Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s international editor-at-large, will be auctioning items from his world-renowned couture collection at Bonham’s in New York on November 13. Below he talks about the best purchases he’s made since first skipping school to go to Christie’s in the 1970s.
1. I moved to New York 20 years ago, and the first thing I found to furnish my flat was a drawing of Truman Capote by René Bouché (who did lots of fashion illustrations for Vogue between the 1940s and the 1960s). I was already familiar with the image because Capote had selected it for the dust jacket of the first edition of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which I owned and treasured. Anyway, I took the drawing back to my apartment – still rather bare – and hung it from an old nail that had been left in the wall. A couple of days later my landlady visited. She saw the picture and asked, “Why’s that still there?” It turns out that the apartment had belonged to Jack Dunphy, Capote’s lover, for many years – and the picture had hung from the very same nail.
2. As a schoolboy in the 1970s, I was always “too ill” to go to French lessons on Tuesday afternoons. Actually, I’d be on the bus, on my way to Christie’s in South Kensington. One of the things that got me hooked early on was the thrill of the serendipitous find – the piece that’s somehow slipped through the net. And perhaps one of the most serendipitous finds of all was a dress I saw hanging among some unlabeled 1920s flapper dresses in a New York auction house. It stopped me in my tracks because I knew exactly what it was. It was designed by Coco Chanel in 1927 – and I’d seen a photo in Vogue, taken by Edward Steichen, of the actress Ina Claire wearing it.
3. Carlos de Beistegui was one of the most significant – and mysterious – tastemakers of the mid-20th century. When they auctioned the contents of his home, the Château Groussay, I bought a photo album that had been produced by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire after a lavish fancy dress ball they’d thrown in 1897. It showed all 700 guests in their costumes and must have been an inspiration for de Beistegui’s own legendary parties. But the cost of transporting it from Groussay to my apartment in Paris came as a bit of a shock: I received a bill for almost $1,000. Only a couple of months later did it become clear how this was possible. I went to Paris and opened the door of my apartment to find the place crammed with crates of books. It turned out that, besides the album, I’d also bought the contents of Groussay’s staircase, landing, guest bedroom … I ended up with this extraordinary library of first editions signed by the great and the good of mid-century French café society.
4. I took a course in fashion journalism when I was at Saint Martins College of Art and Design , and for one of my first assignments I had to interview Neil “Bunny” Roger, a British war hero and one of the last great dandies. He had the most extraordinary style and taste, and a wonderfully droll wit. When Sotheby’s auctioned his estate – along with the estates of his two brothers – I bought about half a dozen of his suits, fending off bids from Ralph Lauren and Paul Smith. Originally I wanted to keep them for my own wardrobe but I ended up lending many of them out to museums, from London to Los Angeles, in the hope it might inspire dandies across the world!
5. Another schoolboy purchase was a black taffeta cape that I picked up at a Balenciaga auction. I found it in a plastic bag, and it was virtually impossible to work out what it was supposed to be. No matter, I paid almost nothing for it. I had it restored, and was eventually able to identify it in the Balenciaga archives. A few years later I was asked to curate an exhibition about Balenciaga’s time in Spain for the Young Museum in San Francisco. During my research, I came across a collection of photos that had been taken in Spain in the 1920s – when Balenciaga was there – to document the dying varieties of regional dress. One picture stood out. It showed a group of women wearing capes almost exactly like the ones that Balenciaga was designing for chic Parisian women in the 1950s. So, after years at the bottom of a bag, this piece was finally able to take its place in the history of design – it was wonderful to see that happen.