A photographer snaps a Chanel gown on a mannequin while gloved handlers mutter commands in Russian to each other and arrange the dress at different angles. Repairs are carried out by a seamstress and the item is tagged with a bar code. An exhaustive description of the fabric, cut, date of purchase, colour and condition is then entered into a database. Hung in a breathable garment bag, the dress is finally taken away and deposited in a temperature- and humidity-controlled safe room.
It may sound like a scene from the Hermitage museum’s archive in St Petersburg. But this is, in fact, the London headquarters of Vault Couture, a secretive, luxury wardrobe organisation service that is opening its doors to the public for the first time this season (previously, customers had to be invited to join). Discretion demands that the location is kept secret and clients are given aliases such as “Diamond” and “Almaz” to ensure anonymity.
The company was founded by Mounissa Chodieva, a London-based Kazakh who is also head of investor relations at a multinational corporation, after she realised she was overwhelmed by her own wardrobe. It’s not exactly a universal problem, but one that seriously wealthy, jet-setting individuals need a solution to.
She says: “My family has several homes, I have a lot of clothes, I work, I travel and I came to a point where I didn’t know where anything was or what I owned. When rents were low in London in 2008, after property prices crashed, I thought about renting a studio apartment for my clothes; my brother was fed up with me taking up his closet space. As I had been putting Polaroid photos on shoe boxes [to identify the contents], I thought: why not do the same with my clothes? So I catalogued everything and got a guy to create a software system to manage them.”
The idea turned into a business. The software is now an iPad application (also called Vault Couture), and the fleeting thought about a rented studio turned into a lease on a large unit with a security system to make James Bond scratch his head, and capacity for 22,000 evening gowns or 50,000 smaller items, plus bags and shoes possibly worth millions.
The service offered now includes everything from basic wardrobe organisation to clothes storage, repairs and delivery around the world by DHL or private jet. A book of clothes can be printed out like a catalogue; stylists can create new outfits either with the client or just the clothes (which will then be uploaded to the Vault Couture website for the owner to see), and clothes that are no longer wanted can be sold from clients’ iPads via the company’s Vault Boutique.
Launched in July after a six-month testing period, so far Vault Couture has grown by word-of-mouth. It is difficult to get a definitive answer on the number of clients to date, as the company insists on discretion. However, Chodieva reveals that the service is attracting five to 10 new clients a month, who pay a flat starter fee of £2,000 for cataloguing up to 100 items. Additional services, such as the popular £10,000 platinum service that includes cataloguing and storing any number of items of clothing, are charged on top. “It is like couture,” says Chodieva. “The packages start with something and then often a client decides that they need more.”
Who are the clients? “Nearly all have their main base in London, and they are Russian, French, Middle Eastern, American, Italian and English, a real mixture,” says Chodieva. “We did send a team to go through one client’s wardrobe in Russia to catalogue it, but we are focusing on London.” She adds that “Russia and Asia are areas with very high potential”.
One surprise has been how enthusiastically men are signing up. “Women don’t know what they own, but for men it is the convenience. They don’t have to run around duty-free buying Pink shirts and Calvin Klein underwear,” says Chodieva.
David, for example, a partner in a private equity firm (all names have been changed at clients’ requests), heard about the service through his wife. “I am constantly between London, Europe and New York and my schedule is so unpredictable that I just keep some of my suits there [at Vault Couture] and they deliver them to wherever I am,” he says. “Now, I never have to check luggage on to flights, and they are very reliable. My size is not as such that I can buy off-the-peg.” To cater for this market, Vault Couture now offers a businessman package starting from £5,000.
Most female clients, however, focus on wardrobe rationalisation in their own home. “Vault organised my Hermès bags in London from every colour to every date of purchase,” says Mary, an American with homes in New York and London. “They sent someone to organise my New York closet, too. My evening gowns are stored in the vault, and recently I was in the south of France and had a last-minute benefit to attend in Monaco. So they flew out my dress: I had given them a deadline of 5pm and it arrived at 3pm.”
Indeed, Vault Couture is increasingly finding itself in the position of solving mission impossible: it recently got hold of a Hermès Birkin bag within two weeks for a business client (there is normally a waiting list of two months).
Ultimately, many clients see the service as an investment. “It has stopped me buying repetitive clothing,” says Mary. “I take my iPad with me everywhere, and when I am in a store I will look up, say, a skirt and think, OK, I already have that.” However, she admits: “I do still buy a lot of clothing. After all, it’s good for the economy.”