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Back In Fashion

Sydney Morning Herald

Wednesday April 12, 2006

James Cockington

If you were looking for a tipping point for vintage fashion, you need go only as far back as November 2004, when Lawson-Menzies auctioned items from Adelaide's Banana Room.

This celebrated second-hand clothing store had been run by Sophie van Rood in the old Adelaide markets for more than three decades. The shop was so famous that fashion enthusiasts thought nothing of driving overnight from Melbourne or Sydney for a quick visit.

By the time the contents went to auction in Sydney, the fashion world was struggling to control its enthusiasm. Here was a monumental collection of vintage clothing spanning a century, including original examples of the work of Coco Chanel. Chances are Australia will never see the likes of it again. It was part auction, part red carpet occasion.

The cream of the industry turned up to buy, or in some cases sent in hardened bidders on their behalf. Prices for some items went into the stratosphere. One woman paid $2000 for a lot of three vintage dresses with a catalogue estimate of $200 to $400. A 1920s beaded dress, in poor condition, sold for $2600 after frantic bidding. Two 1950s swimming cossies, valued at $90, went for $1800.

As one observer put it, everybody just went psycho.

There had been fashion collectors before, but they were generally seen as a mildly eccentric minority. Now vintage clothing was a mainstream phenomenon, inspired by the classic Valentino evening dresses worn by such Hollywood stars as Julia Roberts on awards nights. Even the once-despised 1950s mink coats were selling to a new generation of fashionistas who liked to team them with faded blue jeans and cowboy boots. And everyone had to have a 1970s sparkly Oroton handbag. To keep their mobile phones in, of course.

Select items of vintage fashion - once dismissed as a niche market - now appear at general auctions along with antique furniture and paintings. Interest in collecting old clothing shows no sign of abating. Many teenage girls would prefer to wear a vintage evening gown (usually made before they, or their mothers, were born) to their school formal or debutante ball rather than a similar dress by a modern designer.

And where do those modern designers get their inspiration? It was funny, noted one insider, to see how many replicas of vintage frocks appeared in the latest collections of top Australian designers immediately following the Banana Room sale. It was as if they were unpicking the originals and making patterns in the taxi on the way home. Even escalating prices of the originals, now hitting $1000 for something as startling as the red brocade number shown here, are no deterrent. In most cases the originals are still cheaper to buy than a modern designer's replica and, in the minds of many, far cooler to wear.

Vintage clothes are predominantly sold to be worn on special occasions but some are obviously too precious to risk in public. Anything from before World War II and lightweight will probably not survive the modern nightclub scene. Instead, some collectors prefer to display their favourites at home on antique store dummies in the manner of a sculpture. Why not? These are, in their own way, works of art. Several serious collectors have created climate-controlled rooms to store their treasures.

It isn't just a chick thing. The fad for men's jack shirts - stylish acrylic creations that were once considered the depths of dagginess - continues to thrive. These have now been adopted as ultimate street uniform by everyone from skate boys to 1950s car enthusiasts. Johnny Depp is one of the more prominent enthusiasts.

With vintage clothing walking off the racks, it's a great time to own a vintage fashion shop, although it's not something anyone can do at the drop of a hat. You'd need to have been collecting the stuff for decades and you'll need to concentrate on quality. What is available now is rare and expensive. It's a seller's market, so those visionaries who bought and hoarded a few decades ago are in the prime position.

Even classic 1980s gear, the latest subsection of the vintage fashion market, is proving increasingly hard to find. As recently as 20 years ago, designer label clothing - with the label on the outside, if it's from the 1980s - could be picked up cheaply at an op shop. Now even these noble establishments appear to have appointed style consultants who pick out anything verging on the collectable. These are priced accordingly. Recently a vintage Jantzen swimsuit was spotted in a locked glass case at a suburban Vinnies with a $75 "as is" price tag.

It's a stark reminder of how things have changed since that heady Banana Room sale. Mind you, the way things are going, that old black cossie could still be quite a bargain.

My collection

Christine Skilton

A fanatical collector since she was a teenager, Christine Skilton started to buy vintage clothing at the Balmain and Paddington markets and, as she happily admits, simply never stopped. Her flat became so full that she decided she would have to sell some to have room to move inside.

Necessity led to a new career. Five years ago she set up a stall at the Mittagong Antiques Centre in the Southern Highlands and was amazed at how many people shared her passion. Her original space has doubled and is due for further expansion.

One regular client buys only vintage Harris tweed jackets. Even the area's teenagers are dropping in to find something old and unique for special occasions. The revival of interest in swing and rockabilly dancing has helped her move a lot of clothing from her favourite eras, the America of the 1940s and 1950s.

Skilton says the days when collectable clothing could be easily found are gone and she now considers herself lucky to track down one item a week worth adding to her collection. Auctions are the most reliable source.

Skilton, who usually prefers to dress in 1950s style, admits to also having a collection of "deconstruction" style labels such as Comme Des Garcons. She lived in Japan in the 1980s and still has most of her wardrobe from that period. And yes, it will be worth a lot of money one day.

Starter guide

$95+

Men's jack shirts range in price from $50 to $100 and this one, made from non-natural crimplene by Bisley, is at the top end because of its radical styling.

$600+

Unique and somewhat of a mystery. Thought to be part of an usherette's outfit from the 1940s, this lightning bolt jacket bears the clue "Uniform by Ostwald".

$900+

Vintage furs are making a comeback. This mink jacket, by Lisal of Melbourne, dates from the late 1960s. These days it's likely to be teamed with jeans.

© 2006 Sydney Morning Herald

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