Leave it to Hollywood to give used clothes cachet.
Once considered taboo to wear previously owned frocks, the red carpet is now crawling with A-list celebrities—Penelope Cruz, Kirsten Dunst, Kate Moss and Sarah Jessica Parker—sporting vintage gowns, handbags and even accessories.
“People have done that all along, but no one ever acknowledged it,” says Ruth von Witenberg Chernaik, co-owner of “Out of the Closet”, a vintage-clothing retailer in Bridgehampton, N.Y. “A few years ago, when the celebrities starting admitting they wear vintage and it got legitimized in a sense people started looking into vintage and saw the workmanship involved, the attention to detail, and that the fashions themselves are much more interesting.”
Indeed, the growing demand for the apparel of yesteryear has produced a surge of collectors on the prowl for pieces that reflect the craftsmanship and one-of-a-kind flair of a bygone era—not to mention the potential for investment returns.
And there is profit to be made.
Some of the rarest and most important pieces of haute couture (custom made, high fashion), which were owned by celebrities and socialites, have skyrocketed in value.
For example, a Hermes suede and embroidered long sleeveless vest coat with matching handbag, which was owned by Mexican film actress Maria Felix in the 1940s, was expected to fetch between $1,500 and $2,500 at Christie’s auction house in July 2007. It sold for $19,200.
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, who worked at 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.
An Yves Saint Laurent safari jacket from the 1960s, for example, would command far more at auction than some of the designer’s lesser-known work.
“The Internet has become the best tool for the search and research,” says Layfer.
That said, however, it can still be hard to identify the work of a particular designer.
“It’s not like collecting Picassos or Renoirs,” says Sandy Schreier, author of ”Hollywood Gets Married,” whose collection of more than 15,000 pieces of 20th-century French couture, American fashion and Hollywood costumes is believed to be the world’s largest. “It’s a new art form and there’s a lot of kinks.”
Such as untrustworthy, or misinformed, retailers, who pawn off vintage garments as authentic designer fashion.
“Sometimes the labels are hidden, or the person who imported them from France would cut them out and sew them back in once they got through customs to avoid paying the import tax,” says Schreier, who once discovered that a ball gown she owned without a label was actually an important piece by Christian Dior.
That’s hardly the norm, however.
If you’re planning to invest in vintage fashion, don’t expect to stumble across great examples of haute couture at a local estate sale.
“It takes a lot of energy and looking and a good eye,” says Schreier. “The really rare and gorgeous things done between 1890 and 1930, the things that you could once find in people’s attics, are no longer. Too much time has lapsed and people have moved.”
Her stomping grounds? Vintage boutiques, flea markets, and reputable auction houses, which vet each piece for quality, condition and authenticity.
Seasoned collectors also caution against buying investment-quality items online.
Vintage clothing, handbags and jewelry should be inspected for holes, stains or damage before purchase.
Regardless of budget, invest your money in the best piece you can afford —especially if you’re hoping to turn a profit.
And make sure you protect your investment by keeping vintage fabric out of direct sunlight, in a dry, moth-free environment. Seasoned collectors and auction house professionals can provide guidance on storage.
Vintage fashion can be a fun and lucrative investment, and with a little diligence you might just find yourself the proud owner of an important piece of fashion history, but it’s unlikely to make you rich.
As with any alternative asset class, never invest more than you can afford to lose.
“Buy what you like so you can enjoy it and, yes, you might be able to turn a profit later on,” says Rutherford.
(Editor's Note: This story was originally published in September 2009.)