December 30, 2010 11:19 pm

Disposable dilemma

Times tough? No problem: in your closet is a source of income. With dozens of auction sites online, it’s never been easier to sell pieces of your wardrobe for a quick profit. As a result, however, an entire generation of fashion history is at risk of being lost.

This great international closet-clearing is a phenomenon of our times, with thousands of people taking part. Combine this with the rise of “disposable fashion” – bought today gone tomorrow garments – and experts are beginning to wonder what this means for the Costume Institutes of the future.

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“Important wardrobes should be preserved in the name of archiving fashion history,” says Lulu Kennedy, founder of Fashion East. But are they?

“These days, closets have been cleaned out and wardrobes have been emptied – and there are fewer stashes of important historic clothing in people’s attics left to discover,” says Sonnet Stanfill, fashion curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, who acknowledges the museum spends time scouring auction sites in search of pieces to rescue. “This will certainly have an impact on future collectables, as a lot will just be sold on, and their value diluted.”

This situation is exacerbated, says Christie’s director of fashion and textiles, Patricia Frost, by social realities: “The demise of the lady’s maid is a blow to wardrobes being conserved and kept together with the matching accessories, simply because a maid/valet is no longer there to properly take care of the clothes.” Besides, says Frost, the very nature of collecting and conserving is changing. “It is certainly true that there are fewer couture clients now, and that they are no longer ‘one-designer women’ as they used to be,” she says. As a result, their wardrobes no longer chronicle a designer’s career.

On the other hand, argues Fashion East’s Lulu Kennedy, “There are women out there like magazine editors Katie Grand and Anna Dello Russo, and designer Kate Hillier, who have important wardrobes. I walked into Kate Hillier’s closet and immediately thought, ‘Oh God, why don’t I have this?’ It’s the wardrobe you want – it all made sense. These are incredible wardrobes, eclectic, well thought out, meaningful. Hopefully they will stay intact.”

But what if the market adapts to the great rotation? Central Saint Martins Professor Louise Wilson believes this may redefine what is collectable, with “fast fashion” taking on value. “If everyone thinks, ‘Sod it, I paid hardly anything for it and will chuck it out after a few wears’, that means in the future, few products will survive that cull, and could become collectable,” she says, noting that Levi’s from the 1950s are sought after and considered worth preserving. To this end, the V&A has already acquired pieces of high street/designer collaborations, including Jil Sander’s J+ line for Uniqlo and Giles for “Gold” at New Look.

“It is critical to see how a designer who is used to creating high-end garments adapts specifically to the mass market,” says Stanfill. “The very fact that this has happened is vox populi in motion: the public demanded it and the designers answered.”

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Influential Designers: Who is collectable?

What makes certain designers’ work collectable? For Sonnet Stanfill, fashion curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the criteria include whether the designer has “started a fashion conversation, or whether you can see in the early days if that person is influencing future designers”. So who qualifies today? We asked some experts to take a view:

Cameron Silver, owner of Decades Inc LA vintage shop: “Right now, I would suggest Rodarte and Rick Owens, who are often copied. They have very distinctive and specific visions and are not overly distributed.”

Patricia Frost, Christie’s director of fashion and textiles: “Christopher Kane and Gareth Pugh – for capturing a real fashion ‘moment in time’ in east London.”

Lulu Kennedy, director of Fashion East: “Rodarte. Because they stand out a mile. Things are so well made, you can really see the human hand in the work. Jonathan Saunders, because his work is based on art, which gives his collection resonance, and Richard Nicoll, for his collaboration with Linder Sterling, who I am certain is going to be the next big emerging artist.” Also, Louise Gray. Her stuff is wonderful...”

Kerry Taylor, owner, Kerry Taylor Auctions: “Viktor & Rolf, Christopher Kane, Nicolas Ghesquière, Miuccia Prada, Gareth Pugh – these are all highly cerebral and imaginative designers.”

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