrian-inspired mini dress, could sell for more than $20,000 today, up from roughly $1,000 in the 1980s. (Even sketches of his design are valuable.)
Such examples of iconic fashion are generally considered to be a works of art. They are often purchased by major collectors and museums and never worn again.
Vintage fashion, on the other hand, is a broader category that includes clothes, handbags, shoes and accessories from the Victorian era (late 1800s) to about 1980. Such items are generally less expensive and often purchased for wearability.
They, too, however, can be a lucrative hobby.
An Hermes crocodile sac Cordelier, dated 1961, for example, which was forecast to fetch between $2,000 and $3,000 at auction, sold in July 2008 for $6,875.
According to von Witenberg Chernaik, flapper dresses and Victorian lace gowns are all the rage right now.
“The young girls today just want something fun they can relate to, like belts and jewelry, and this year we have more buyers looking at 1950s prom dresses,” she says. “We also sell a lot of Victorian tea dresses to brides who don’t want the run-of-the-mill gown. Most of them are white, because at that time unmarried girls had to wear white, so women today use them as wedding dresses—perfect for beach weddings.”
When you scour the boutiques and auction houses, keep an eye out for quality, ready-to-wear items, like accessories, says Laura Layfer, a furniture and couture specialist with Christie’s auction house in New York.
“Hermes handbags and costume jewelry are highly coveted in the market today,” she says. “No fit or fuss required. Buyers can take it and go.”
Other names to look for include Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Halston, al Jean Patou, Balenciago, Jean Muir, Paul Poiret, and Raymond “Ossie” Clark.
“Accessories are huge right now, including poured glass pieces by Chanel Gripoix, so those could be a great investment piece,” says Abigail Rutherford, director of vintage couture and accessories at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago.
As with all types of collectibles, provenance (or history of ownership) is key to assessing value. Ask the seller for as much information as possible about the piece in question; items owned by socialites and celebrities will always be valued higher.
If you’re buying couture, also be on the look out for smaller sizes, which are more highly prized by collectors and museums.
As with all types of collecting, it’s important to educate yourself about the business.
Learn as much as you can about the most prominent designers in fashion history, their styles and their most influential collections, so you know a gem when you see one.