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The Market for Vintage Haute Couture is as Sizzling as the Summer Weather

by Liz Holderman (08/13/12).

An iconic 1960s Pierre Cardin dress with vinyl trim sold on eBay for $1,950 in 2010.

A mod early 1970s Yves Saint Laurent enamel necklace sold for $278 in 2011.

As relentless summer heat pounds most of the United States, with many locations reaching record highs and triple-digit thermometer readings, many antiques and collectibles are continuing a downward trend in value. Victoriana, books, porcelain, glassware, 19th-century toys, cast iron, majolica and stained glass have been gathering dust in local antique stores for months. But, as evidenced by the long lines at high-end estate sales, there’s at least one area that’s as hot as the weather—vintage haute couture.

Along with Mid-Century Modern furniture, design and accessories, vintage luxury items are currently experiencing a huge surge in popularity. Handbags, dresses, scarves, luggage, jewelry and shoes are all fair game as collectors, dealers, enthusiasts, photographers and fashionistas scrounge through racks, closets and storage boxes, searching for designer labels: Eisenberg earrings from the 1940s; Christian Dior suits from the 1950s; Emilio Pucci sunglasses from the 1960s; and Yves Saint Laurent necklaces from the 1970s are all highly collectible. Those lucky enough to run across a crocodile Hermès bag from the 1980s might be able to resell it for more than $10,000.

Why are couture labels from yesterday so popular now? They were well-made and always of high quality. The styles were trendsetting and easily recognizable. They were worn by the rich and famous, appearing in movies and magazines. As classic icons, they still evoke that image of prestige, and while they retain their value very well, a used luxury piece can usually be purchased for less than a new one unless it is extremely rare or coveted.

Designer resale shops are popping up all over the country and online storefronts are full of posh, previously-owned accessories. A glamorous John Paul Gaultier traveling exhibit is just finishing a highly-successful three-city tour through Montreal, Dallas and San Francisco, certainly renewing interest in edgy corsets and cone bras. And several national dealer shows, such as the Manhattan Vintage Clothing Show, include dozens of exhibitor booths with samples from private collections, estates and even museums.

But collectors and resellers who want to protect their investments should use discretion when buying, because condition and authenticity are critical. Values plummet for clothing with stains, purses with make-up residue and luggage with damaged zippers. Costume jewelry with tarnish, scratches or missing stones will sell for less than half the price of a piece in mint condition.

Modern luxury items like this blue python Prada purse can be more affordable when gently used and sold on the secondary market.

Emillio Pucci dresses from the 1970s are still in vogue today.

Designer brands are almost always labeled or signed, and buyers should be wary of pieces that aren’t. A Chanel brooch or necklace with the famous “double C” is not going to be accepted as Chanel unless it has a legitimate cartouche on the back or a hang tag (a labeling practice that began in the 1970s). Jewelry experts may be able to identify unsigned Chanel from the 1930s to the 1960s, but so many fakes and knock-offs abound that unsigned pieces do not retain value on the secondary market. A hang tag with a different patina or mismatched attaching hardware is also suspect.

Unfortunately, designer reproductions are rampant and spreading like wildfire, with new replicas appearing almost daily. Labels, price tags, boxes and purchase receipts are all easily reproduced and can’t always be trusted. There are numerous websites that sell phony couture, so it’s easy to study the identifying characteristics of those counterfeits. Several educational websites also explain how to recognize replicas. But the main way to avoid a buying mistake is to simply look for quality and use common sense. Real Louis Vuitton wallets don’t smell like cheap plastic. Genuine Emillio Pucci fabric is not made of spandex and the colors don’t overlap the outlines. An almost-new Gucci bag won’t have loose stitching.

Louis Vuitton is a high-end brand that retains its value well. This rare trunk from the early 1900s sold at auction in 2008 for $17,150

A Chanel hang tag’s patina and attaching hardware should match the necklace or bracelet.

And buyers should beware of suspicious provenance as well, especially from online sellers. “A friend worked at Nordstrom’s and gave me this Burberry scarf” does not mean it was bought there. Sellers who advertise “runway” jewelry should have photos to back their claims. And just because an item is found at the estate sale of a wealthy owner does not mean it is authentic. Dealers can and do bring outside pieces to estate sales, using the venue to move leftover merchandise.

Still, smart, successful buying can be a lot of fun and used designer fashions include something for everyone. A college student on a tight budget can accessorize that retro look with a funky Diane Von Furstenberg necklace from the 1970s. Treasure hunters can search the racks for a prize, maybe finding a Versace silk dress or a pair of Prada slingbacks. Collectors who love nostalgia might buy a 1960s Halston pillbox hat. And those with deeper pockets can hope to snag that gently-used Birkin bag.

Vintage haute couture—it’s sizzling this summer!

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books, documents and autographs.


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