Burrowing in Some Very Famous Closets
Jonathan Player for The New York Times
Published: July 27, 2012
ON a blustery day last January, Kerry Taylor took the train from Victoria station in London to Paris, then drove directly to a sprawling apartment in the chic suburb of Neuilly. There she proceeded to examine about 50 outfits belonging to Heidemarie Garrigue-Guyonnaud, a former model and socialite now in her 70s.
Jonathan Player for The New York Times
Jonathan Player for The New York Times
Though the two women had never met, Ms. Taylor, 51 and a major force in couture auctions, dove into Ms. Garrigue-Guyonnaud’s closets.
“We had thought about an exhibition of my mother’s clothes,” said Ms. Garrigue-Guyonnaud’s daughter, Princess Désirée von Hohenlohe, in a telephone interview later. “But we settled on a sale and we had read about Ms. Taylor.”
Neither the princess nor her mother knew the value of Ms. Garrigue-Guyonnaud’s wardrobe. No matter. There were several pieces, including a black crepe evening dress with an embroidered droplet-shaped motif, that quickly caught Ms. Taylor’s eye.
“It looked quite familiar,” said Ms. Taylor, a fashion devotee since she was 10. She began working in the auction business in 1979 and started Kerry Taylor Auctions in 2003. “I had seen a photograph of a similar dress in one of my reference books.”
In the past few years, Ms. Taylor has auctioned items worn by Princess Diana, Kate Middleton, Amy Winehouse, Ava Gardner, the Duke of Windsor and Michael Jackson, as well as clothing once owned by less lustrous names. While those goods could be sold at vintage shops for a fixed price, the owners would not benefit from the frenzy that can push prices through the roof for gowns, dresses, hats and suits once owned by celebrities. They also would not benefit from Ms. Taylor’s encyclopedic knowledge.
In the case of the black crepe evening dress, “I remembered a gown in blue by the designer Madeleine Vionnet that belongs to the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris,” she said.
Ms. Taylor took the black version, along with the rest of Ms. Garrigue-Guyonnaud’s collection, for her “Passion for Fashion” sale on June 26 in London; she put a photo of the black Vionnet dress on the catalog cover. She estimated that it would sell for $10,000 to $14,000.
On the sale day, Princess Désirée and her mother “were giggling nervously,” the princess recalled. When Ms. Taylor’s gavel finally came down (she serves as auctioneer, employing only one assistant), the price tag was $70,000.
“I though there was an ‘0’ too much,” recalled the delighted princess. “It was a complete surprise. We had no idea.”
That auction included two black plumed hats that Kate Middleton had rented to wear to events while she was engaged to Prince William.
“You have to remember that before she became her royal highness, she was just an ordinary girl with a bit of a budget and so she rented these hats from her local hat shop,” Ms. Taylor said. “Hats take up masses of space. Once you have worn them, they sit in the dust.”
If Ms. Taylor, who holds six auctions a year, is a leader in the auction world’s fashion niche, it is in part because brand-name houses no longer participate very actively. Sotheby’s, where Ms. Taylor once worked, now sends clients to her.
Christie’s does present some competition. Last month in London it sold a collection of clothes by Alexander McQueen that had been owned by the stylish heiress Daphne Guinness, including a pair of black, gold-soled “angel wing” shoes, with heels in the shape of angels. The shoes sold for $23,000 after a bidding war among buyers from 21 countries, according to Leonie Pitts, a public relations officer at Christie’s.
(The most expensive item, though, was not a piece of clothing but a portrait of Ms. Guinness by the photographer Mario Testino, which sold for $208,000.)
Earlier this year, Elizabeth Taylor devotees walked off with some of the actress’s nearly 400 gowns and pieces of jewelry when her property was sold by Christie’s in part to benefit AIDS research.
But these days fashion sales at Christie’s are relatively rare.
“We used to have 20th-century fashion sales, but they were of lower value,” Ms. Pitts said. “In terms of the administration it is labor-intensive and then if it only makes a few hundred thousand dollars, it was not worth it.”
Kathy Doyle, chairwoman of the Doyle New York auction house, said that her firm started couture auctions in 1993.
“That lasted 10 years,” she said. “But by 2003, because the trend had become so mainstream, we stopped. Everybody was creating vintage. There were fewer pieces to offer to the buyers. The iconic pieces brought a lot of money. But there is not a lot of iconic stuff.”
Clothing also requires considerable maintenance and careful handling.
“I remember the auctioneer at Sotheby’s once saying to me, ‘You have to touch clothes too many times,’ ” Caroline Milbank, a fashion historian, said.
Still, the Web site 1stdibs has started a gallery of shops for vintage and couture clothing.
“For us it is a growing business,” said Clair Watson, fashion director of the company. And eBay has long offered a wide range of bidding opportunities for vintage clothing.
But Ms. Taylor’s combination of expertise, connections and customer service might be unparalleled in the upper end of the category.
“If she knows you and your collection, she will advise you as to what fits into it,” said Sandy Schreier, a collector in Detroit who bought a white jersey Courrèges dress for $11,000 at the June auction. “In effect, she serves as an art consultant.”
All the more so when the garments end up in museums, like the low-cut black gown worn by Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 when she first went out publicly with Prince Charles, a dress the press nicknamed “Take the Plunge.” It was made by the British designers Elizabeth and David Emanuel (who also designed Diana’s wedding dress).
“Up until then, Diana had worn skirts and cardigans,” Ms. Emanuel said. “It created a sensation.”
Years after she married Prince Charles, Princess Diana took the dress back to its designers to have it altered because she had lost weight. Ms. Emanuel decided it would take too long to redo, gave her a new one and sold the first version through Ms. Taylor in 2010 in a hotly contested auction, won for $300,000 by the Fundación Museo de la Moda in Santiago, Chile. (The Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Indianapolis Museum of Art have also been her customers.)
Ms. Taylor’s instincts about what will sell are not always correct, however. At the recent auction, she was excited about a green tartan suit made in 1950 for the Duke of Windsor, expecting it to fetch as much as $15,000. But it did not sell, which was particularly galling since Ms. Taylor had sold that same suit to a collector when she was still at Sotheby’s.
Ms. Taylor grew up in North Wales “on a mountain surrounded by sheep,” she recalled, where her father was a gentleman farmer and her mother a homemaker.
“On rainy Sundays, I would watch all those black and white Hollywood films,” she said. “I bought my first piece of vintage, a sequined cape, when I was 11. I saved up for it.”
Young Kerry wanted to be a fashion designer, though her family “would have preferred me to marry a farmer,” she said. She went to art college in North Wales, where “my teachers made a mistake on the form and they signed me up for a year of fine arts study,” Ms. Taylor said. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
After graduating, Ms. Taylor got a job as a receptionist selling catalogs at the Sotheby’s outpost in Chester, England.
“It was super-boring because nobody wants to buy a catalog,” she said.
But she worked her way up, ultimately developing a collectibles department at Sotheby’s in London (in-between raising two children by her first husband, Jon Baddeley; she has since married Paul Mack, a potter).
“For 20 years, I ran all the collections division and major single owner sales,” she said. “Then in 2003, I was on my bicycle and got a phone call telling me I had been made redundant.”
“It was a terrifying moment,” she said.
But in the best British tradition, Ms. Taylor decided to “just get on with it.”
“I decided that I would concentrate on clothes,” she said. “I had nothing and two children to bring up alone. I rented an auction room on sale days. And that was how I started.”
Ms. Taylor will not say what her annual income is. At any rate, she is adamant that her work is not about the money.
“I don’t give a fig about it,” she said. “I just love what I do. When I see a woman photographed in something she bought from me, it gives me enormous pleasure.”