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Marilyn Monroe in a dress designed by William Travilla on the set of ‘The Seven Year Itch’ in 1954

Could the most lucrative investment portfolio you own be hiding in your closet? Important fashion items from the 20th century are fetching record prices at auction, and estimates at a number of high-profile sales this autumn look set to push prices even higher.

In 2011, a gold commodities trader paid $1.8m for Michael Jackson’s jacket from the “Thriller” video at a sale by Los Angeles-based entertainment auction house Julien’s. Darren Julien, the house’s chief executive, says investors and hedge funds are looking at fashion as a way to diversify from other hard goods, such as art, as fashion “will turn a profit over five years and shows wealth and status in the office while it appreciates”.

Celia Joicey, head of London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, which experienced an 87 per cent year-on-year increase in visitors to August 2013, says: “Fashion was given a value the minute it went into the museum space, with prices rising alongside the soaring visitor figures.”

Dilys Blum, senior curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has a 30,000-strong fashion collection that includes Grace Kelly’s wedding dress, says: “There’s not that much 18th- and 19th-century material around now because the pieces are more difficult to find. It’s all about 20th-century couture and wearable fashion because this is where the money is.”

Japanese designers from the 1980s such as Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto are must-buy names now, say industry insiders. They will be “unaffordable for individuals in 10 years’ time”, says fashion auctioneer Kerry Taylor, whose fashion and textiles sale kicked off the international fashion auction season this month.

As Yves Saint Laurent muse Danielle Luquet de Saint Germain says: “In the old days a couture dress was a work of art.” Last week, she held the first of many sales of her 12,000-piece collection at Paris’s Hôtel Drouot. Reported to be one of “the most beautiful private collections of haute couture in the world”, it includes everything from 1980s Azzedine Alaïa to Yves Saint Laurent from the 1960s and 1970s. “There was a huge pride in the way things were made and finished, a whole industry of skilled artisans,” she says, “but that has all gone now.”

Lots at New York’s Augusta Auctions on November 14 include a shimmering pale green sequinned and beaded 1920s party dress ($400-$600 estimate); a bejewelled silk satin Christian Dior 1952 Palmyre dress (£26,000-£28,000); a 1968-69 Yves Saint Laurent floor-length gown adorned with this autumn’s must-have ostrich feathers (€13,000-€15,000); and Pierre Balmain Couture’s early 1980s purple bejewelled shorts with hooded top (£250-£350).

Christie’s is adding razzmatazz to its November 13 vintage couture sale with a charity auction of 10 specially designed dresses inspired by Disney princesses, such as Versace’s Cinderella gown (estimated price from £3,000), which appeared in Harrods’ windows last December.

Pat Frost, a Christie’s fashion specialist, says: “We’re aiming at established collectors for popular culture sales”. The type of collector, for example, who paid £121,875 for Elizabeth Taylor’s first wedding dress in June 2013.

“It’s very important to have iconic items because they are very big draws,” says Darren Julien. “Particularly for new buyers like hotels, which use [the items] to attract crowds, such as the Sofitel Macau at Ponte 16, which bought Michael Jackson’s glove for $420,000.”

From left: a Jean Patou red evening dress; an early 1970s Pierre Cardin print dress; a sequinned and beaded 1920s evening dress

Julien’s is selling the estate of William Travilla, Marilyn Monroe’s costume designer, on November 8. Lots include a gown inspired by the white halter-neck dress that Travilla designed for Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (with an estimate of $20,000-$30,000).

“The internet has made auctions more competitive and pumped-up the market,” says Karen Augusta, owner of New York’s Augusta Auctions. “Social media has driven a lot of younger people under 35 with money to spend to auctions, and has exploded the client base – including people from [places such as] New Zealand and Alaska, which are not known to be fashion meccas.”

“The thrill of the chase in the auction’s highly charged atmosphere can be addictive. You don’t want to lose,” says Boston-based David Davis, a former art gallerist, whose costume collection includes the figure-hugging black velvet gown ($5,500) worn by Whitney Houston at the premiere of The Bodyguard. “[And] in the room I’m much more likely to bid more as people are watching,” he says. “On the phone I can just hang up. When I bid online it is more enticing than the phone or the room, because I have more control – no one is looking at you or talking to you.”

‘Vintage Fashion & Couture: From Poiret to McQueen’ by Kerry Taylor is published by Mitchell Beazley



















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